The Touchdowns That Changed Texas
Civil rights and sports mix in Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story
September 22, 1956: C.R. Roberts makes history as one of the first black college athletes to take the field against white players in Texas. As segregation entered the rearview, the University of Southern California running back showed the University of Texas and the city of Austin that multiple futures were much closer than initially appeared.
Directed by Jeremy Sadowski, Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story uses interviews with Roberts himself and his teammates, as well as administrators and academics, connecting sport to social progress. Playing as part of the Capital City Black Film Festival, it shows the importance of Roberts' breakout performance against Texas as a signpost for imminent change appearing across America.
Roberts' account surprised Sadowski, who was initially focused on another player's narrative: USC's first All-American, Brice Taylor. The documentarian said, "Taylor passed away in 1974, so I was looking for people who knew him personally. I am a Southern California graduate, and I call myself a knowledgeable fan of SC football, but I had never heard of Roberts' story. He started telling me about this Texas game, and the things that led up to it."
Roberts, the prototypical power back with a loping gait similar to Adrian Peterson, arrived at USC's Los Angeles campus after a dominant high school career in Oceanside, Calif. However, his roots exist in the Deep South, living in Mississippi until he was 8 years old, where Jim Crow's immoralities stained his memories. Sadowski said, "He witnessed a lot in those eight years that affects him today."
The context for the 1956 season opener in Austin went beyond sports. The previous December, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white man spurred the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. That gave the Civil Rights movement, which had long been in action without an official title, its national headline-inciting event.
In July 1955, the Texas' Board of Regents had unanimously voted to admit black undergraduate students starting in the fall semester of 1956, but that end to segregation had yet to extend to football. Longhorns head coach Ed Price and his Trojans counterpart Jess Hill held negotiations: Texas' leadership, opposed to existing at integration's spear tip, desired for Roberts and the other black skill position players to stay in California. With the broader shifts occurring around the institution, Texas offered an insulting compromise – the players could come, but not compete. They were forced to drop that demand as well, when other Southern Cal players threatened not to play. Even on the weekend of the game, the first Austin hotel they had booked refused to let Roberts and his fellow black players, Hillard Hill and Louis Byrd, book into their rooms, and Coach Hill had to find another that would take the entire integrated team.
There were other potential hiccups. USC was part of the Pacific Coast Conference, and some member schools were concerned because many players had jobs which affected their collegiate eligibility as amateurs. Yet in 1956, the NCAA had yet to rule on penalties for playing while ineligible, so while Roberts would eventually lose his senior year entirely, as a junior he would have his moment in the warm Texas sun.
A man on a mission, Roberts would play only until the 12:20 mark of the third quarter, with the 15th-ranked Trojans leading 25-7. He carried the ball just 12 times in the two-plus quarters. It was more than enough, though, as he ran roughshod over the hapless Longhorn defense for 251 yards (a single-game school record for 19 years) with three touchdowns of 73, 50, and 74 yards. Game tape shown in the film shows an almost mythological figure running through, past, and over Texas – a John Henry becoming real.
Roberts was a herald of a future quickly arriving present, inspiring those faithful to the cause of equality and equity. Black porters and maids (even from other hotels) sneaked into the room Roberts cohabitated with Hill and Byrd, to welcome the players and intimate their importance to Austin's black community.
One of the most significant figures in the film is Susie Green. She was one of UT's Precursors – the name given to those first African-American students who matriculated into the university in 1956. For Green and students integrating across America, Roberts represented the physical manifestation of black excellence, a defiant breakthrough of broad achievement long denied. "He never realized the impact he had on me," she said with the grandest of smiles, "but many people felt the same way I felt."
"He brightened our day. He was the sunshine of our lives."
Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story, Friday, August 31. 7:30pm, Austin Convention Center Ballroom B and C. Director Jerry Sadowski and guests in attendance.