Collier: Bobby Grier and Pitt lost that day, but won so much more

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All manner of social stimuli conspire to alter the course of history, some random, some political, some purely accidental, some insanely violent, some barely detectable, but nothing changes history’s pure momentum.

Life goes on; that’s the way we commonly say it, and so this was a fairly common week in Pittsburgh sports, even as historical eras were being silently reconnected.

Joe Walton was running to another quarterbacks meeting Thursday afternoon at Robert Morris University.

Bobby Grier was at home in Wexford, looking after his wife.

Pitt’s football team was packing for Atlanta and Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech.

Same old, same old, but in this case, very, very old, as well as affirmingly significant, given the proper context. Pitt should never play Georgia Tech without somebody retelling this story, because it’s as relevant today as it was in the first days of 1956, as Pitt prepared to play Georgia Tech.

“No, I could never have imagined that,” Grier said the other day when I asked if he could have envisioned something as historical as the Barack Obama White House. “But yes, I feel like maybe, a little bit — even though it’s been 50-something years — I feel like I put a little nick in it.”

A little nick in time, almost 58 years ago.

A little nick in the cultural stone wall of the Jim Crow South.

A little nick in the bedrock of hatred that would one day shift and crumble thoroughly enough to enable the election of America’s first African-American president.

And to think, all Bobby Grier wanted to do at about this point in that same old, same old autumn of 1955, as a 19-year-old Pitt sophomore, was play in the Sugar Bowl.

When he joins former teammate and Pitt benefactor Corky Cost in a Heinz Field suite for football games these days, Bobby Grier is known as an extremely likable guy and one of the great old Pitt men, an accomplished running back and linebacker who helped the 1955 defense shut down Syracuse’s Jim Brown and Penn State’s Lenny Moore on the way to a Sugar Bowl invitation. But everywhere else, Bobby Grier belongs to history. He’s the first African-American to play in the Sugar Bowl, and if that sounds like a footnote, it’s possible that you know too little of the history of mid-20th century America.

“I think I might have read something about Rosa Parks,” Grier said about that time. “But just a little bit. When you’re still in the middle of a football season, you don’t have time to be aware of much else.”

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white person, igniting what would combust into the Civil Rights Movement. One day later, Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin, addressing the Georgia State Board of Regents, blurted this:

“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. … One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us.”

He was not talking about Rosa Parks and the potentialities of her brand of courage. He was talking about Bobby Grier, a teenager from Massillon, Ohio, who intended to start for Pitt in the Sugar Bowl because Pitt fully intended him to. If you had to alter history to beat Georgia Tech, history would be diverted.

That Georgia’s governor had 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” was not totally unpredictable for the Deep South of the 1950s, but it was stunning to the breadth of the Pitt campus and especially within the walls of the Panthers locker room.

“I remember so well that I was just shocked, totally shocked that anyone would say something like that,” said Walton, a Grier teammate in 1955 who’d go on to a distinguished coaching career. “Of course, I was still a runny-nosed kid from Beaver Falls, but I’d played with African-Americans my whole life in football, baseball, basketball. They were our friends.

“I remember the whole Pitt team said we were not gonna go to the Sugar Bowl unless Bobby could go, and even when they came back with an offer that Bobby had to stay at one of the black colleges, we said, ‘Only if that was OK with Bobby.’ ”

That became the arrangement, essentially, but Grier’s memory of what an issue he’d become is dwarfed by his appreciation to his teammates and his university.

That’s where his memory focuses. That’s where it will always focus.

“No, the way I think about it hasn’t changed,” he told me. “I still think of how courageous Pitt was, and of the people who backed me and the support I got from all over the world. I heard from people in England, all over Europe, from Arab countries. Everywhere.

“People were mad as heck about it. When the Georgia Tech students started an uproar about it, I thought, ‘This can’t be that bad.’ ”

Georgia Tech’s students and players were outraged. They marched on the governor’s mansion. And within a matter of weeks, centuries of cultural tradition yielded to them. A Southern establishment largely comfortable with standing in the way of civil rights and justice and dignity and decency and righteousness was not, somehow, going to stand in the way of Georgia Tech playing in the Sugar Bowl.

“Football was too popular then,” Grier said. “I’ve read a lot about this, and it was Bear Bryant at Alabama and Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, they were the ones who really pushed for integration in football. Bryant said, ‘I am sick and tired of coming up north and getting my backside whipped, especially when all the guys doing it are from the South.’ ”

But that was still most of a decade later. Grier said he was “a little surprised” that he enjoyed the 1956 Sugar Bowl and the week leading up to it as much as he did. He was comfortable in New Orleans and treated well by the Sugar Bowl crowd, which applauded warmly when he left the field with an injury in the fourth quarter. He sat down and lunched with gracious Georgia Tech athletes and in so doing became the first African-American seated and served a meal at the St. Charles Hotel.

“You know coach [John] Michelosen had a curfew for us,” Walton laughed. “We marched to lunch and back, to dinner and back, had curfew. Bobby, staying over at the black college, he probably had a better time than any of us.”

The final irony of it all was that Georgia Tech won the game, 7-0, after its offense was given a first-and-goal as a result of a pass interference penalty against Bobby Grier. Disputed to this day, the play Walton later described as “just one of those calls that could have gone either way” involved a downfield collision between Grier and Georgia Tech’s Don Ellis.

Grier wept in the locker room, but not because it was at least something of a coincidence — wasn’t it? — that a crucial flag in an historic game had penalized the only player on either side who was not white.

“I was crying because it was because of me we lost,” Grier said.

Too often in the rhythm and momentum of the same old, same old, we let ourselves confuse history with trivia. Georgia Tech won the 1956 Sugar Bowl, and that’s trivia.

But Bobby Grier won that day. Pitt won. Everybody won.

That’s history, and no small monument in the history of our better selves.

Gene Collier:

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