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Bo Roberson: The Little Known Chargers Olympian
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For the next two weeks all eyes will be on a Russian resort town turned sports mecca for the 22nd Winter Olympiad in Sochi. While the winter games have seen NFL players come home empty handed, the Summer Olympics have been fertile ground for success stories. In all, 31 players that have worn an NFL uniform have won medals, including long jump silver medalist and San Diego Charger Bo Roberson.
Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Irvin “Bo” Roberson became one of the greatest multi-sport athletes to come out of the City of Brotherly Love. After enrolling in a prep school, Roberson attended Cornell in the fall of 1954, lettering in football, basketball and track. In his three years on the gridiron, Roberson rushed for 1,175 yards on 348 carries and scored nine touchdowns. He also caught 16 passes for 224 yards and one TD. While his football talent was evident, it was his track and field skills that would be his true calling card in college.
After graduating from Cornell in 1958, Roberson dominated the 1959 Pan-American Games, leaving his competition in the dust. He jumped more than a foot further than the second place finisher. In 1960 he jumped even further at the National AUU Indoor Championships, beating Jesse Owen’s 25 year indoor record with a leap of 25-9 ½. Soon after, it was off to Rome for the Olympic Games.
He was not expected to medal in 1960, a year with a strong pool of talent entering the long jump. Yet as the competition wore on, the Philadelphia native had the last jump – and a chance for Olympic gold. He also had a famous fan in the stands rooting him– Jesse Owen. Owen’s 1936 record for the long jump still stood and he had arrived in Rome feeling “like a father who has come back to watch his successful children.” Unfortunately, Roberson came up one centimeter short of winning the gold, earning the silver medal.
A year later it was Roberson’s exploits in Philadelphia, not Rome, that would earn him his ticket to the AFL. Al LoCasale, a Chargers personnel man, had also gone to high school in Philly and recommended Roberson to then Chargers coach Al Davis.
“Bo went to Bartram High and I went to Olney in the same league,” remembered LoCasale. “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 acceleration, his takeoff.”
The Chargers and Roberson would both arrive in San Diego in 1961. In that first season with the Bolts, Roberson would do a little of everything – returning kicks, catching passes and running the ball. The former Olympian rushed for 275 yards (second most on the team) and got in the end zone three times for the Chargers. Roberson also caught six passes for 81 yards. His former work as a sprinter also paid off as a return man for San Diego, averaging 15.9 yards per return.
The Chargers would go 12-2 their first year in San Diego, making it to the AFL Championship game against the Houston Oilers at Balboa Stadium. In a tough contest, Roberson would lead the team in rushing yards with 37 on eight attempts. Despite the Bolts best effort, they fell to the Oilers 10-3.
Despite a promising 1961 season, Bo Roberson’s first year in San Diego would also be his last. That offseason Roberson would leave San Diego along with two other Chargers in exchange for the rights to the Oakland Raiders’ 2nd round pick, a fair haired wide out from the University of Arkansas – Lance Alworth.
Roberson would play five more years in the NFL before returning to school and coaching. After attending Stanford Law School, Roberson would earn his doctorate from United States International University (now Alliant International University) here in San Diego. Although Roberson passed away in 2001 he still is alone in a unique club - the only person to have an Ivy League degree, a Ph.D., an Olympic medal and a career in NFL. Not bad for a kid from west Philadelphia.