The Legend of Bobby Grier

I had to write the following essay for my Sports Journalism course. I enjoyed learning about the courage of Bobby Grier and the University of Pittsburgh football program. I thought some of you might too.

How could a team that lost 7-0 in the 1956 Sugar Bowl still manage to win, in spirit?

The Sugar Bowl that year was much more than a game. It was a risk. It was a bold move. It was the day that Bobby Grier became the first African-American to play football in the Sugar Bowl.

1956 was obviously a much different time in the United States of America for African-Americans than it is today. Today, the president of this country is part African-American. Today, every college and professional football team has African-Americans playing on it.

But the way this country works, and the way football works, is much different today than it was in 1956.

The University of Pittsburgh Panthers played the Georgia Institute of Technology Yellow Jackets in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Georgia was a much different place for African-Americans in 1956, than it was in Pennsylvania.

“The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle,” said Marvin Griffin, Georgia’s governor at the time.

Was Griffin referring to the Civil Rights Movement? Was Griffin referring to the desegregation of schools? Was Griffin referring to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcom X?

No. Griffin was referring to a 19-year-old African-American teenager named Bobby Grier.

And what did Grier do to spark such an emotional and passionate statement?

He wanted to play football against Georgia Tech in the 1956 Sugar Bowl.

Griffin proposed to “forbid the athletic teams of the university system of Georgia from participating in games against any teams with Negro players, or even playing in any stadium where unsegregated audiences breathe the same air.”

This shocked the Pitt players, but it was not something totally uncommon to the Deep South during this time period. The fact that something like this was said less than a century ago is unfathomable.

“This can’t be that bad,” Grier said.

Georgia Tech students and players, infuriated with the governor’s proposition, decided to march on his mansion. There was no way that one player was going to stop Georgia Tech from competing in the Sugar Bowl.

The game itself was low-scoring. The end result left Bobby Grier crying.

Was he crying from happiness for being able to play? Was he crying from the amount of taunting he received? Was he crying because Pitt lost the game?

The answer to the last question is yes. But, it holds more significance than a simple one-word answer.

Bobby Grier was flagged for pass interference, which gave Georgia Tech a first-and-goal that led to them scoring a touchdown. The end result of the game was 7-0.

“I was crying because it was because of me we lost.”
But Bobby didn’t lose that day. Pitt didn’t lose, either.

They won. Because if it wasn’t for this one day in history, this one 60 minutes of football, it might have taken years, maybe decades, for someone as courageous and valiant as Bobby Grier and the University of Pittsburgh football program to have an African-American compete in the Sugar Bowl.

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