Paul Robeson overcame obstacles to become an All-American at Rutgers
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.
Read the rest of the series:
- Chuck Ealey deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame
- When the Kansas City Chiefs were pro football's champions of change
- How Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither helped save Bob Hayes' NFL career
- The all-Black Texas high school football league that sent six Hall of Famers to Canton
- How a judge helped Earl Campbell become Texas' first Heisman winner
Rutgers football coach Foster Sanford knew who Paul Robeson was long before the 6-foot-2, 200-pound true freshman ventured into his office.
In 1915, anybody who knew anything about football in New Jersey would have recognized the best prep player in the state.
As a defensive tackle, Robeson was so dominant that state officials changed the rules, permitting double- and triple-teams, to give opposing teams a chance to stop him.
Long before he became known as one of the greatest bass baritone vocalists to ever grace the stage or screen and long before he became one of the most influential advocates for worldwide racial equality and workers’ rights, Robeson was blowing up offensive lines from Newark to Princeton.
So when the third Black student to attend Rutgers met Sanford, the coach’s simple act of extending his hand to greet Robeson set a tone for how he’d treat the first Black player in school history.
But Sanford’s veteran, all-white team wasn’t so kind.
In fact, Sanford didn’t ask Robeson to join the team’s preseason practices because his players had threatened to strike.
The coach came up with a compromise to placate his vets: Sanford would invite Robeson to an open tryout with the non-varsity "scrubs." Without access to the training table and with no invite to preseason workouts, Robeson would be a long shot to make the team.
Sanford made sure Robeson understood all of this before he set foot on the practice field in New Brunswick. After explaining just how much the rest of the players objected to Robeson's joining the team, Sanford offered him the option of trying out as a sophomore the following year.
"I’d like to make a try at it, Mr. Sanford," Robeson said.
"Call me Coach," Sanford told him. "Report to the equipment room tomorrow before practice. Here are some instructions you should study beforehand."
At practice the next day, no players spoke to Robeson. Only the coaches did — and only to bark commands.
Robeson performed the individual drills — blocking, tackling, sprinting — without incident. Then the team began its scrimmage.
Sanford placed Robeson at left defensive end, and he made plays. He was in on the tackle in the first four snaps, and he dropped the running back for a loss on the fifth.
The all-white varsity had had enough. Over the next dozen plays, they called plays exclusively to Robeson's side, with gangs of blockers running straight at his position and "battering him so unmercifully that he was forced to limp off the field," Robeson’s son wrote in a biography of his father.
Neither Sanford nor his assistants did anything to stop the scene unfolding on the field. Robeson endured more than nasty bruises and scars that day; he suffered from a broken spirit.
Following his college football career, Paul Robeson went on to become a singer and actor both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
He vowed to quit, right then and there. For as long as he could remember, Robeson and his family had been brutalized and subjugated by white folks. Football wasn’t worth further abuse.
The only thing left to do was tell his family about the decision.
It wound up being Robeson’s older brother, Ben, who convinced him to stay. Ben made clear that Paul’s quest to make the Rutgers varsity wasn’t only about him.
It was about the Black boys, like me, who would follow him.
Besides, Paul and Ben had each been through worse than that already, and their father, William Drew, had suffered more than anyone else in the family so that his sons would have chances such as this.
'Do nothing to give them cause to fear you'
William Drew Robeson was a minister, and he valued education and freedom above all else.
He was 15 years old when he and his older brother escaped from slavery in Robersonville, North Carolina, in 1858. Using the Underground Railroad, they made their way to Pennsylvania, where William Drew found work as a farmhand.
After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, William Drew attended all-Black Lincoln University. He graduated in 1876 with a bachelor’s in sacred theology and a master’s in the arts. Then he went to work as a pastor at Witherspoon Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
The church was established by wealthy whites who grew tired of seeing Black folks in the balcony at their Presbyterian services. William Drew made the church his own, though, and used his pulpit to push the ideal of racial equality.
When Paul was just 2 years old, in 1900, one of his older brothers tried to enroll at Princeton University. He was told he could not.
William Drew appealed directly to Princeton president Woodrow Wilson to reconsider. He was so persistent, according Robeson Jr.’s biography, that William Drew compelled "the future President of the United States to declare angrily that Princeton did not accept ‘colored.’"
That same year, William Drew was removed as pastor at Witherspoon. Later, he instructed Paul on how to succeed among white folks.
"Climb up if you can," he said. "but always show that you are grateful … Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you."
Paul tried to follow this advice — until he no longer saw its wisdom. That day came on the field at Rutgers, one day after he was targeted and battered in his initial tryout.
Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, leave Waterloo station in London to travel to the United States to film a movie.
'The most powerful defensive end that ever trod a gridiron'
At his second day of practice, Robeson lay facedown in the grass after making a legal, hard tackle. With his arms and hands outstretched, he lingered for a moment to catch his breath.
Varsity tailback Frank Kelly saw this and stomped on Robeson’s right hand. The pain was excruciating, and Robeson leapt up, enraged.
Rather than attack Kelly after the play, he decided to exact revenge on the next one. Predictably, it was a run — straight at Robeson. He shucked a blocker and then drove his shoulder so hard into Kelly that everyone on the field heard the hit.
Robeson wasn’t through. In one motion, he wrapped his arms around Kelly and lifted him high above his head, as if he were about to slam Kelly to the ground. Those watching later claimed they thought Robeson might kill Kelly.
"Robeson!" Sanford yelled just in time. "You’re on the varsity."
Hearing this, Robeson gently placed Kelly’s feet on the ground and walked off the field, still clutching his injured right hand.
Nearly 30 years later, after Robeson had become famous in movies and on Broadway, he recalled the drama of that day at Rutgers during an interview with the New York Times.
"The ball-carrier was a first-class back named Kelly. I wanted to kill him, and I meant to kill him," he said. "… I was going to smash him so hard to the ground that I’d break him right in two."
Robeson’s son, Paul Jr., later said he was puzzled by his father’s quote. He’d been under the impression for years that his father had never meant nor wanted to hurt Kelly — only to make those watching believe he did.
He grilled his father about the decision: Why intentionally mislead the paper of record?
"It’s good and healthy in today’s America for white people who view me as their favorite Negro to understand that I might deliberately kill a lyncher."
Robeson finished his Rutgers football career with the respect of his teammates and back-to-back first-team All-America selections.
Walter Camp, the writer known as the "Father of American Football," had this to say about Robeson:
"There never was a more serviceable end, both in attack and defense. ... He is the most powerful defensive end that ever trod a gridiron, a veritable superman."
Robeson chose not to pursue a professional career because he believed it would distract him from earning his law degree.
In June 1919, at the height of Red Summer, an eight-month stretch in which violent race riots broke out in cities across America and 83 Black men were lynched, Robeson delivered Rutgers’ commencement address.
He called his speech The New Idealism. It reads, in part:
"We of this less favored race realize that our future lies chiefly in our own hands. On ourselves alone will depend the preservation of our liberties and the transmission of them in their integrity to those who will come after us.
"And we are struggling on attempting to show that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties; that poverty may give place to affluence; that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction, and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will follow the way with resolution and wisdom; that neither the old-time slavery nor continued prejudice need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition or paralyze effort; that no power outside of himself can prevent a man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation."
Robeson left no doubt about the kind of freedom he sought for Black Americans. He was his father’s son.