By Dr. Ken 


Younger fans have no clue and older fans have no doubt forgotten the exploits and impact of C.R. Roberts, a former University Of Southern California running back who later played in the Canadian Football League and then with the San Francisco Forty Niners for four seasons. There are perhaps more football fanatics that are familiar with his high school exploits than his USC career and some who remember only his name as part of the Forty Niners “Alphabet Backfield.” Yet Cornelius R. Roberts was a force within every community he ever lived, creating positive change and the advancement of not only race related civil rights, but more accurately, the rights for all.


In what was a storied high school career, Roberts’ exploits have, after more than sixty years, still left him as the First Team Halfback on the San Diego Area All Time High School Football Team.

Roberts was truly a man among boys as a two-way high school football star

Roberts scored thirty-one touchdowns in the first eight games of his 1952 junior season at Oceanside Carlsbad Union High School. At 180 pounds he had the power to run through and over opponents, and the track speed to run around them. With Ronnie Knox earning the Helms Athletic Foundation California High School Player Of The Year award, Roberts 1599 rushing yards, eleven yards per carry average, and 181 points scored found him as the California Small School Player Of The Year. “Robot” to his teammates because “all they had to do was request a touchdown and he’d produce one…” and “The Oceanside Express” to those in the press, he returned in ’53 for his senior season at 200 pounds and accumulated statistics that cemented his place on the “all time” lists and made him both a High School All American and again the California Player Of The Year. In nine games, rarely playing their full length, Roberts rushed for 1903 yards with games that included running totals of 274, 331, and 317 yards. He passed for seven touchdowns while ten of his thirty TD’s came from sixty to eighty-six yards in length. He scored 187 points and rushed for a 9.5 per carry average. Seemingly too good to be true, he excelled as a top rated track and field athlete, was the President of his Sunday School class, maintained a B academic average, and was an Eagle Scout. Looking first towards the United States Military Academy, Roberts instead opted to attend college locally at USC.

He continued his track and field activities as a sprinter and long jumper, defeating future Olympian Rafer Johnson with a 24 feet, 3.5 inch long jump. Established as a punishing fullback who augmented the exciting runs of halfback “Jaguar Jon” Arnett, Roberts caught national attention in the opening game of his 1956 junior season against Texas. With but three African-American players on the Trojans squad, Roberts was the most visible and he was always quick to note that while the USC general student body may not have been supportive to minorities on campus, his teammates and coaches were. In the past when playing in the South or Southwest where racial segregation was the rule or state law, most integrated teams would leave their African-American players at home. As President of his USC fraternity, Roberts had already integrated fraternity row and had been instrumental in getting the USC Student Senate to approve the presence of females on what had always been the USC all-male cheerleading squad. He had no intention of missing the season’s opener despite being in violation of Texas state law and the very real danger he would face.

Fullback C.R. Roberts runs against Notre Dame wearing the 1955 helmet that celebrated USC’s “75th Year Diamond Jubilee Anniversary”

Neither university would agree to a cancellation of the game and from the perspective of Texas onlookers, the tension was ratcheted up when Roberts and his Black teammate stayed at a previously Whites-Only upscale hotel in Austin. Indicating that the experience in Alabama of USC’s Sam Cunningham which would follow a decade and a half later was really a sequel to his experience, Roberts later said, “I didn’t really get the picture” as his coaches tried to dissuade him from making the trip. “The coaches kept trying to tell me that the game was not that important. They tried to talk me out of traveling, saying we were going to win all the rest anyway.” He also clearly recalls intending to make a statement on the field, when given an opportunity. He noted “the greatest sense of satisfaction”  he received when staying at the team hotel was having not only every African-American employee come to his room to congratulate him, but many residents from the city who would borrow one of the employee uniforms and sneak into the establishment, just to meet him and shake his hand. Roberts officially became the first African-American to participate in an athletic event against the University Of Texas within the state and although he played a scant twelve minutes, it was twelve minutes of pure hell for the Longhorns.

In those twelve minutes Roberts rushed for what became a long-standing school record of 251 yards and added three touchdowns to his personal beat down. It wasn’t until the opening game of the 1975 season that Ricky Bell eclipsed Roberts’ mark with a 256 yard performance against Duke. He put a tremendous hit on the Texas quarterback which very much incited the hostile and segregated crowd, bringing the staff’s decision to remove him from the game. The 44-20 victory kicked off a successful 8-2 season and his performance in the game made Roberts a national figure with All American mention. This event pushed him harder to correct what he believed were inequities and he returned to USC and was eventually successful in helping to gain approval for the first Black fraternity on the campus.

The entire 1956 season, despite its success, was unfortunately marred by the scandal that affected the major West Coast schools [ see HELMET HUT  http://www.helmethut.com/College/USC/USC1956.html ]. With ambiguous rules related to permissible benefits and scholarship eligibility, the entire Pacific Coast Conference was forced to reorganize by 1958. Many players, and Roberts unfortunately one of them, had to surrender up to a year of eligibility. Roberts chose to play what would have been his senior season at USC in the Canadian Football League instead, spending 1957 and ’58 with the Toronto Argonauts. At the conclusion of the ’58 collegiate season when his USC graduating class was eligible for the National Football League draft, he was a fourteenth round pick of the New York Giants. On July 8, 1959, before his Giants career began, Roberts was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for offensive guard Darrell Dess. Steelers head coach Buddy Parker was a prolific trader and with bodies coming and going, Roberts became expendable and in mid-September was released and signed by the Forty Niners prior to the season’s final contest. He remained with the Niners through the 1962 season, a contributor at fullback rather than a star in an offense loaded with Pro Football Hall Of Fame members Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and Y.A. Tittle, J.D. Smith, R.C. Owens, John Brodie, and before switching to defense, the swift Abe Woodson. One of Roberts “best” contributions was his inclusion in the 1960 backfield contingent that gained the moniker “The Alphabet Backfield” which included Y.A. Tittle, R.C. Owens, J.D. Smith, and Roberts. At the conclusion of the ’62 season, Roberts returned to Canada and played one more season with the Hamilton Tiger Cats.


The end of his professional football career was the true beginning of his work that contributed so much to the communities he lived and worked in. All of the ground breaking efforts made at USC were a prelude to a lifetime of improving the daily existence of others. He completed his undergraduate degree in Business Administration from USC and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from Long Beach State; he became the first African-American Loan Officer for what was then a segregated Bank Of America; he integrated the Berkeley Board Of Realtors; he was instrumental in securing housing rights for minorities in Los Angeles. Roberts spearheaded a drive to incorporate the city of Carson, California and became its first Black mayor and then was instrumental in bringing the new California State University Dominguez Hills campus to Carson and making it accessible for moderate income families. As the holder of seven teaching certificates, Roberts served as a high school teacher and administrator for a number of years. Perhaps believing that he was not doing enough, he served as the Transportation Venue Assistant Manager for the 1984 Olympic Games held in and around Los Angeles and as the Vice President of the Retired National Football League Players Association. He has been chosen to advise both Congress and the President’s office on youth mentoring and educational projects and has continued his work in youth counseling and with Christian ministries. If this seems to be an ongoing and perhaps never-ending list of charitable and community service work, it almost is. C.R. Roberts earned a “name” as a revered athlete and then cashed it in for the benefit of his community. He did this to an extent that eclipsed his time in the sun as an athlete, for the betterment of many. As a University Of Southern California alumnus, he is revered by those at USC for his work and remains active in all community and university affairs.