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Rutgers football committed to connection with Robeson

Eric Foster still remembers the first stop on his official recruiting visit to Rutgers five years ago. In the football offices in the Hale Center, amid trophies and displays of athletes' accolades, he came face-to-face with history.

And he still gets goose bumps when he thinks of what he learned that day about Paul Robeson's legacy.

"Prior to coming here, I didn't know too much about him," says Foster, a defensive tackle out of Homestead, Fla. "Now, I really respect and admire him for the foundation he laid."

It's been nearly a century since Robeson appeared on a Rutgers athletic field. He died in 1976 at the age of 77, and while Foster's generation never saw Robeson's athletic feats, Robeson's legacy is not simply a history on exhibit. He remains a vibrant and living presence on the Piscataway, N.J., campus.

"He was a guy who went through many challenges," says Ray Rice, the Scarlet Knights' standout running back, who recently declared his intention to enter the NFL draft. "Through all those [challenges] he was just a remarkable man. His name still sticks out all over Rutgers University -- Paul Robeson centers are all over the place. The more you learn about him, the more you learn that his name stood out for a reason, there is a reason why he remains with us to this day, why we cherish him."

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano makes sure of that. Every year, Schiano gives his team a history of the university, often centering much of the discussion on Robeson. He reviews the life of the man, his accomplishments and what he stood for, making sure that his players appreciate the legacy upon which they now stand. Calling Robeson "the most talented alumnus in the history of Rutgers University," Schiano knows that Robeson's spirit remains alive in his team.

"If they do not already know it, I believe our players come to understand the legacy when they come to Rutgers," Schiano says. "It is hard to be at Rutgers and not know and appreciate who Paul Robeson was."

Robeson was born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, N.J. His father was a runaway slave who made his journey to freedom at night along the Underground Railroad. His mother was from an abolitionist Quaker family. Robeson's working-class beginnings would not portend the feats he would later accomplish.

Robeson entered Rutgers on an academic scholarship in 1915. He was only the third African-American to enroll at the school. He earned 15 varsity letters in four sports. He learned to fluently speak more than 20 languages and was prominent in nearly every field -- athletic or otherwise -- he chose to enter.

"During his time at Rutgers, he was the consummate student-athlete," Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy said. "He was the second-highest-ranked student academically in his graduating class, and was a two-time All-American in football. History tells us he was a leader on campus and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. … There wasn't too much he didn't accomplish during his time at Rutgers. I know we're very proud we call him 'one of our own.'"

That wasn't always the case.

Robeson's first football practices with Rutgers were complicated by the racial tensions of the day. Without a single snap or whistle, Robeson -- the first black man to play for Rutgers -- was hated. At seemingly every chance in practice, he was kicked and mauled. In pileups, his body was twisted and pummeled. Every fight for a loose ball gave his teammates a chance to deal punishment -- pain for simply being black.

And he would quietly get up, and do it all over again.

It didn't take long for the pounding to give way to respect. In his junior and senior seasons, he was named an All-American. Legendary coach Walter Camp called him the best player he ever had on any of his storied teams.

"What Paul Robeson did, I don't think anyone can come close to that," Foster says. "During that time especially, when Paul Robeson was here, what he did was amazing."

From Rutgers, Robeson enrolled in Columbia University's law school, paying his way in part by playing pro football. He graduated in 1923. He went on to appear in 11 films. He had a distinct singing voice, and sold tens of thousands of records. Ebony magazine named him one of its 10 "most influential African-Americans."

"For the lack of any other word, he was a renaissance man," says Theodore Carrington, president of the New Brunswick, N.J., area branch of the NAACP. "World-renowned baritone, lawyer, actor, not to mention the athletics. His background, his lifestyle, it was all extraordinary.

"When he was literally a college superstar, he set the pace for everyone else. Athletes today, including African-Americans, have it so much easier. He had teammates conspiring against him. It had to be pure hell, especially during those times."

Monuments to Robeson's life dot the Rutgers campus, and buildings are named after him -- all for a man who spent his first days on campus having his body being mangled.

"It was kind of weird when Coach Schiano shared the story with us, and we were like, 'This really happened?'" Rice says. "It's just amazing to know that a guy who went through that kind of stuff, adversity and struggles and those kind of things. How he overcame -- though it got hard at times -- and what he was able to achieve, the things he went through and yet he didn't crack."

Kristian R. Dyer is the associate editor of Blitz Magazine and writes for the New York daily paper METRO. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.