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Trailblazing Pitt Panther Bobby Grier Dies at 91

Pitt Panthers
© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Panthers family were saddened by the news that one of their legendary alumni passed away on June 30 at the age of 91. Robert "Bobby" Grier played for the Panthers from 1953-1955 where he played on both sides of the ball as a fullback as well as linebacker.

Grier made national headlines during the civil rights era when he became the first Black player to play in the Sugar Bowl. During his senior season, Grier led the Panthers in interceptions and the team finished 7-3 on the season and earned an invitation to the Sugar Bowl to play against Georgia Tech in New Orleans. The game would match up the No. 7-ranked Yellow Jackets and the No. 11-ranked Panthers.

Trailblazer Grier
Ernest Borghetti/Pitt Athletics

During the civil rights era, the prospect of Grier traveling with the team to play in the bowl game and break the color barrier for the storied game was too much for some to take. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the tragedy of Emmet Till in 1955, the decision for Pitt to play in the Sugar Bowl came the same month as Rosa Parks' arrest in Montgomery, Ala.

Most notably, the governor of Georgia, Marvin Griffin, told the Georgia State Board of Regents, “The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy.”

He also expected the Yellow Jackets to honor a "gentleman's agreement" that saw segregated schools refuse to play those that were integrated. The response saw student protests at Pitt, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, Mercer and Emory, leading to the governor backtracking from his position.

Trailblazing Grier
Ernest Borghetti/Pitt Athletics

Grier's Trailblazing Day

On the day of the game, Jan. 2, 1956, Grier took the field against the Yellow Jackets and had a game-high 51 yards rushing. The Panthers would lose to the Yellow Jackets 7-0 in part due to a questionable pass interference call against Grier. Photographic evidence later indicated the call was incorrect. Following the game, a banquet was held for both teams at the St. Charles Hotel which had only served white patrons. When Grier stepped foot off the bus, Georgia Tech players greeted him saying "You're eating with us." He also received the loudest ovation of any of the participants when he walked into the banquet hall. Grier said, "That made me feel good. Made me feel special.”

More than six decades later, on Jan. 1, 2019, Grier again stepped foot on the field at the Sugar Bowl. This time to be inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame, the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the Wall of Champions at Massillon High School in Ohio where he led the team to a pair of state championships.

What Happened After College

Grier would earn his Bachelor of Business Administration from Pitt in 1957 and serve in the Air Force for 12 years, primarily working on radar and missiles, and earning the rank of Captain. Later he went on to work as a supervisor for U.S. Steel and an administrator at the Community College of Allegheny County until his retirement in 1998.

“Bobby Grier is the epitome of the Pitt student-athlete,” said Chancellor Joan Gabel. “Striving to compete alongside his teammates at the highest level possible, he played with courage, grace and conviction and he helped drive the national conversation toward justice at a pivotal time in American history. The University of Pittsburgh is enormously proud to call Bobby an alum. We express our deepest condolences to his family and friends at the loss of a great man.”

“I had only been at Pitt a few weeks when I first met Bobby Grier,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. “He was visiting our practice facility and I remember leaving a meeting so I could see him in person and shake his hand. Bobby is an absolute Pitt icon, and I was immediately struck by his humbleness and warmth. His pride in being a 'Pitt Man' was on his sleeve, and that was so inspiring to me. We are so proud to continually tell Bobby’s story to new generations of Pitt football players. He really represents the best of our program.”

For the 2024 season, the Panthers will wear a commemorative helmet sticker as a tribute to Grier. We at would like to extend our deepest condolences to the Grier family and the Pittsburgh Panthers. Grier was a trailblazer that helped break barriers and usher in a new era in college football.


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