Simon Roberts, 1st African-American NCAA Champ
To see the photos of Simon Roberts, his teammates, and Ron Gray, the man he wrestled for the Iowa HS state title and the NCAA championship, click on the link below.
Rev Rewind: Simon Roberts
Mark Palmer, Staff Writer
Rev Rewind is a new feature that provides profiles of legendary wrestlers and other stories of historical interest for the "oldest and greatest sport."
This spring, much was made about the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson being the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. There were special ceremonies at baseball parks across the country, along with countless articles, TV news stories and commentaries, commemorating Robinson joining the then New York Dodgers in 1947.
[PHOTO: Senior portrait of Simon Roberts]
This spring also marked the 50th anniversary of a similar milestone in college wrestling history. In March 1957, University of Iowa wrestler Simon Roberts won the 147-pound title at the NCAA championships at the University of Pittsburgh … becoming the first African-American to claim a national collegiate mat title.
Simon Roberts' historical first may not have received all the attention of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, but it was commemorated in articles, and his induction into the Glen Brand Hall of Fame at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, Iowa this April.
Then again, that might just be in keeping with the low-key nature of things in Pittsburgh in 1957… and with Simon Roberts' personality. And, perhaps the fact that Roberts had already opened doors three years earlier. As a wrestler at Davenport Central High School -- the largest school in the state at the time -- he became the first high school state champ of color in Iowa in 1954.
"I really didn't have much of a chance to think about it [being the first African-American college wrestling champ] at the NCAAs," says Roberts from his home in Los Angeles. "I didn't realize I was first until I saw it in the paper the next day after winning the title."
However, considering the climate of change in the U.S. at the time, Roberts' title win can be considered a watershed event. To provide a bit of historical perspective: In addition to being the year that the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik -- beating the United States into space -- 1957 was also key in terms of race relations in the country. In late summer of that year, Little Rock Central High School was the scene of unrest as U.S. National Guard troops were brought in under orders from President Dwight Eisenhower to help integrate the school, three years after the Supreme Court overturned the long-standing practice of "separate but equal" educational facilities -- one set of schools for whites, one for blacks -- in large sections of the country. Other major events in the civil rights movement -- desegregation of the University of Alabama and Ole Miss, sit-ins at lunch counters, Freedom Summer, the march from Selma to Montgomery -- were in the future when Roberts won the collegiate championship.
Putting it in terms of black and white
It was well into the interview -- after talking about how he entered the sport, his high school and college career, and his teammates -- that the subject of racism came up … and it was the interviewer's doing. When asked if he experienced racism firsthand as a wrestler, Roberts' immediate response was in reference to his time as an Iowa Hawkeye: "I had such a great group of guys around me, I didn't have time to think about it … We never really had a conversation about it."
Roberts was unaware of stories about African-American wrestlers being forced to wear uniforms that covered pretty much their entire bodies in an attempt to hide their race from wrestling fans –- this in the era where many wrestlers, including the Hawkeyes, competed in trunks, stripped to the waist. (This was before today's one-piece singlets.) "Wrestling was often discouraged between whites and blacks at the time," says the 1957 NCAA 147-pound champ.
"When I was in high school at Davenport, Henry Philmon -- who was just a couple years ahead of me –- had opponents refuse to wrestle him because of his color. However, I was never aware of an opponent withdrawing because of my color."
"The only time I can remember any open discrimination was Stillwater [Oklahoma], at the nationals [in 1956]," according to Roberts. "The Iowa team went downtown for our post weigh-in meal. They seated the entire team, about a dozen of us, including me. But the waitress brought glasses of water for everyone but me. Barron Bremner [Iowa heavyweight] seemed to notice it right away, didn't say anything to me, but got up and went over to talk to the waitress. She motioned toward the kitchen, so Barron went through the doors into the kitchen. He was there a few minutes, came out, then the manager or owner motioned to the waitress. They talked a bit, then she brought a glass of water to me. That was the end of it. I was served my meal with the rest of the team without any incident. And we didn't discuss it either."
Too short for basketball
Simon Roberts was introduced to wrestling when he was cut from the basketball team as a ninth grader. "I was told I was too short," says Roberts. "I was only 5'2" at the time."
"A couple of my friends talked to me about wrestling at the time, but I was still intent on making the basketball team. However, when I got cut from the basketball team again as a sophomore, I decided to try out for wrestling, and made the team."
[PHOTO: Simon Roberts in wrestling stance]
By the middle of his sophomore year, Roberts was wrestling varsity for head coach Jim Fox. "Our team took second at state that year," remembers Roberts. "I was the only varsity wrestler who didn't qualify for state that year."
"I got a lot of great experience in the varsity wrestling room, going up against great talent."
Simon Roberts' mat career had a bit of a setback his junior year; he had dislocated his knee playing defensive back for the Davenport Central football team, so wasn't able to wrestle until about halfway through the season. "I managed to qualify for state, but didn't place."
Roberts uses the word "fantastic" to describe his senior year. Davenport Central won the team title at the Iowa high school state tournament… and Roberts won the 133-pound individual title. (This was back when Iowa had a single-class state tournament.)
In the 133 finals of the 1954 Iowa prep tournament, Roberts came out the winner in his match against three-time state champ Ron Gray of Eagle Grove. With that victory, Roberts helped write history in two ways: as being the first African-American state champ in the Hawkeye state … and in denying Gray his chance to be the first four-time titlewinner in Iowa.
Go west … to Iowa City
After graduating from Davenport Central with a state title under his belt, it was time for Simon Roberts to choose a college. "Jim Fox was good friends with Dave McCuskey [head coach] at Iowa," says Roberts. "I also visited Iowa State…but felt more comfortable at the University of Iowa."
"I made a great choice to go to Iowa … Dave McCuskey was a tough guy. He ran you through your paces, but he was a fair guy," according to Roberts. "He gave me every chance to excel."
[PHOTO: 1958 Iowa Hawkeyes team]
"He helped produce a lot of great wrestlers."
When Simon Roberts was at Iowa City, he was just one of a number of greats. From 1954 through 1958, the University of Iowa had eight individuals win Big Ten titles, and a total of five Hawkeyes become NCAA champs.
Roberts' winning ways
In his sophomore year -- his first season of NCAA eligibility -- Simon Roberts qualified for the 1956 NCAAs at Oklahoma State. In the 137-pound bracket, the unseeded Hawkeye won his first two matches before being defeated by fifth-seeded John Pepe of Penn State. The following year, Roberts built an overall record of 13-1-1, placed second at the 1957 Big Ten conference championship at 147 pounds … but really made history a couple weeks later at the NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh.
[PHOTO: Iowa State's Ron Gray in wrestling gear]
Out of 27 wrestlers in the 147-pound bracket at Pitt's Fitzgerald Fieldhouse, Roberts was seeded sixth. He drew a bye in the opening round, then defeated Oregon State's Larry Wright 8-3. In the quarterfinals, the Hawkeye topped Jack Anderson of Minnesota State 5-3. In the semifinals, Roberts upset second-seeded Dick Heaton of Northern Iowa 3-2 to advance to the finals, where he would face a familiar foe: Ron Gray -- yes, the same guy Roberts wrestled for the 1954 Iowa high school state title!
Ron Gray was a man of considerable mat accomplishments. After winning three Iowa state championships, he enrolled at Iowa State. He was the 1957 Big Eight champ at 147. At the NCAAs, the fourth-seeded Cyclone had shut out two opponents and edged 1957 Big Ten champ Werner Holzer of Illinois 10-8 in the quarterfinals.
According to the account of the Roberts-Gray 147-pound title match in Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling, the cross-state rivals were tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. In the first overtime period, the Hawkeye rode out the Cyclone, then scored an escape in the second for a 2-0 victory, the 1957 NCAA championship, and a place in the history books.
"Ron Gray is a super-nice guy," says Roberts. "We talked after both of our matches, which, by the way, were the only two times we ever wrestled. He was very gracious afterwards, which says a lot about him, since I caused him to miss out on being the first four-time Iowa state champ, and being a three-time college champ." (Gray went on to win the NCAA title in 1958 and 1959. After graduating from Iowa State, Gray started a long coaching career that culminated as head coach at Kent State University in Ohio for twenty-five seasons. Gray led the Golden Flashes to nine Mid-American Conference team titles, and was named MAC Coach of the Year five times.)
In his senior year at Iowa, Simon Roberts compiled a 12-0-1 record, claiming the 147-pound title at the 1958 Big Tens by defeating Indiana's Nick Petronka in the finals. As Big Ten champ and defending national titlewinner, Roberts was seeded first at 147. However, in his first match at the 1958 NCAAs at University of Wyoming, the Hawkeye's dream of a second title was ended by Earl Dearing of Oregon in overtime.
Roberts completed his college career at the University of Iowa with a Big Ten title, an NCAA title, three varsity letters, a degree in sociology … and a lot of positive memories.
Characteristic of Roberts' modesty, before talking about his own accomplishments, he shared warm recollections of some of his Hawkeye teammates.
"One of my first experiences in the Iowa wrestling room involved a little guy who came up to me and said, 'Wanna roll around with me?' I took him up on his offer, and he threw me around the room."
"The guy was Terry McCann," said Roberts, identifying the tough-as-nails two-time NCAA champ at 115 pounds (1955 and 1956), who eventually brought home a gold medal from the 1960 Rome Olympics. "He took me under his wing."
"Terry would get up at 5 a.m. and run 5-6 miles every morning. He'd come knocking at my door, asking if I wanted to join him. I'd fake sleep."
"Terry was one of the greatest athletes I've ever known," according to Roberts.
Roberts talks with fondness about the other NCAA champs during his days at Iowa. "Dick Govig was the 123-pound champ at the 1954 nationals … Interestingly, we shared the same high school coach, Jim Fox, who was Dick's coach at Britt [Iowa] before coming to Davenport. Dick had been team manager; Fox put him in to wrestle, and he beat a guy from one of the Waterloo high schools. That was the beginning of his wrestling career."
[PHOTO: Gary Kurdelmeier in wrestling gear]
Ken Leuer, who won the 191-pound title at the 1956 NCAAs, "was the source of excellent motivation for me," according to Roberts. "He was a good pal."
When asked about the late Gary Kurdelmeier, 1958 NCAA champ at 177 pounds who became head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the early 1970s -- and who laid the foundation for the Dan Gable dynasty by hiring the Cyclone champ/Olympic gold medallist as an assistant coach -- the first thing that Roberts said was, "An innovator, as a wrestler, coach and college administrator. He was always a step ahead in his thinking about wrestling. He liked to call me to talk about ideas he had … He was instrumental in getting me involved in the letterwinners' club."
Simon Roberts also owes a debt of gratitude to teammates who helped make him the mat champion that he was. "My toughest matches in college were in the Iowa wrestling room," says the Davenport native. Among the guys Roberts mentioned were Iowa Falls native Ralph Rieks, the 137-pounder for Iowa who was the 1957 Big Ten champ, and an NCAA All-American the following year. "I had hellfire matches with Ralph. I had to get past him to wrestle in actual wrestling meets."
Del Rossberg was another frequent practice-room opponent, who Roberts describes as "a fantastic wrestler from West Waterloo … Each week, we'd go at it to see who'd wrestle that weekend in competition. Always real close. Truly a great friend."
Another Iowa teammate with a Waterloo connection is Gene Luttrell, long-time coach at Waterloo Columbus High, and 137-pound Big Ten Champ in 1958 -- the same year Roberts won the conference crown at 147. "He would ride you, stuck to you like glue," Roberts recalls. "What a super guy."
Life after college
Simon Roberts' life off the mat was rich and varied. The resume of this father of nine includes six years at the Davenport post office … and six years as commissioner on the Davenport Park Board in the early 70s – the first African-American elected to political office in the Mississippi River city of approximately 100,000.
Roberts also served in education. In the mid 1960s, he became wrestling coach at Alleman Catholic High in Rock Island, Illinois. Among the wrestlers he coached was Mark Johnson, who is now head coach at the University of Illinois. Later, he was director of adult education at Eastern Iowa Community College and at Black Hawk College across the river in Moline. Roberts retired as special assistant to the president at Black Hawk in 1995, relocating to sunny southern California, where his parents and sister lived at the time. He still resides in Los Angeles.
For all his accomplishments on and off the mats, Simon Roberts has been honored in a number of ways. In 1992, he was inducted into Davenport Central's Hall of Honor; in addition, he is a member of the Iowa State High School Hall of Fame, the Iowa Foundation Hall of Fame, and the University of Iowa Hall of Fame.
Most recently, Simon Roberts was welcomed into the Glen Brand Hall of Fame at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum. The man who introduced him at the induction ceremony was another history-maker: former Iowa State head coach Bobby Douglas, who was the first African-American high school state champ in Ohio (1959), and the first black U.S. Olympic wrestling team member (1964).
[PHOTO: Simon Roberts was welcomed into the Glen Brand Hall of Fame at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum.]
In an interview with wrestling writer/historian Mike Chapman, Douglas said, "For me as a youngster, when I heard about Simon Roberts winning the NCAA title, that really motivated me. Back then, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the sport and to discover there was a black champion meant that I could dream of doing things in the sport, too."
"If there is someone you could compare Simon Roberts to -- well, to me, he was the Jackie Robinson of the sport of wrestling. I went into wrestling heart and soul after I found out about him. Simon was definitely a pioneer."