USC Football Throwback: C.R. Roberts rose above racism in 1956

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 26: A general view of play between the UTEP Miners and the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 26, 2009 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 26: A general view of play between the UTEP Miners and the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 26, 2009 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

In 1956, USC football fullback C.R. Roberts rose well above racism in a record-setting performance against the Texas Longhorns.

The story of C.R. Roberts’ epic performance against Texas in 1956 deserves its place in USC football lore. Maybe even a bigger one.

It’s a story of both exceptional character and fantastic athletic ability on the part of Roberts and his Trojan teammates, one to rival the heroics of Sam “Bam” Cunningham against Alabama in 1970.

Here’s how it happened…

The color barrier

USC football’s history involving African American players has its clear peaks, but the Trojans actually didn’t have a great track record when Roberts took his place in cardinal and gold.

“They didn’t have any black players,” Roberts told the Austin American-Statesman in 2005.

In 1975, he told the Los Angeles Times that “at the time USC had a reputation of being inhospitable to blacks.”

That actually attracted Roberts to USC.

He had the option to go to UCLA, which was the school where black athletes like Jackie Robinson had made their name more recently. But Roberts was a self-described “firebrand” and the son of a share-cropper from Mississippi who was keenly aware of the impact of Jim Crow laws and the injustice of racism even if he was shielded from the worst of racial discrimination by growing up in San Diego.

He welcomed the challenge of being one of just a few African American athletes in Troy.

In 1956, his junior year, he was one of three black players who would travel with the Trojans to Austin for the season opener against Texas.

It was to be the first night game USC had ever played outside of the state of California, but it had other obvious complications.

The battle before the battle

In 1955, Texas made their first trip to play on the west coast, facing No. 9 USC at the Coliseum at the end of September.

They were given a rude awakening, losing the game, 19-7. Roberts scored the second touchdown for the Trojans.

The second leg of the home-and-home was due in 1956, but USC had an important stipulation.

Texas and many other schools in the south had policies when hosting integrated teams. Often, the game wouldn’t be played unless the integrated squad left their black players at home. The Trojans wouldn’t make the trip unless Roberts, lineman Louis Byrd and back Hilliard Hill were permitted to play.

They were, but that didn’t mean they were particularly welcome in the Lone Star State.

When the Trojans arrived at their hotel in Austin, they discovered that it did not allow African Americans to stay there. The hotel had arranged for the three black players to stay at a YMCA across town.

Roberts had a simple response to that.

“I said no, and that was it,” Roberts told the Los Angeles Times in 1975. “If I couldn’t stay with the team, I wasn’t going to go.”

Head coach Jess Hill and Roberts’ teammates stood by him. They voted unanimously to cancel the game if the black players were not accommodated.

Hill said, “We came together, and we’ll leave together,” according to Byrd, as quoted in the Austin American-Statesman in 2005.

“I was really proud of the team and Jess Hill,” Roberts recalled in the LA Times. “…You have to remember the era. It was not so easy then to stand up against racial discrimination, but they did it.”

The hotel relented. The players, white and black, stayed. But not all of them slept.

“Back then, all the hotel workers were black,” Roberts explained to the LA Times in 2006. “They all came to see us. We didn’t sleep a wink the whole night.”

The Austin American (Austin, Texas) · 23 Sep 1956, Sun · Page 38
The Austin American (Austin, Texas) · 23 Sep 1956, Sun · Page 38 /

Scorched earth

“For the past several days the natives down this way have been saying there couldn’t be anything hotter than the Texas heat, which has topped 100 on several occasions.

“Well, they know better now,” wrote Braven Dyer in the Los Angeles Times the day after the clash between the Longhorns and Trojans.

“An explosive bolt of searing speed named C.R. Roberts shot through the warm autumn air here tonight and scorched the unhappy Texans so badly that before the conflagration died down, Southern California had blistered the Longhorns, 44-20, before 47,000 pop-eye patrons.”

Dyer’s words did the performance justice.

In newspapers around the country, an article from the United Press wire service described Roberts’ performance as “phenomenal,” “dazzling,” “brilliant,” “sensational” and “amazing.”

What had he done to earn such praise? Only set a single game rushing record for USC despite playing just a single play in the second half.

Officially, Roberts racked up 251 yards in 12 plays. Dyer actually pointed out in the LA Times that Monday that the statisticians had gotten it wrong. The fullback was wrongly assessed an extra carry on a seven-yard loss, which had been nullified by a whistle ruling the pass incomplete. By Dyer’s estimation, Roberts actually averaged 23 yards per carry in 30 minutes of play.

Whatever the numbers say, there can be no dispute that Roberts was unstoppable.

Though Jon Arnett was the star of the Trojan backfield, it was Roberts’ day to shine.

In the first quarter, he took a pitch on the left, stiff-armed a Longhorn defender and burst free for a 73-yard touchdown.

Seven plays later, he went off tackle, broke through contact and blazed past the defense 50 yards for another score.

Two plays into the third quarter, he hit the left sideline again, using his track speed to fly past the defense for a 74-yard six-pointer.

“He didn’t even look fast”

Texas players after the game couldn’t have been more effusive in their praise of the fullback who had just slaughtered them.

Longhorns Mickey Smith and Ed Price both called Roberts the best back they had ever seen in the Austin American the day after the game.

“Did you ever see anybody more deceptive,” Smith said. “He didn’t even look fast, but take it from me, he was.”

“I’m sure Arnett is great,” Price said, referring to Roberts’ backfield teammate and All-American Jon Arnett. “But he’d have to go some to convince me he’s better than Roberts.”

Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas) · 20 Dec 2005, Tue · Page 27
Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas) · 20 Dec 2005, Tue · Page 27 /

Dealing with the crowd

In 1956, just about everyone played both ways. C.R. Roberts was no different.

In addition to his fullback duties, Roberts was a linebacker and he was quite key to USC’s defensive efforts. He led the team in tackles and pass deflections that season.

But he played sparingly on defense against the Longhorns.

USC’s coaches were already on high alert because of the racial backdrop under which the game was played.

A Trojan teammate told Roberts that someone in the Texas crowd directed a racial slur his way, though he told the LA Times in 2006 that he hadn’t heard it himself.

The coaching staff had given Roberts and his black teammates particular warning to focus on playing football and to ignore everything else.

So Roberts focused on playing football like he always did.

Of course, as a linebacker, that meant taking out his aggression on the opposing backfield. For Texas in 1956, that included Walter Fondren, the heir to an oil fortune.

Roberts got in a couple good hits early. They were clean. But the runner and the crowd certainly felt it. And the latter may have taken some offense.

“The crowd got so ugly so the coach took me out on defense,” Roberts told the Statesman in 2005.

“I didn’t think of Fondren as white or rich; I just thought if we let him pass we couldn’t win,” he said.

In the end, USC only needed a couple of tackles and 11 touches from Roberts to secure the victory.

What came after

USC’s season opening triumph boosted the Trojans into the Top 10 of national rankings while Roberts and Arnett continued to tear up opposing defenses together

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

Ahead of the Stanford game, with the Trojans still undefeated after five weeks, Jack Bluth of the San Mateo Times relayed how Hill worried that Roberts wasn’t in the right head space after his Texas performance.

“Roberts has a mental problem, Hill said. He ran wild against Texas and ever since feels a pressure on himself,” Bluth wrote.

USC fell to Stanford in what was Jon Arnett’s final game of the season. He and a host of other Trojan players were suspended for the second half of the season due to a wide-ranging scandal in the Pacific Coast Conference.

Without Arnett and company, the Trojans went on to lose once more to Oregon, but closed out the season with satisfying victories over UCLA and Notre Dame. The former was the first victory in the rivalry for USC since 1952. The latter was the first time the Trojans had downed the Irish twice in a row since 1938 and 1939.

USC finished the season with an 8-2 record and standing second place in the conference, but they were banned from postseason play.

Roberts ultimately led the Trojans and the PCC with 775 yards on the season. He also topped the team in kickoff returns. He was named an all-conference player along with Arnett.

Unfortunately, Roberts never got the chance to build on that exceptional season. He too was suspended for the 1957 campaign because he accepted extra financial aid in the form of a maintenance and gardening job from an alumnus who paid $36 per month. Instead of playing his senior year with the Trojans, he made his way in the Canadian Football League and paid for his own classes at USC.

He was drafted by the New York Giants and spent four years playing in the NFL for San Francisco before moving onto life beyond football.

In 2007, he was inducted into the USC Hall of Fame.