Simon Roberts: Honorary Captain

Nov. 30, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The name on the wall of the University of Iowa wrestling room reads Simon Roberts, but when you see him Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, you can just call him, Si.

A national champion in 1957, Si Roberts wrote a new chapter in wrestling lore when he won the 147-pound NCAA title for the University of Iowa. He scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to become the first African-American champion in NCAA wrestling history — and to ensure the moment could not be any sweeter for Hawkeye fans — he did it against a former champion donning the cardinal and gold.

“I wasn’t supposed to win the title,” said Roberts, a native of Davenport, Iowa. “The guy I beat was undefeated. It was a guy named Ron Gray. He was quite a wrestler at Iowa State and at Eagle Grove, Iowa. He was kind of a legend in wrestling in the state of Iowa.”

Gray may have been the legend, but Roberts was the trailblazer. Before their historic 1957 title bout, Roberts defeated Gray in the Iowa high school state finals to become the first African-American to win an Iowa state high school wrestling championship.

They were two historic dates separated by only four years. They featured the same co-stars, and they should always be remembered for their milestone moments in Iowa and NCAA wrestling history.

Roberts called Gray the best wrestler in the country, and when reminded that for at least one day on the national stage that moniker belong to Roberts, he humbly replied, “I guess so. I’m sure he’s looking for me. We had two matches, and I was fortunate to come out on top of both of them.”

Roberts said the Iowa wrestling room was even then stocked full of talent — so much talent that he felt fortunate to even make the team. But he also gave credit where it was due, admitting nothing came easy on the mat when facing Iowa State.

“Iowa State was one of the toughest, if not always the toughest, match,” he said. “At that time, if I remember correctly, we didn’t really have any duals, but, of course, we’d bump heads in tournaments.”

When Roberts wrestled at Iowa from 1956-58, the Hawkeyes and Cyclones were in the midst of a 35-year period that included no dual meetings. Iowa State held an 8-4 advantage in the series from 1912-38, but the schools did not meet in a dual setting again until the rivalry was renewed in 1973. They’ve met at least once every year since, and Iowa has reclaimed the all-time series lead 60-16-2.

When the teams meet Saturday, 55 years after Roberts earned the eighth national title in program history, ‘Si’ will serve as Iowa’s honorary captain. He doesn’t remember the last time he was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but he’s looking forward to seeing faces from the past and getting a front row look at the Hawkeyes.

“I’ve met and visited Tom and Terry Brands,” said Roberts, “and they’re very nice gentlemen.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been back, probably more than 10-12 years, but I’m looking forward to seeing old friends. I still have friends, classmates, fraternity brothers and other people who are still in the community. I’m looking forward to spending some time with them and having a genuinely good time. I can say I’m truly honored to be there.”