A Time For Change: Bobby Grier And The 1956 Sugar Bowl

By Marty Mulé
Updated: December 27, 2005

NEW ORLEANS— The ball was high. A receiver stretched out vainly, a defender went sprawling. A flag came flying, and a roar of disagreement cascaded around the giant arena.

Immediately a wire-service reporter began typing a bulletin: “Bobby Grier, the first Negro to play in the Sugar Bowl, was roundly booed by a crowd of 80,175 spectators today in Tulane Stadium.”

New Orleans sports writer Buddy Diliberto, seated next to the out-of-town reporter, jumped up and shouted, “You don’t really believe that, do you? They’re booing the call, not Grier!”

A half-century ago, the Sugar Bowl was caught in the cross-currents of history. The long-lingering malady of America, unequal rights for African Americans, came blowing in full force across the football landscape. Headlines across the nation screamed the news that the University of Pittsburgh, a team with one black player, was paired against Georgia Tech, an all-white squad, in the postseason classic in 1956.

In contrast, one month before in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks made her stand of not giving up her bus seat to a white man.

The Sugar Bowl was perceived as a combustible situation not only because of the breakthrough, touchy in a Deep South society where people of different races couldn’t legally drink from the same water fountain or use the same restrooms, but by the incendiary rhetoric of Marvin Griffin, the governor of Georgia. He was adamantly opposed to a school from his state taking the field against an integrated team — even though it had just the lone black on its roster.

“The South stands at Armageddon,” Griffin said.

It was under this cloud that Grier was caught in the glare of the sporting world in one of the most controversial calls of the season, a first-quarter pass interference penalty that led directly to the only touchdown in a 7-0 Georgia Tech victory in a game Pittsburgh dominated statistically.

Fifty years later, Grier, 72, recently retired and living in Wexford, Pa., still insists, “I didn’t touch the man.”

Governor ignored

Pittsburgh caught the attention of the Sugar Bowl when the Panthers upset sixth-ranked West Virginia 26-7, breaking the Mountaineers’ 11-game victory streak. Although it had lost three games, two to highly ranked Oklahoma and Navy, Pittsburgh impressed scouts and newsmen.

When the Panthers beat Penn State, the Sugar Bowl sent out an invitation, and with a 7-3 record Pittsburgh became the team with the worst record to play in the Sugar Bowl since 1945. Georgia Tech came into the game 9-1-1.

Griffin used the Sugar Bowl as a platform for his segregationist views. He sent a letter to Georgia Regent Chairman Robert O. Arnold and requested that teams in the “university system of Georgia not be permitted to engage in contests with other teams where the races are mixed, or where segregation is not required at such games.”

Arnold indicated the board had no control over university athletic policies, and Pittsburgh announced that Grier, a fullback/linebacker, would be on the Sugar Bowl squad and would “travel, eat, live, practice, and play with the team.”

A school spokesman added, “If Grier regains his midseason form he will be our starting fullback. Heck, he intercepted the pass (against Penn State) that put us in the Sugar Bowl.”

In Atlanta, Georgia Tech was trying mightily to ignore the governor. A school spokesman said, “Our boys voted to play in the Sugar Bowl and we will not break our contract, especially since Georgia and Tech have played against Negroes before and there has been no criticism.”

Security around the governor’s mansion had to be increased at night as it became a rallying point for torch-carrying throngs of protesting Georgia Tech students. The Southern press, for the most part, joined Georgia Tech professors, students, alumni and players in the disagreement with Griffin.

The individuals whose opinions on the matter should have counted most, the Georgia Tech athletes, finally were asked their thoughts.

Quarterback Wade Mitchell said he considered the entire situation “silly.” Mitchell added, “I personally have no objection to playing a team with a Negro member on it, and as far as I know the rest of the boys feel the same way.”

To Griffin’s displeasure, the Georgia Board of Regents voted 10-1 to allow the team to participate, although there was a soothing rider attached for the segregationists. It barred future games in the state of Georgia between Georgia colleges and integrated teams — a prohibition never enforced.

New Orleans was caught in a no-win situation, although interracial athletics were not new to the city.

Loyola competed against blacks in basketball, and the year before segregated seating at the Sugar Bowl was abolished when Navy played Ole Miss.

Clarence Mitchell, a member of the NAACP in Washington, protested to Secretary Charles R. Thomas that Sugar Bowl tickets read they were for use by whites only, and that others were subject to ejection. Actually, blacks had been attending the Sugar Bowl from its 1935 inception, although they were seated in segregated areas.

Thomas replied to Mitchell by telegram, stating the Navy Department had distributed 13,000 tickets without regard to racial restrictions “and will be so honored regardless of any printing thereon.”

Said Sugar Bowl president Bernie Grenrood: “The Navy statement speaks for itself. No other comment is necessary.”

Controversial call

The centerpiece play of the 1956 Sugar Bowl came early when Georgia Tech recovered a Pittsburgh fumble at the Panthers’ 32.

Yellow Jackets quarterback Wade Mitchell called one of Coach Bobby Dodd’s favorite plays, “the Kingsport Special,” designed to hit the opposition when it was emotionally down. Mitchell faked to two backs, then followed them around left end. Suddenly he wheeled and made a 180-degree turn and raced for the right sideline, took the ball off his hip and lofted a soft pitch to right end Don Ellis.

“I was outside in what we called an ‘Eagle’ defense,” Grier said. “I went back with the players and when I turned to look up and see where the ball was, I got pushed in the back. The ball was over his head and I was lying on the ground, then the official (back judge Frank Lowry) threw a flag and said I pushed him . . . with me lying on the ground, looking up and the ball over our heads.”

Said Ellis: “I got behind him. Then, when I turned around to look for the pass, he shoved me in the stomach, knocking me off stride. It was a fine pass, and I think I could have caught it.”

Although the film was inconclusive, it showed Grier might have been out of position, stumbled, and fell a few yards in front of Ellis.

In short order, Mitchell scored the only touchdown of the game. He then made the extra point.

It still rankles Grier, though teammate Joe Walton, later coach of the New York Jets and now the head coach at Robert Morris University, said, “It was one of those close calls that probably could have gone either way.”

“I didn’t push that man,” a tearful Grier said after the game. “I was in front of him, how could I have pushed him?”

Today he adds, “You’d hate to think this, but maybe the call was racially motivated. I guess we’ll never know.”

Grier added that despite everything, his Sugar Bowl experience was positive.

“I don’t blame the city,” he said. “New Orleans really went out of its way for me in many ways. My arguments were with the governor of Georgia and a game official.”

The game didn’t end Grier’s New Orleans experience. He also was not allowed to attend a Sugar Bowl party for the teams afterward.

“Nobody said anything,” he said. “It was just understood. I went to another function at Dillard University.”

When Pittsburgh left its pregame quarters at Tulane to spend an extra two days in New Orleans, Grier was not permitted to stay with his teammates at a downtown hotel; instead he was put up at a black hotel.

“It was just fine,” Grier said.

Things in Louisiana actually got worse, particularly for the Sugar Bowl.

The state legislature began passing segregation laws as restrictive as any before, one being the prohibition of racially-mixed sports events, which the Sugar Bowl actively opposed.

Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote, “For the Sugar Bowl, the upshot is that it will be known henceforth merely as a sectional contest to settle some kind of a Dixie championship only.”

He was right.

For the next decade the Sugar Bowl, which from its inception looked for intersectional matches, had to retrench. It would have great teams and great games, but no representative would come from outside the all-white Southeastern, Southwest or Atlantic Coast conferences.

“It all seems so long ago,” Grier said. “We’ve all come a long way. But when you think about it, you still have to wonder what in the world the fuss was all about.”