Pitt player scored one against intolerance
To say Bob Grier made friends easily while attending the University of Pittsburgh would be an understatement.
Grier, who graduated from the Oakland campus in 1956, was a well-liked member of Pitt's football squad at the time, which partially explains his popularity.
But when the team was selected to play in the Sugar Bowl, a previously segregated game, Grier's likability and winning personality managed to break down one of the last remaining color barriers in college sports.
Now retired and living in Pine, Grier, 72, smiled easily when asked about that game.
"The game came one day after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery (Ala.), but I never thought my playing in that game was any kind of big civil rights gesture," Grier said. "I just played because my teammates supported me and wanted me to play."
Though college and professional football today are as integrated as any big city, the gridiron wasn't always that way. Grier was the only black player on Pitt's team that season, and only a few northern universities fielded integrated football squads.
It was an unwritten rule that all-white football teams from southern schools would not risk being defeated by teams with black players, which is probably what Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin feared when Pitt took on Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Before the game, Griffin issued a public statement as ill-informed and bizarre as the institution of segregation itself, claiming "the South stood at Armageddon," and swearing to not "make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of need."
Grier's white teammates had already gone on record supporting their teammate, promising to skip the Sugar Bowl appearance altogether if Grier, a star fullback and linebacker, could not play.
And in one of the more inspiring and unexpected moments of the whole civil rights era, Grier watched as thousands of white students at Georgia Tech took up his cause. In the days before the game, they staged protest marches in support of Grier, burning Griffin in effigy and at one point nearly storming his residence before being turned away by Georgia National Guardsmen.
"It was incredible to see all this support and when we finally went down to play, the white players from Georgia Tech let me stay with them because the hotels where the visiting teams stayed didn't allow blacks. I'll never forget how nice people were to me," said Grier, who served in the Air Force before returning to Pittsburgh in 1966.
Though Pitt lost the 1956 Sugar Bowl because of a controversial pass interference call against Grier, a look at any college football roster today shows that it was Grier and his teammates who really won that day.