The growing number of black sportscasters on network television owe a debt of gratitude to former CBS analyst Irv Cross, who started the trend in 1971, when he was hired as the first black sports analyst on national TV.
Cross, 70, who teamed with Brent Musburger and Phyllis George on "The NFL Today,” credits his fifth-grade teacher for inspiring a poor kid from Hammond, Ind., to dream big, work hard and go to college. Cross will be honored Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio, as the recipient of the 2009 Pete Rozelle Award for Radio and Television. Growing up as the eighth of 15 children in his family, Cross said none of his siblings had ever gone to college, and most worked in the steel mills of East Chicago. When his mother died when he was in fifth grade, he said his teacher, Ruth Ewing, began giving him special attention as his mentor. She appointed him managing editor of the class’ practice radio station, GCR (Good Citizens Room). "From that experience, I began to be able to speak better and have more confidence in myself,” Cross said. "I went through high school and college and just had a great sense of who I was. I had a chance to sign a professional baseball contract. But I turned that down because I wanted to go to college.” Cross went on to play football at Northwestern University and then nine seasons in the NFL as a defensive back with the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams. Getting his start in radio and television in Philadelphia, Cross caught the interest of CBS executives, who hired him for "The NFL Today.” Musburger handled the news and highlights, Cross the "Xs and Os” and George, the 1971 Miss America from Denton, Texas, the personality pieces. "The three of us, with Brent, Phyllis and I having those specific roles, fell into a niche that worked pretty well,” he said. After leaving broadcasting, Cross served as athletic director at Idaho State and Macalester College in St.