At the time Robert “Bobby” Grier Sr. made history in the Sugar Bowl, Jim Crow laws in the South barred Blacks from overall integration activities, including college athletics. Even though integrated teams had received invitations to the bowl game before, no Black player had played in the contest since it began in 1935. Black players could only watch the game from the press box.
When the University of Pittsburgh football team earned a chance to play Georgia Tech in the 1956 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Grier was one of only two Blacks on the team. The 22-year-old was a standout fullback and linebacker and was all set to play when Georgia governor Marvin Griffin asked the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees not to allow the game because of Grier’s involvement.
“The South stands at Armageddon,” he stated in a telegram cited by History.com. “The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless enemy will rush in and destroy us.”
Soon, Grier became the nation’s topic of discussion. His fellow Pitt teammates and the student body as well as players and students from Georgia Tech however supported him. When he was asked by the media if he would refrain from participating in the game so that his white teammates could play, Pittsburgh university replied “No Grier! No game!” “Bobby Grier will travel, eat, live, practice and play with the team,” the university said.
Students of Georgia Tech also led a demonstration against Griffin. History.com writes: “A river of flame flowed down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street as 2,000 torch-carrying students marched two miles from campus to the governor’s mansion. They incinerated effigies of Griffin, uprooted parking meters, overturned furniture inside the State Capitol and placed cans and signs on Confederate statues. Effigies of the governor were also set ablaze at Mercer and Emory universities, while even students at rival University of Georgia joined in solidarity with signs that read: ‘This time we are for Tech.’”
Georgia Tech’s president, Blake Ragsdale Van Leer, also rejected Griffin’s request. At the end of the day, authorities allowed the game to be held. Grier and Pittsburgh traveled to New Orleans and stayed on the all-white Tulane University campus.
“As I look back at it, I say I was probably the first Black to sleep in a dormitory there at Tulane,” Grier later said in an interview.
On January 2, 1956, Grier became the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl. Pitt lost the game 7-0. According to The Washington Informer, the victory margin occurred in a disputed pass interference call on Grier. It said photographic evidence later showed that the referee’s call was incorrect and biased.
After the game, Grier was present at the awards banquet and even dined with a group of Georgia Tech players. Grier, now in his 90s, grew up in integrated neighborhoods and played integrated sports in Massillon, Ohio. During his three years in Massillon, the school won three consecutive Ohio state football titles including a national title in 1951.
He came face to face with segregation for the first time when Pittsburgh traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“When we played down South, we were separated. The Black players stayed at a Black college or a motel that was close,” Grier said in a 2014 interview with The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Grier earned a business degree from Pitt before serving as an Air Force captain. He also worked as a foreman at a steel mill and retired as an administrator at the Community College of Allegheny College in Pittsburgh.
In October last year, he was inducted into Pitt’s Sports Hall of Fame. Two years prior to that, he was elected as a member of the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame in New Orleans.
Recently speaking with The Washington Informer from his home in suburban Pittsburgh, he said his family has ties to NFL coach Bobby Grier, NFL’s Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, and NHL star Mike Grier, who just became the first Black general manager in NHL history.
“Bobby was just an all-around athlete,” Ed Grier, also a star Massillon High School basketball guard and Grier’s cousin, told the outlet. “Bobby could play any position and was just as smart with the books. Racist policies stopped him from being recruited by Big 10 schools and other majors. Fortunately, Pitt recruited him.”