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Changing the Game: Looking back at one of the first Black college athletes to take the field against the all-white Texas team

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USC fullback C.R. Roberts broke a school record for yardage in a single game in the Trojans’ 1956 bout against the Longhorns. Photo courtesy of University of Southern California Athletics

It was Sept. 22, 1956. The University of Texas had admitted its first Black undergraduates that semester. Everyone knew what the game meant. A Black University of Southern California running back was facing a Texas football team that would not welcome its first Black player for another 13 years.

Tension hung over UT’s football stadium as C.R. Roberts, one of three Black players on USC’s roster, played a major role in the Trojans’ 44-20 win over the Longhorns. Despite carrying the ball only 12 times, not to mention facing incalculable athletic and societal pressure as a Black athlete prior to integration in the South, Roberts achieved an incredible feat. Only a freshman at the time, he rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns, establishing a USC single-game record that stood for 20 years and creating a legacy for future generations of Black student-athletes.

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Col. Leon Holland (right) presenting Roberts with a Legacy Award at UT’s Legacy Celebration Dinner and Awards Ceremony held last September during Black Alumni Homecoming Weekend. Photograph
by Keep It Digital

Roberts was a civil rights warrior in shoulder pads. He was the Colin Kaepernick of his day who took a stand for Black college athletes without uttering a word or kneeling in protest. He made a difference simply by playing in a setting where Blacks were rarely granted the opportunity to compete.

His success, along with that of other Black college football players such as USC’s Sam Cunningham, who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 1970 win over the University of Alabama’s all-white lineup, motivated predominantly white colleges in the South to finally open their doors and welcome Black student-athletes.

UT admitted its first Black football letterman, Julius Whittier, in 1969, the same year the Longhorns fielded the last all-white national championship team in the history of college football. Whittier debuted one year later. As a senior tight end in 1972, he caught every UT touchdown pass that season.

In the new documentary “Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story,” Col. Leon Holland, UT Austin alumnus and member of the Precursors, described the moment when Roberts scored his second touchdown in the 1956 game.

“The crowd became more and more concerned, but using racial terms was somewhat unsettling,” says Holland, who was among the first group of Black undergraduates to attend UT Austin. The racial slurs intensified. “Instinctively, we began to pull for USC.”

Roberts vividly recalled the events from that day in a 2012 first-person report posted on the USC Football website.

“For me, the after-game excitement made this the best trip we took all year,” Roberts said. “Every Black hotel worker in Austin must have come to my room to see us that night. The hallway outside our room was packed with people all night long. They had come from far and wide just to see us. Everyone was so proud just to see us staying in the hotel that I don’t remember ever going to sleep. My roommate Lou Byrd and I just talked to everyone all night.”

Roberts, who went on to play in the NFL and the Canadian Football League, was honored by the Precursors at UT’s Building a Legacy Celebration Dinner and Awards Ceremony during Black Alumni Homecoming Weekend held on Sept. 14-16. He was also recognized at the USC-UT football game that weekend inside the same stadium where he played 62 years earlier—but received a much warmer welcome.

Today, Black student-athletes account for more than half of all college football players at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. To help boost personal and professional success for these athletes, the African American Male Research Initiative annually hosts a national Black Student-Athlete Summit in February at UT Austin.

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Texas Men’s Basketball Head Coach Shaka Smart (left) with a student athlete at the 2016 Black Student-Athlete Summit.
Story by John Harris