Robert "Bobby" Grier Sr. (Courtesy photo)
Robert "Bobby" Grier Sr. (Courtesy photo)

The name Robert “Bobby” Grier Sr. has finally become well-known among sports enthusiasts, particularly those who follow NCAA football history.

After a successful 1955 season, the University of Pittsburgh football squad earned a chance to play Georgia Tech in the 1956 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Grier, a standout fullback and linebacker, counted as one of only two Blacks on the team.

When Georgia governor, Marvin Griffin, learned that Grier was on the Pitt team, Griffin immediately told the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees to forfeit the game, assuming that Grier would be allowed to play.

At the time, Jim Crow laws in the South prohibited Blacks from overall integration activities, including college athletics.

Meanwhile, Grier not only had support from his fellow Pitt teammates and the student body, but players and students from the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets faithful also joined in the protest of “No Grier, No Game.”

Even Georgia Tech’s president, Blake Ragsdale Van Leer, rejected Gov. Griffin’s request – urging that his team participate in the game. 

Ultimately, Grier suited up for the game and on Jan. 2, 1956, became the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl.

While Pitt lost the game 7-0, the victory margin occurred in a disputed pass interference call on Grier. Photographic evidence later strongly indicated the referee’s call to be both biased and incorrect.

Recently speaking from his home in suburban Pittsburgh, Bobby Grier Sr., now 89, rests comfortably in his laurels, with his son Rob Grier Jr., and a granddaughter, Camille. 

After earning a business degree from Pitt, the older Grier served as an Air Force captain, also spending time working as a foreman at a Pittsburgh area steel mill. He retired as an administrator at Community College of Allegheny College in Pittsburgh.

A cousin, Ed Grier, 88, recalls Bobby Grier’s exploits while playing for the vaunted Massillon (Washington High School) Tigers football program in Massillon, Ohio.

During Bobby Grier’s three-year career in Massillon, the school won three consecutive Ohio state football titles, beginning in 1949, including a national title in 1951.

The Massillon Tigers football teams were coached by Paul Brown, the legendary former head coach and founder of both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. Horace Gillom, a punter and another member of the legendary Massillon Tigers, played for Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns in the 1940s.

Raphael Cox, 76, of Canton, Ohio and Eddie Jefferies, 75, of Duquesne, Pa., vividly recall Bobby Grier’s impact on American sports. Both men spent their childhood years in the Pittsburgh area during the time in which Grier made national news.

Cox, now a minister, was in the fourth grade in Beaver Falls, Pa. while Jefferies, a retired New Pittsburgh Courier sports editor, was in the third grade at Crawford Elementary School in Duquesne when Grier’s story drew national attention.  

“Bobby was just an all-around athlete,” said Ed Grier, himself a star Massillon High School basketball guard and baseball pitcher.

“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. He got his degree and became an Air Force officer.”  

“He was a good student in high school, and most important, was coachable,” recalled Ed Grier, co-founder and treasure of the Massillon Benchwarmers, an advocate group for current Massillon High School athletes with college potential.

Last summer, at Massillon’s first game, Bobby Grier Sr. would be inducted into the high school’s “Wall of Fame.” In October, he was also inducted into Pitt’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Why did it take so long for Bobby Grier to be properly recognized?

“I don’t understand it,” Ed Grier said. “I had been urging the folks at our high school and eventually the Massillon football coach, Nate Moore, helped make it happen. Coach Moore also credits Massillon Boosters President Gary Vogt for the Boosters’ support.

“We always knew about Bobby Grier’s exploits and his place in history,” Vogt said. “We’re very proud he’s a Massillon Tiger.”

Grier’s participation in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, as well as the support he received from various communities, count among many as a milestone in American race relations.

His son, Rob Grier Jr., a Duquesne University graduate and drone-engineering entrepreneur, noted that negotiations leading toward a major film about his father continue to be in the works that would star New Orleans native, Anthony Mackie, portraying the senior Grier.

“I realized Dad was someone special when I saw Satchel Paige come up to him and excitedly start a conversation,” said Rob Grier Jr., now 55. 

His wife of 59 years, the late Dr. Dorothy (Pridgen) Grier, was a retired educator at Pitt. Along with Rob Jr., he has a daughter, Cassandra, who lives in Washington, D.C., and one granddaughter, Camille, a 2021 Pine-Richland High School (Pa.) graduate.

Bobby Grier Sr. noted that his family also has ties to actress Pam Grier, NHL star Mike Grier, NFL coach Bobby Grier and NFL legend Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier.

He vividly recalled competitive games against Penn State’s Rosey Grier and Syracuse University’s Jim Brown. 

In 2019, Bobby Grier Sr. would be elected as a member of the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame in New Orleans.

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