C.R. Roberts, a black running back at USC, was afraid of what might happen when his integrated Trojans football team traveled to the Jim Crow South to play the all-white Texas Longhorns in Austin in 1956.
There were death threats before the match. He wondered: Will a shot blast kill him from the stands at Memorial Stadium?
“The tension was high,” he said in a 2018 documentary, “Breaking Barriers: The CR Roberts Story,” Directed by Jeremy Sadowski. “We could hear adjectives coming out from the crowd when I was near the sideline.”
Despite the potential for violence, Roberts put in a sensational performance, leading the Trojans to a 44-20 victory. In the second quarter, he raced for 73 yards and another covered 50 yards.
In the third quarter, on his final drive, he scored again on a short 74-yard drive. In all, he gained 251 yards, the single-game rushing record that stood at USC for 19 years. The Los Angeles Times called it an “explosive bolt of high velocity”.
But Roberts, who was one of only three black players on the USC team, said that as spectators shouted the N-word, coach Jess Hill pulled him out of the game shortly after his final score.
Roberts said in “Breaking Barriers.”
The Trojan horse victory occurred early in the civil rights movement, when black citizens were boycotting segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala. , and the game stands today as an important racial hack of the era.
In 1966, Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), became the first all-black team to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, defeating an all-white University of Kentucky team.
And in 1970, Sam Cunningham, part of the all-white USC quarterback, gained 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 42-21 win over an all-white University of Alabama team. Although the Crimson Tide had a black player on its freshman team, the game was credited with giving Alabama coach Paul (Bear) Bryant the go-ahead from higher-ups to actively recruit black players.
Roberts died on Tuesday at a nursing home in Norwalk, Connecticut, his daughter, Kathy Cricia, said. He was 87 years old.
Cornelius R. was born. Roberts was born on February 29, 1936 in Tupelo, Miss. His father, also named Cornelius, was a cotton picker and railroad driver. His mother, Audra Mae (Dabbs) Roberts, was a homemaker.
His mother, Roberts recalled, felt the family had to leave segregated Mississippi.
“Get our son out of the Mississippi or he’s going to kill him,” she was quoted as saying to his father, V.I Interview on the USC website in 2015.
In third grade, Roberts recalls, when his family was returning by train from Oceanside, California, he was playing with a white boy in an integrated car when the train came to the Mason-Dixon Line. At that moment, his mother turned him away from the boy; The family had to move to a separate coach.
In “Breaking the Barriers,” he said, “When I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line going south, the blacks had to get back in their cars and be segregated again. I just didn’t get it.”
The family later moved to Oceanside, where Roberts became a star at Oceanside-Carlsbad High School, scoring an impressive 65 touchdowns. In the vernacular of the time, a local newspaper in 1954 hailed him as “the all-American Negro”.
As drill team captain for a high school ROTC unit, Roberts aspired to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. “I would be there if I was smarter at math,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012.
In Southern California, he finished second in the rushing to John Arnett in 1955; He led the team in that category in 1956, his junior year, thanks in part to his stellar game against Texas.
But he almost never got there. USC coaches initially suggested that he not travel to Austin with the team due to a racing problem. He replied that he would rather leave the team than stay home. His teammates sided with him, refusing to go to Texas if the black players didn’t—the others being Louis Byrd and Hillard Hill.
For its part, the University of Texas was not welcome, even though it had played against Washington State University, which had a black player, two years earlier. USC has been told to leave the team’s three black players behind.
“Texas called us about a week before the game and said we couldn’t play any colors, and that the races couldn’t be contested at the same time,” Roberts told the Austin American-Statesman in 2005.
After some negotiation, the entire team traveled to Austin. But the hotel the team planned to stay in would not allow Roberts, Bird, and Hill as guests, and he arranged for them to stay at the YMCA. The team refused and went to another hotel, despite the isolation policy and after some persuasion, let them in. The Black Hotel staff and local citizens gathered to meet the three players.
Roberts did not play in 1957, his senior year, after the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12) imposed sanctions against USC and other schools for providing illegal financial assistance to players.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California in 1957, Roberts played two seasons at the University of Southern California Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He then moved on to the NFL, where he gained 637 yards on 155 carries during his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
He later taught writing and business skills in high school and college and opened a travel agency and tax advisory service.
In addition to his daughter Kathy, he is survived by another daughter, Chandra Roberts. son, Craig; and four grandchildren. His marriage to Joyce Moss and Yvonne Barton ended in divorce.
For all his football exploits, the Texas game—and the emotions it aroused—remained fresh in Roberts’ memory. On the day of the game, he recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t care who we played.”
He said, “We were going to hit them.” “Everyone had a chip on their shoulder. We played our best game.”