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Bob Pickens, first black U.S. Olympic Greco wrestler, passes

Bob Pickens, first African-American to wrestle on the U.S. Greco-Roman squad at the 1964 Olympics, then continue his athletic career with the Chicago Bears and as a Big Ten football official, passed away in Atlanta on April 12, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday, April 20. Pickens was 75.

Bob Pickens
Pickens placed sixth in Greco competition at heavyweight (111 kilograms/245 pounds) at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He was one of three black athletes to make history as the first to earn places on a U.S. Olympic wrestling team for the Tokyo Games, joining Bobby Douglas and Charlie Tribble who wrestled for the U.S. freestyle squad.

Born in Chicago on Feb. 2, 1943, Robert James Pickens was introduced to wrestling at Evanston Township High School by long-time coach Elias George when the future Olympian tried to cut to the head of a line to get some pencils. As Pickens recounted the incident on a YouTube video, George -- a Big Ten champ for Indiana University who then transferred to Oklahoma State, where he was a two-time NCAA All-American -- told Pickens, "Not on my watch."

At that time, Pickens was 5'7" and 275 pounds who had been bullied and chased by neighborhood kids ... but Elias George saw the makings of a heavyweight wrestler and urged him to try out for the team.

As he remembered the conversation, Pickens told George, "Anybody can wrestle."

"Four or five months later, I'd lost about 60 pounds, and I'd grown about three inches," Pickens was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Three years later, I'd become a state champion."

In fact, Pickens was a two-time Illinois high school state finalist, winning the heavyweight title as a junior in 1961 and placing second as a senior in 1962.

In addition to wrestling, Pickens was involved in football and track while at Evanston.
After graduating from Evanston Township High, Pickens headed north to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he concentrated on football. He later transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he continued his gridiron career.

In 1966, the Chicago Bears selected Pickens in the third round of the National Football League draft. He played tackle for the Bears from 1967 to 1969. Later, while playing in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos, Pickens launched his varied and successful business career at the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency in Chicago as assistant personnel director.

In 1970, Pickens began an 18-year career with Sears, Roebuck and Company in which he was eventually promoted to toy department buyer for the national retailer. In 1988, Pickens left Sears to become the owner and managing director of Rainbow Classics, Inc., a Hong Kong-based trading company dealing in toys and sundry items. In 1991, Pickens became the president and owner of Merrill Associates, Ltd. and the construction coordinator for DJP Development and Consulting, a family-owned business. In addition to his professional duties, Pickens began serving as a Chicago Park District commissioner in 2000.

Pickens never left sports behind. He served as an official for the Big 10 Football Conference between 1976 and 1989. In addition, Pickens held the position of national steering committee president of the National Football League Players Association and president of the National Football League Retired Players Association's Chicago Chapter. He also worked with youth through the Better Boys Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Bob Pickens is survived by his second wife Judith J. Pickens, his daughter Tori A. Pickens, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A memorial service is planned for Friday, May 11 at 4 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center.

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