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Bobby Grier broke bowl's color line
The Panthers' Bobby Grier was the first African-American to play in Sugar Bowl
Friday, October 07, 2005

Bobby Grier was on a business trip in New Orleans a few years ago when he stayed at the Fairmont New Orleans, a luxury hotel near Canal Street, one block from the French Quarter.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Bobby Grier will be among the honorees at Pitt's 50th anniversary celebration of its Sugar Bowl team.
Click photo for larger image.

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There was nothing unusual about his stay, but the fact he was able to stay at the Fairmont was significant. In many ways it was a way for Grier to close the book on a chapter in his life that had been written more than four decades earlier.

It was a chapter that ranks as one of the most significant moments in the struggle to desegregate college football.

"I saw the name 'Roosevelt Hotel' on the bottom of an ash tray in my room," said Grier, who was a standout fullback/linebacker for Pitt from 1952-55 and the team's only black player. "It dawned on me that I was in the same hotel my white teammates stayed in for a couple of days after the Sugar Bowl. I wasn't allowed to stay there. I had to stay in a blacks only motel.

"That brought back a lot of memories about that 1956 Sugar Bowl, some good, some not so good, about its place in history and I smiled because it reminded me of the progress we've made since then."

On Jan. 2, 1956, about one month after Rosa Parks became an icon in the civil rights movement by refusing to move to the rear of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., Grier made even bigger headlines nationally when he became the first Africa-American to play in the Sugar Bowl.

Parks' story has received far more publicity, but at the time it was not regarded as significant as the desegregation of the Sugar Bowl. And although Grier's place in history is often regarded as a footnote compared to many other stories of racial barriers being broken, his significance in the context of the civil rights movement should not be downplayed.

It has been 50 years since that season, and Pitt will honor Grier and the 1955-56 Panthers' squad tomorrow at halftime of the Big East game against Cincinnati at Heinz Field.

"Bobby Grier's story was national headlines, it was on the front page of every major newspaper in the country," said Beano Cook, college football historian and former sports information director at Pitt. "This was a major, major story -- this was the South in 1955 and this was the Sugar Bowl. Think about it. The governor of Georgia urged Georgia Tech not to play in the game because Pitt had a black player, and he said it because he figured it would help get him re-elected. That's just where we were in this country."

The governor was Marvin Griffin, who, on Dec. 2, 1955, began a speech to the Georgia State Board of Regents with "The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy."

The enemy Griffin spoke of in his speech was Grier and his motivation was to convince administrators at Georgia Tech to boycott the game unless Grier was forbidden to play. Reaction to his speech was mostly negative, and 2,000 Georgia Tech students marched to the governor's mansion and hung Griffin in effigy.

Across the country, the reaction was similar to that of the students. Newspapers decried Griffin as being a bigot and out of touch, and the board of regents voted to allow the Yellow Jackets to play in the game. At the same time in Pittsburgh, the Panthers players were holding a vote of their own and, like the Georgia Tech students, were ready to take a stand.

"We all got together and voted not to go to the Sugar Bowl if Bobby Grier was not allowed to play," said Bob Rosborough, who was a right end for Pitt and a teammate of Grier. "He was one of us and we would rather not play than leave one of ours behind."

Grier said he was embarrassed by all of the attention he received leading up to the game because the Panthers were an excellent team and he felt too much attention was devoted to his struggle.

"People have asked me how I felt during the time and what it meant to me, but it wasn't that much different for me because that's just how things were at the time," said Grier, who was from Massillon, Ohio, graduated from Pitt with a degree in business, spent 11 years in the Air Force then worked for Community College of Allegheny County from 1970 until he retired in '98.

"I always like to reverse it -- How do you think my white teammates felt that I got so much attention? In my eyes, this was just the way things were and you dealt with them so it wasn't until several years later that I really appreciated the significance of what my appearance in the Sugar Bowl that day meant."

Pitt went on to lose, 7-0, in the Sugar Bowl. The only touchdown came in the first quarter and was set up by a controversial pass interference penalty against Grier.

Some question whether the penalty was called against Grier because of his color, but Grier is not one of them.

"I truly believe it was a blown call, nothing more," Grier said.

First published on October 7, 2005 at 12:00 am
Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720