Almost 50 years after becoming the first black player to participate in the Sugar Bowl, Bobby Grier said his memory had filtered out most of the negative aspects of his experience.
As he sat in the dining room of his home in suburban Pittsburgh and reflected, Grier, 72, recalled parties in New Orleans, the support of his teammates and the letters of admiration from around the world.
In December 1955, Governor Marvin Griffin of Georgia, a segregationist, demanded that Georgia Tech not play in the Sugar Bowl against Pittsburgh because the Panthers' team included a black player, Grier.
"The South stands at Armageddon," Griffin said in a telegram to Georgia's Board of Regents, detailing his request that teams in the state's university system not participate in events in which races were mixed on the field or in the stands.
"The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle."
There are no plans to commemorate Grier's breaking the bowl's color barrier when West Virginia meets Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta tomorrow. But there is no denying its significance.
A day before Griffin's statement, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Although Grier's situation may not have been a similarly seminal moment in the civil rights movement, it received comparable national attention that month.
A black football player had never played in the Sugar Bowl, which is held annually in New Orleans. (The game was moved to Atlanta this season because of Hurricane Katrina.)
Pittsburgh officials agreed to participate only if Grier, a fullback and linebacker, could play and if the sections of Pitt fans were not segregated.
Griffin, who died in 1982, was widely criticized by students and the news media leading up to the game. Georgia Tech students protested at the governor's mansion in Atlanta and marched on the state capitol, burning Griffin in effigy. David Rice, a member of the Board of Regents, called Griffin's comments "ridiculous and asinine" in an article in the New York Times. Georgia Tech's president said that his team would not break the contract to compete in the Sugar Bowl.
"Stupid," Grier said recently in an interview at his home when recalling Griffin's comments. "Why did the governor need to jump into sports?"
Black players had participated in other bowl games, like the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, but Grier was credited as being the first black player to participate in a bowl game in the Deep South.
Michael Oriard, a former captain at Notre Dame who has written several books on the culture of college football, said Grier's participation in the 1956 Sugar Bowl resonated as one of the "last gasps of segregation in the South."
William Henry Lewis was the first black player in major college football, at Amherst in 1889. But, Oriard said, the national integration process was "slow and painful."
Boston College could not play its star running back, Lou Montgomery, in the 1941 Sugar Bowl. Montgomery was not even allowed to practice or stay at the team hotel; he watched the game from the press box.
So when Pittsburgh's players, coaches and administrators insisted that Grier play, it revealed a significant shift.
Grier played offense and defense in the game and had the game's longest run -- a 28-yarder. But the low point was a controversial penalty called against him in the first quarter that ultimately proved the difference in Georgia Tech's 7-0 victory.