The late Dick Schaap lived an amazing life. He knew Bo as well as anyone. In all his travels, Bo was one of those athletes that he could never get out of his head. Just months before Mr. Schaap passed away in 2001, he had written glowingly about Bo, closing with the line, “He was a beautiful athlete.”
And most people would assume that reference was about the multi-talented Bo Jackson, the subject of Schaap’s 1990 bestseller, Bo Knows Bo.
But instead, he was remembering a college aquaintance from his days at Cornell University. The multi-dimensional Bo Roberson, the only person ever to earn an Ivy League degree, an Olympic medal and a doctorate while having an NFL career as well.
“My dad always contended that Bo Jackson was the greatest athlete he ever saw,” said ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap. “But he was convinced that Bo Roberson was the best natural athlete ever in the Ivy League. He could do anything.”
He was a three-sport star at John Bartram High and made an impression on Philadelphia basketball legend Sonny Hill, who said, “Bo Roberson belongs in the conversation with any athlete from the City of Philadelphia because he was so successful in three arenas. Obviously Wilt Chamberlain was a great athlete, but his resume was that of two sports. Add in that Bo Roberson was a standout student and he becomes a story that needs to be told.”
After getting to Ithaca, Roberson made an enormous impact as a sophomore and he seemed destined to be the League’s top athlete in football, basketball and track and field. Before his college athletic career was over, he would return a kickoff 100 yards, average a remarkable 17.6 rebounds a game and break the school long jump record.
Even though his senior season had been slowed by injury, Roberson was chosen as the Senior Athlete of the Year by the Cornell Daily Sun. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations in the Spring of 1958.
A member of the Army reserve program while at Cornell, Roberson served as a lieutenant in the Army following graduation while working as a coach for the track and field program at the U.S. Military Academy. It was there that he long jumped his way onto the world stage, culminating in a world record and an Olympic medal.
Roberson’s first big win came at the Pan-American Games in Chicago in August of 1959. Not only did Roberson claim the gold medal, but his winning leap of 7.97 meters (26-2) was more than a foot better than that of silver medalist Greg Bell, the reigning Olympic champ. Roberson finished the year ranked third in the world in the long jump.
If the Pan-Am victory gave him confidence heading into the Olympic year of 1960, what he did in February solidified his status. At the National AAU Indoor Championships, he won with a leap of 25-9 1/2. The performance broke the indoor world record that had been held by Jesse Owens for 25 years.
Olympic gold medalist Ralph Boston recalled the 1960 Olympic Games. “I remember Rome 1960 as clear as day. Bo was going into the Olympics injured and he gave it his all in the second round and took the lead (8.03m). I had my winning jump in the third round (8.12m) and it seemed like Bo had all but given up. It was like he was gonna settle for silver because of his injury.
“But Manfred Steinbach and Igor Ter-Ovanesian both had big jumps in the last round and now Bo found himself barely in third. His adrenaline kicked in and he was fired up. He came flying down the runaway and hit a perfect takeoff. When he landed, the measuring judge turned to me and said ’21.’ I turned to Bo and said, ‘You just tied the world record.’ But what it really was was 8.11, a centimeter behind me.”
Boston and Roberson finished 1960 as No. 1 and No. 2 in the world and Roberson held onto the world’s No. 3 ranking in 1961, but he was ready for a new challenge by the fall of 1961.
As it turned out, Al LoCasale was a personnel man with the AFL Chargers, who were moving from Los Angeles to San Diego that year. In need of speed, LoCasale told a young assistant coach about Roberson. That young assistant was Al Davis.
“Bo went to Bartram High and I went to Olney in the same league,” remembered LoCasale, who went to Penn while Roberson was at Cornell. “What I remembered about him was his tremendous speed and his tremendous ability, and that he was put together like a football player, not a skinny track kid. When I remember back, I remember his speed, his accleration, his takeoff.”
Roberson became a Charger and then an Oakland Raider.
“Bo was the Raiders’ first world-class athlete,” Jim Otto once told Dick Schaap. “He helped create the feeling that we were on our way to greatness. He pioneered the Raider tradition of great speed.”
From 1962 to 1965, only five guys in the AFL and NFL combined racked up more all-purpose yards than Roberson’s 5,467 — Philadelphia’s Timmy Brown, Cleveland’s Jim Brown, Oakland’s Clem Daniels, Abner Haynes, who played for three teams in the AFL, and Washington’s Bobby Mitchell.
Interestingly, Roberson averaged more yards a game in his career with the Raiders than did Bo Jackson in his 38 games three decades later.
After seasons in Buffalo and Miami, Roberson retired and turned to formal education as his next primary objective. After his playing career ended in 1967, Bo attended Stanford Law School and then earned a master’s degree from Whitworth College in Spokane. At the age of 58, he earned his doctorate. In April of 2001 Roberson had passed away in Pasadena, Calif.
“He was a super all-around person, athlete or otherwise,” said Olympic hero Ralph Boston. “He was one of the heaviest — brainiest — guys I ever met and he used to wear those dress whites. Bo Roberson from Cornell. I’ll never forget him.”
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2003 in conjunction with the League’s Black History Month.