Football pioneer reflects on 1956 Sugar Bowl controversy

Considering Georgia Tech made such a big impact on the life of 89-year-old Robert "Bobby" Grier, Sr., it’s kind of astounding that he took his first-ever steps on the campus just last month.

Now an Air Force veteran and cancer survivor, Grier was a University of Pittsburgh football player back in 1956, the year Pitt was set to take on Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. For context, the January game was to be played only a month after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Tensions were high in the Deep South, and then-Georgia governor Marvin Griffin opposed Tech playing in an integrated bowl game.

"It was really unheard of that a governor would come out and say that is the ‘South’s Armageddon,’ and then forbid Georgia Tech to play," reflects Robert Grier, Jr., the football player’s son. "But the beautiful thing is that it’s a story of people coming together. Because the Georgia Tech players and the campus students weren’t having it. They basically told the governor to stay out of it. And they marched to the governor’s mansion and burned him in effigy. And then they walked to the statehouse, broke through the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, went into the statehouse and trashed it. All over this game."

Asked if he was aware of the controversy swirling around him at the time, Bobby Grier replies, "Back then, we didn’t care much about that stuff. All we wanted to do was play football."

Georgia Tech president Blake Van Leer also demanded his school’s team play the game, and in the end, Bobby Grier was on the field, playing in the Sugar Bowl on January 2, 1956 and unintentionally becoming a sports pioneer.

"It makes me feel great," says the former football player. "That I could help [other players] get started … no matter what their color is, they can play."

The event also bonded the Grier and Van Leer families; members of the families are currently working together to get a feature film made based on the events surrounding the 1956 Sugar Bowl.

Says Blake Van Leer, great-grandson of the former Georgia Tech president, "I think if people can come together in the 1950s in that type of climate, understanding that climate, and unify around sports and football…then you can do that at any time, right?"