Paul Robeson Football Star
As a first-year student at Rutgers College during fall 1915, when Paul Robeson was the sole African-American student on campus and only the third to be enrolled in the 149-year-old school, he held a white classmate over his head in rage and thought he wanted to kill him. But he didn’t. After Rutgers’ football head coach George Foster “Sandy” Sanford shouted, “Robey, you’re on the varsity!” Robeson placed his new teammate – the one who’d just stomped on his hand in an attempt to break it – on the ground unharmed.
“He didn’t just accept abuse; he pushed back,” says Wayne Glasker, an associate professor who specializes in African-American and 20th-century U.S. history at Rutgers University-Camden. “And the team realized, ‘OK, he’s a rugged guy, the kind of person we need.’”
The team was right. With Robeson on the roster, Rutgers would have an incredible run from 1915 to 1919. “Robey,” as he was known across campus, was a two-time All-American and hailed as the game’s best ever. Although he also distinguished himself academically and in three other sports at Rutgers, Robeson’s gridiron experiences best demonstrate how his character matched his talents.
It was a rough start. Ten days before Robeson made the team, the 17-year-old had walked onto the Rutgers practice field, where he was assaulted by other players trying out for the team, breaking his nose and dislocating his shoulder. While recovering from his injuries, a shell-shocked Robeson questioned whether he should return.
Then he remembered what his father, a former slave who had become a pastor, had told him – that on the field, in the classroom or anywhere else, “I wasn’t just there on my own,” Robeson told a reporter in 1944. “I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and, as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out.”
So he returned and earned his spot. The abuse he faced after that incident was dispensed only by other teams, through cheap shots, racial taunts and occasional refusals to take the field against a black player.
Only once did Rutgers capitulate – during Paul’s sophomore year, when the university’s 150th anniversary warranted avoiding controversy. After the Virginia-based Washington and Lee University threatened to pull its team from the game if he played, Robeson was benched.
Not only was the decision humiliating for Robeson, who was the first black athlete to play for Rutgers; it drew adamant protest from the college’s first African-American student, James Carr, who had graduated in 1892 and was a New York City attorney. In a letter to the university, he castigated his once-beloved alma mater for surrendering its principles to compromise.
Paul Robeson with the Rutgers Football Team in 1918
It wouldn’t happen again. When a West Virginia team threatened to boycott, Coach Sanford stood his ground and the game proceeded. And Robeson, warned by one white opponent not to touch him, knocked the player to the ground on the next play, then said, “I touched you that time. How did you like it?”
On the field, Robeson’s athleticism did the talking. He was never penalized and built his already formidable strength, in part, by breaking orange crates with his forearms. His versatility on offense and defense was legendary. Among reporters’ descriptors were “superman,” “a football genius” and “the wonder of the age.”
One game during his junior year was emblematic of Robeson’s prowess. Playing against Newport Naval Reserve, an undefeated team comprising 11 All-Americans, Robeson scored one of the two Rutgers touchdowns while on offense. But, he was so dominant on defense, which held Newport to just one first down, that Newport felt like it was up against 11 Robesons, according to one reporter’s account. After Rutgers upset Newport, 14–0, yet another reporter called him “a veritable Othello of battle” – a moniker foreshadowing the eponymous role he would famously play a decade later.
By the end of his senior year, Robeson was a football superstar. His experience on the field, however, offered just a sampling of his talents and only a hint of what he would face.
Salamishah Tillet – associate director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience and a professor in African-American and African studies at Rutgers University–Newark – notes, “What was going on throughout America, we were seeing people brutalized. So, on the one hand, how he was treated is shocking. On the other hand, it was an initiation into the racism people were experiencing elsewhere.”
Rutgers is honoring Paul Robeson’s legacy as a scholar, athlete, actor, singer and global activist in a yearlong celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of his graduation. Check back with Rutgers Today throughout the year as we present a special series chronicling Robeson’s life and his influence on generations. Read previous articles in the series for an overview of his life, an exploration of his father's influence and his childhood in Somerville.
Learn more about the celebration by visiting robeson100.rutgers.edu or by following #Robeson100 on social media.