Milestone game scoring sensation CR Roberts dies at 87

CR Roberts, a black running back for the University of Southern California, was scared of what might happen when his integrated Trojans football team went to the Jim Crow South in 1956 to play the all-white University of Texas Longhorns at Austin.

Death threats were received before the game. He wondered: Would the blast of the shotgun from the stands of Memorial Stadium kill him?

“The tension was very high,” he said in the 2018 documentary, “Breaking Down Barriers: The CR Roberts Story,” directed by Jeremy Sadowski. “When you were on the edge we could hear expletives coming out of the crowd.”

Despite the potential for violence, Roberts put in a sensational performance, leading the Trojans to a 44–20 victory. In the second quarter, he ran for a 73-yard touchdown and passed for 50 yards in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, on his final carry, he scored again on a 74-yard jaunt. Overall, he gained 251 yards, a single-game rushing record that stood at USC for 19 years. The Los Angeles Times called him an “explosive bolt of terrifying speed”.

But Roberts, who was one of three black players on the USC team, said coach Jess Hill pulled him from the game shortly after he scored his final touchdown, with spectators shouting the N-word.

“The atmosphere in that stadium was very negative towards a black man,” Roberts said in “Breaking Down Barriers”.

The Trojans’ victory occurred at the beginning of 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 NCAA men’s basketball championship, defeating an all-white team from the University of Kentucky.

And in 1970, Sam Cunningham, part of USC’s all-black backfield, rushed for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 42–21 victory over an all-white University of Alabama team. Although there was one black player on the Crimson Tide’s new team, the game is credited with giving Alabama’s coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant, the go-ahead from higher officials to actively recruit black players.

Roberts died Tuesday at a care facility in Norwalk, Conn., said his daughter, Cathy Crecia. He was 87 years old.

Cornelius R. Roberts was born on February 29, 1936, in Tupelo, Mich. His father, also named Cornelius, was a cotton picker and a railroad steel driver. His mother, Audra Mae (Dubbs) Roberts, was a homemaker.

As Roberts recalls, his mother felt the family would have to leave racist Mississippi.

In a 2015 interview on a USC website he told his father, “Get our son out of Mississippi or they’ll kill him.”

In third grade, Roberts remembered, as his family was returning from Oceanside, California by train, that he was playing with a white boy in an integrated car when the train arrived at the Mason-Dixon Line. At that point his mother pulled him away from the boy; The family had to travel in a separate coach.

“When you crossed the Mason-Dixon line going south,” he said in “Breaking Down Barriers”, “blacks had to get back in their cars 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 hailed him as the “All-American Negro Flash”.

As drill-team leader of an ROTC unit in high school, Roberts aspired to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012, “If I had been smarter at math, I would have gotten there.”

In Southern California, he finished second to John Arnett in 1955; He would lead the team in that category in 1956, his junior year, thanks to his stellar play against Texas.

But he almost didn’t make it there. USC coaches initially suggested that he not travel with the team to Austin because of the race issue. He replied that he would prefer to leave the team than stay at home. His teammates stood by him and refused to go to Texas if the team’s black players – among others Louis Byrd and Hillard Hill – did not.

The University of Texas, for its part, was not welcoming, although it had played two years earlier against Washington State University, which featured a black player. USC was told to leave behind three black players on the team.

“Texas called us about a week before the game and said we couldn’t play any colors, couldn’t compete at the same time,” Roberts told The Austin American-Statesman in 2005.

After some talking, the entire team traveled to Austin. But the hotel where the team planned to stay did not allow Roberts, Byrd, and Hill as guests, and it arranged for them to stay at the YMCA. The team refused and moved to another hotel, despite their segregation policy and after some persuasion. Let them in. Black hotel staff and local citizens gathered to meet the three players.

Roberts did not play his senior year in 1957, after the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12) imposed penalties against USC and other schools for providing illegal financial aid to players.

After receiving a bachelor’s 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 a tax consulting service.

In addition to his daughter, Kathy, 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.

Throughout all of his football exploits, the Texas game—and the emotions it generated—remained vivid in Roberts’ memory. On the day of the game, he recalled in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, “We didn’t care who we played.”

“We were going to beat them,” he said. “Everyone had a chip on their shoulder. We played our best game.