First African-American high school state wrestling champ in Iowa. First black wrestler to win an NCAA wrestling title. First high school coach of color in any sport in the Quad Cities, a metropolitan area spanning the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois.
Dismissed from the Davenport (Iowa) High School basketball team because the coach said he was too short, Roberts took up wrestling because a couple friends were involved in the sport. By the middle of his sophomore year, he was a starter.
As a senior, Roberts found himself in the 133-pound finals at the 1954 Iowa state tournament, going up against eventual three-time state champ Ron Gray of Eagle Grove. Roberts defeated the defending champ, becoming the first African-American state champ in the Hawkeye state… and in denying Gray the chance to become Iowa’s first four-time state champ. (Gray won his third title in 1955.)
At his high school coach’s recommendation, Roberts enrolled at University of Iowa. In his junior year, he was runner-up at the Big Ten conference championships… then was seeded sixth in the 147-pound bracket at the 1957 NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh. Roberts worked his way through the bracket to make it to the finals, where he again met Ron Gray – yes, the same wrestler he defeated three years earlier for the state title — now wrestling at Iowa State. Roberts again beat Gray, this time in overtime, 2-2, 2-0, to earn another place in the history books.
Roberts’ accomplishment was just as the civil rights movement was gaining national attention… the same year as federal troops were sent to help desegregate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
The following year, as a senior, Roberts won the 147-pound Big Ten title… but lost his opening-round match at the 1958 NCAAs at University of Wyoming, and was unable to defend his title.
After graduating from Iowa, Roberts career took him into various forms of public service in the communities he called home. Among his accomplishments was serving as head wrestling coach at Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island, Illinois (across the river from Davenport), becoming the first black high school coach of any sport in the Quad Cities. (Among the wrestlers he coached: Mark Johnson, who eventually became head coach at the University of Illinois.)
To learn more about Simon Roberts, check out this profile at InterMat.
Guest contributor, www.truewrestlinginsider.com