C.R. Roberts, a Black running back for the University of Southern California, was afraid of what might happen when his integrated Trojans football team traveled to the Jim Crow South to play the all-white University of Texas Longhorns in Austin in 1956.
There were death threats before the game. He wondered: Would a shotgun blast from the stands at Memorial Stadium kill him?
“Tension was high,” he said in a 2018 documentary, “Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story,” directed by Jeremy Sadowski. “We could hear the epithets coming out of the crowd when you were near the sideline.”
Despite the possibility of violence, Roberts turned in a sensational performance, leading the Trojans to a 44-20 victory. In the second quarter, he raced for a 73-yard touchdown and for another that covered 50 yards.
In the third quarter, on his final carry, he scored again on a 74-yard jaunt. In all, he gained 251 yards, a single-game rushing record that stood at U.S.C. for 19 years. The Los Angeles Times called him an “explosive bolt of searing speed.”
But Roberts, who was one of three Black players on the U.S.C. team, said that with spectators shouting the N-word, Coach Jess Hill pulled him from the game soon after he scored his final touchdown.
“The atmosphere in that stadium was very negative toward a Black person,” Roberts said in “Breaking Down Barriers.”
The Trojans’ 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 breakthrough of that era.
In 1966, Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), became the first team with an all-Black starting five to win the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship, beating an all-white University of Kentucky team.
And in 1970, Sam Cunningham, part of U.S.C.’s all-Black backfield, gained 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 42-21 win over an all-white University of Alabama squad. Although the Crimson Tide had a Black player on its freshman team, the game is credited with giving the Alabama coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant, the green light from higher-ups to actively recruit Black players.
Roberts died on Tuesday at a care facility in Norwalk, Conn., his daughter Cathy Creasia said. He was 87.
Cornelius R. Roberts was born on Feb. 29, 1936, in Tupelo, Miss. His father, also named Cornelius, picked cotton and was a railroad steel driver. His mother, Audra Mae (Dabbs) Roberts, was a homemaker.
His mother, as Roberts recalled, felt that the family had to leave racist Mississippi.
“Get our son out of Mississippi or they’re going to kill him,” he quoted her as telling his father, in an interview on a U.S.C. website in 2015.
In the third grade, Roberts recalled, as his family was returning by train from Oceanside, Calif., he was playing with a white boy in an integrated car when the train reached the Mason-Dixon line. At that point his mother pulled him away from the boy; the family had to move to a segregated coach.
“When you crossed the Mason-Dixon line going south,” he said in “Breaking Down Barriers,” “the Blacks had to go back to their car and be segregated again. I didn’t understand.”
The family later moved to Oceanside, where Roberts became a star at Oceanside-Carlsbad High School, scoring a remarkable 65 touchdowns. In the vernacular of the time, one local newspaper in 1954 extolled him as the “all-American Negro flash.”
As the drill-team leader of the R.O.T.C. unit in high school, Roberts aspired to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. “I’d have made it there if I was smarter in math,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012.
At Southern California, he finished second in rushing to Jon Arnett in 1955; he would lead the team in that category in 1956, his junior year, thanks in part to his scintillating game against Texas.
But he almost did not make it there. U.S.C.’s coaches initially suggested that he not travel to Austin with the team because of the race issue. He replied that he would rather quit the team than stay home. His teammates stood by him, refusing to go to Texas if the team’s Black players — the others were Louis Byrd and Hillard Hill — did not.
The University of Texas, for its part, was not welcoming, although it had played against Washington State University, which had a Black player, two years earlier. U.S.C. was 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 coloreds, that the races couldn’t compete at the same time,” Roberts told The Austin American-Statesman in 2005.
After some negotiations, the full team traveled to Austin. But the hotel that the team planned to stay in would not allow Roberts, Byrd and Hill as guests, and it arranged for them to stay in a Y.M.C.A. The team refused and went to another hotel that, despite its segregation policy and after some persuasion, let them in. Black hotel employees 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 penalties against U.S.C. and other schools for providing illicit financial aid to players.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration from U.S.C. in 1957, Roberts played two seasons for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Then he moved to the N.F.L., where he gained 637 yards on 155 carries during four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
He later taught typing and business skills in high school and college and opened a travel agency and a tax consulting service.
In addition to his daughter Cathy, he is survived by another daughter, Chandra Roberts; a son, Craig; and four grandchildren. His marriages to Joyce Moss and Yvonne Barton ended in divorce.
For all his football exploits, the Texas game — and the emotions it stirred up — remained vivid in Roberts’s memory. On the day of the game, he recalled in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t give a damn who we played.”
“We were going to beat them,” he said. “Everybody had a chip on their shoulder. We played our best game.”
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