CR Roberts, a black running back at the University of Southern California, was fearful of what might happen when his Trojans football team traveled to the Jim Crow South to play the 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?
“The tension was high,” he said in a 2018 documentary, “Breaking Down Barriers: The CR Roberts Story,” directed by Jeremy Sadowski. “We could hear the epithets coming from the crowd when you were near the touchline.”
Despite the possibility of violence, Roberts put in a sensational performance, leading the Trojans to a 44-20 victory. In the second quarter, he rushed for a 73-yard touchdown and another 50-yard touchdown.
In the third quarter, on his final drive, he scored again on a 74-yard excursion. In all, he gained 251 yards, a single-game rushing record that stood at USC for 19 years. The Los Angeles Times called it “an explosive bolt of blinding speed.”
But Roberts, who was one of three black players on the USC team, said that with spectators chanting the N-word, coach Jess Hill pulled him from the game shortly after he scored his final touchdown.
“The atmosphere in that stadium was very negative towards a black person,” Roberts said in “Breaking Down Barriers.”
The Trojans’ victory came at the dawn of the civil rights movement, when black citizens boycotted segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and the game remains 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 five all-black starters to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, defeating an all-white University of Kentucky team.
And in 1970, Sam Cunningham, part of USC’s all-black backfield, gained 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 42-21 victory over an all-white University of Alabama team. Although the Crimson Tide had one black player on its freshman roster, the game is credited with giving Alabama head coach Paul (Bear) Bryant the green light from higher-ups to actively recruit black players.
Roberts died Tuesday at a nursing home in Norwalk, Conn., his daughter Cathy Creasia said. He was 87 years old.
Cornelius R. Roberts was born on February 29, 1936, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father, also called Cornelius, picked cotton and was a railway engineer. His mother, Audra Mae (Dabbs) Roberts, was a housewife.
His mother, as Roberts recalled, felt the family had to leave racist Mississippi.
“Get our son out of Mississippi or they will kill him,” he is quoted as saying to his father, in an interview on a USC website in 2015.
In third grade, Roberts recalled, as his family rode the train back from a vacation in Oceanside, California, he was playing with a white boy in an integrated car when the train entered the segregated South. At that point, his mother took him away from the boy; the family had to move to a different trainer.
“When you crossed the Mason-Dixon line going south,” he said in “Breaking Down Barriers,” “black people had to get back in the 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, a local newspaper in 1954 extolled him as the “all-American black flash”.
As the ROTC unit training team leader in high school, Roberts aspired to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. “I would have gotten there if I was smarter at math,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012.
In Southern California he finished second running to Jon Arnett in 1955; he would lead the team in that category in 1956, his freshman year, thanks in part to his brilliant play against Texas.
But he almost didn’t make it there. USC coaches initially suggested that he not travel to Austin with the team because of the racial issue. He replied that he would rather quit the team than stay at home. His teammates supported him, refusing to go to Texas if the black players on the team – the others were Louis Byrd and Hillard Hill – did not.
The University of Texas, meanwhile, was not welcoming, even though it had played Washington State University, which had a black player, two years earlier. USC was instructed 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, that the races couldn’t compete at the same time,” Roberts told The Austin American-Statesman in 2005.
After some negotiations, the entire team traveled to Austin. But the hotel the team planned to stay at would not allow Roberts, Byrd and Hill as guests, and arranged for them to stay at a YMCA. The staff refused and went to another hotel who, despite their 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 USC and other schools for providing illegal financial aid to players.
After earning a degree in business administration from USC in 1957, Roberts played two seasons for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He then moved to the NFL, 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 tax advisory 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 – remained vivid in Roberts’ memory. On game day, he recalled in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t give a shit who we played.”
“We were going to beat them,” he said. “Everyone had a chip on their shoulder. We played our best game.”