Last week, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame invited the wrestling community to submit nominations for the Class of 2017, which will be inducted during the annual Honors Weekend on June 2-3, 2017 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
This writer believes that former University of Iowa wrestler Simon Roberts deserves to be welcomed into the Hall as a Distinguished Member in 2017.
Roberts is truly a pioneer whose groundbreaking accomplishments as first African-American to win an NCAA title in 1957 make him a historic figure worthy of inclusion into the Hall.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, Roberts wrestled at Davenport Central High School in the early 1950s. Roberts first made history by winning the 133-pound championship at the 1954 Iowa high school state tournament, becoming the first wrestler of color to win an individual state championship in one of the true wrestling hotbeds of the nation.
Roberts then headed west from Davenport to Iowa City, to wrestle at the University of Iowa for head coach Dave McCuskey. As a Hawkeye in the mid-1950s, Roberts was teammates with Iowa mat champs such as Terry McCann, Ken Leuer and Gary Kurdelmeier. Roberts was a finalist at the 1957 Big Ten conference championships, and a three-time NCAA qualifier (1956-58). At the 1957 NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh, Roberts made it to the 147-pound finals where he faced Ron Gray of Iowa State. Roberts defeated his cross-state rival, 2-2, 2-0 in overtime to become the first black NCAA champ.
Simon Roberts with Iowa teammates in 1957Realize the era when Roberts won an NCAA title, it was rare to see African-Americans in college wrestling. (Roberts was the only black starter on the Hawkeyes during his time on the team.) The year he won his championship, the nation was embroiled in issues of race. Angry groups of protesters tried to deny access to African-American students at Little Rock Central High School; President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to ensure the diversity of the student body. On a more personal level, Roberts himself experienced discrimination when he was initially denied service at a diner in Stillwater when joining his Iowa teammates for dinner during the 1956 NCAAs at Oklahoma State. (Hawkeye heavyweight Barron Bremner quietly persuaded the owner to serve his black teammate.)
After graduating from Iowa, Roberts continued to break down barriers, as he became the first African-American to coach wrestling in his native Quad Cities (at Rock Island's Alleman Catholic High), and the first black to hold elected office in his hometown of Davenport.
Simon Roberts has been inducted into a number of Halls of Fame, including the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in Cresco, Iowa; Glen Brand Hall of Fame (for Iowa-born wrestlers) at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa; the University of Iowa Hall of Fame in Iowa City; Davenport Central's Hall of Honor; the Iowa State High School Hall of Fame; and the Iowa Foundation Hall of Fame.
The timing is right for Roberts to be welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, as 2017 will be the 60th anniversary of his historic, groundbreaking NCAA title win.
To nominate Simon Roberts for Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for 2017, please download a nomination form, complete it, and return it to the Stillwater Hall before Sept. 1, 2016.
Want to know more about Simon Roberts? Check out this in-depth InterMat profile.