Civil Wrong Turned Right

Times Staff Writer

It was 1956 and trouble arose shortly after the USC players arrived in Texas, getting off the plane, riding a bus to their hotel in Austin.

With the team milling around the lobby, Coach Jess Hill and quarterback Frank Hall stood at the front desk. Everything seemed in order until the concierge spoke up.

"By the way," Hall remembers him saying, "we've arranged to have your three Negro players stay at another hotel."

"What?" the USC coach asked. "Could you repeat that?"

At the time, segregation was still the norm in much of the nation. The Trojans had agreed to face an all-white Texas squad only after insisting that its black players be included, but apparently no one had informed the hotel.

"I'll tell you what," Hill said to the concierge. "We won't be staying here."

Fifty years later, with USC and Texas playing for the national championship at the Rose Bowl, C.R. Roberts speaks of that night as if it were yesterday.

"I can see it," he says. "Vividly."

Roberts was one of the black players on the Trojan roster, a star fullback. For him, that weekend in Austin remains unforgettable not because of its rocky start, but because of a surprising turn of events when he and his teammates got to the stadium.

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Growing up in Oceanside, Roberts says he knew about -- but was largely shielded from -- the sting of racism. At USC, a predominately white school in the 1950s, he found teammates and fellow students to be respectful.

The fall of 1956 was difficult for other reasons. A number of USC players -- as well as some from UCLA, California and Washington -- faced sanctions for receiving payments in excess of what the Pacific Coast Conference allowed for living expenses.

As a result, All-American halfback Jon Arnett played only five games that season. (Roberts was ruled ineligible as a senior the next year.)

During training camp, as the team prepared for its opener, Roberts overheard coaches whispering about negotiations. Texas had admitted its first black students that year, and Washington State had taken a black player to Austin in 1954, but officials there remained uneasy about welcoming integrated opponents.

An agreement was forged and the trip got off to a good start. Roberts recalls stepping aboard the team bus and hearing the radio tuned to "a black station. It was a song I loved. 'One Mint Julep' by the Clovers."

Not even the subsequent delay at the Austin hotel seemed alarming. Not at first.

"We were just waiting around," he says. "I didn't know why until after we left."

None of the surviving players interviewed knew how their coach found a hotel to accept the team. But as soon as they checked in, porters and maids began sneaking up to the room that Roberts shared with black teammates Louis Byrd and Hillard Hill.

The three were a rarity, playing for an integrated team, staying in the same hotel as whites.

"Back then, all the hotel workers were black," Roberts says. "They all came to see us. We didn't sleep a wink the whole night."

Byrd, now a Lynwood city councilman, had experienced similar incidents while playing football for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. There had been tense games against segregated opponents and a trip during which a restaurant owner informed him that blacks were not welcome.

"The whole team got up and left -- all the white players too," he says. "Left all those steaks cooking on the grill."

In Austin, USC's white players -- far less aware of racism -- were unsettled by the confrontation at the first hotel.

"We'd never had that happen before," Arnett says. "It kind of ticked us off."

The next day, their coach issued a warning: He told them to ignore anything that might be said on the field or yelled from the stands.

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Many years have passed since the game at Memorial Stadium, not many players and coaches still alive. Attempts to reach members of the Texas squad were unsuccessful.

When Saturday night finally came around, sweltering hot, Roberts says he felt jitters during pregame warmups, especially when the Longhorn marching band struck up "The Eyes of Texas." A teammate later told him that someone uttered a racial slur on the field.

Roberts does not recall hearing it. Nor does Byrd or Hall. They heeded their coach's directive and, besides, the stadium soon fell silent.

Roberts saw to that.

On the first play of the second quarter, with Texas leading, 7-0, he shot around left end and sprinted 73 yards for a touchdown. Several plays later, after a Longhorn fumble, he broke a tackle at the line and went 50 yards to give USC a 13-7 lead.

"He had size and sprinter's speed," Arnett says. "He was a little ahead of his time."

He wasn't finished.

With much of the pregame attention focused on Arnett and Texas star Walter Fondren, Roberts continued to run wild, cutting back across the weak side for a 74-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The Trojans were on the way to a 44-20 victory and Roberts would finish with 251 yards in 12 carries.

The only time he sensed anger, a rumbling from the stands, was when he tackled the Texas quarterback. His coach pulled him off defense for the rest of the game, solving that problem.

Otherwise, former USC players say, the game went smoothly.

"The Texas players were helping us up after plays," Hall says. "So gracious."

And when the Trojans emerged from their locker room afterward, the quarterback recalls seeing thousands of 10-gallon hats, "all those men waiting to shake C.R.'s hand."

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The man still looks fit at 70, lithe, strong.

His doctor wants him to cut down on coffee and sweets, but, sitting in a Norwalk restaurant, Roberts ordered a decaf and added sugar.

"I'm stubborn," he said.

After college, he played in the Canadian Football League and for several years with the San Francisco 49ers. Then he returned to school for his master's degree and settled into a career of teaching business in high school.

Roberts still wears his USC class ring, the engraving nearly worn smooth. He attends the annual reunion for Trojan football alumni, where the old-timers always mention the 1956 game. He doesn't mind talking about it.

Here's the twist.

Memories of that weekend in Austin bring a smile to his face. Rather than be angry, he says the experience sharpened his lifelong interest in civil rights, inspiring him to fight for USC's first black fraternity.

In 1970, when Trojan fullback Sam Cunningham played spectacularly against all-white Alabama -- a game credited with helping fully integrate the Southeastern Conference -- Roberts felt part of a continuum.

And a few years later, switching channels on television, he came upon a Texas game and saw a recently integrated team on the field.

"I was so happy," he says. "I started following them after that."

Now, he is excited about the Rose Bowl for two reasons. His alma mater can win a third consecutive national title and, equally important, the other team will be led by a black quarterback. Vince Young is not only a Heisman Trophy finalist, but also much beloved in Texas.

Again, Roberts smiles.

As if something good has come from what could have been a bad night 50 years ago. As if his performance -- and all those fans wanting to meet him outside the stadium -- played a role.

"Can you imagine that?" he asks.

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