PITTSBURGH – Former Pitt standout Bobby Grier has many fond memories of the 1956 Sugar Bowl, which, in those days, was one of the most important college football games played in the South each year.
He also remembers how unfairly the game was officiated.
“The number of penalties is one thing that stands out, especially a pass-interference penalty against me down at the goal line that gave Georgia Tech the ball at the two [yard line],” said Grier, the first African-American to play in the Sugar Bowl game.
“The photo of that play shows me lying on the ground in front of the receiver and the ball two feet over his head—yet they said I pushed him. How could I push him when I was in front of him on the ground?”
That interference call gave Georgia Tech the ball at the two and led to the only score as the Panthers lost, 7-0.
Although that play and several others have been a sore subject for many years, Grier can laugh now when he tells it.
Tuesday, he, along with many other of Pitt’s African-American athletes, will have the opportunity to tell stories as they are celebrated at an event called “Athletics at Pitt: A Century at the Forefront of Change.”
“A lot has changed and for the better since then,” Grier said, “and an event like this will help those of us who lived it tell our story to the younger generation.”
The hosts for the celebration at the Petersen Events Center will be Pitt’s athletic department and the school’s African-American Alumni Council. It will mark the 100th anniversary of the first African-American athletes to graduate from Pitt.
The emcee will be NBC’s Bob Costas, and it will commemorate the achievements of Pitt’s African-American student athletes since 1911, when track stars Harry Ray Wooten from Oakdale, Pa., and Hubbard Hollensworth from Owego, N.Y., became the first African-American athletes to graduate from the university.
Herb Douglas, a Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum who won the bronze medal in the long jump in the 1948 Olympics, played a large role in organizing the event as chairman along with co-chairmen Jennifer Bruce-Scott, Bryant Salter and Dave Garnett.
“This has been a year in the making,” Douglas said. “I felt it was important to put something like this together, to try and bring all generations of African-American athletes together as a celebration of all we’ve accomplished throughout the years. There are so many people at Pitt who have helped make this possible, I’m proud of my school because this is an important and historic event.”
The event will include dinner, a reception and a film narrated by Costas, former CBS and ABC sportscaster Jack Whitaker, CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield and former Pitt offensive lineman Mark May.
There also will be a question-and-answer session with Costas and some of the high-profile athletes like Douglas, Olympic track and field star Roger Kingdom, Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett and Julius Pegues, the first African-American to receive a basketball scholarship to Pitt.
“This is not only a great opportunity to celebrate the talent but, more importantly, the impact these men and women have had on society,” Kingdom said. “There are a lot of doctors and lawyers and teachers and coaches in that group.”
“This is a day to celebrate our heritage, our tradition and to meet some of the all-time greats, men and women who lived through the period when times weren’t easy for African-Americans. Their story can help others learn to navigate through some of the pitfalls they face,” Kingdom added.