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Harold Robinson, 76; athlete broke Big Seven color barrier

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Harold Robinson, the first black scholarship athlete in what would become the Big 12 Conference, has died.

Mr. Robinson, a former football center for Kansas State, was 76 when he died Tuesday at his home in Wharton, N.J., the school said in a news release that did not list a cause of death.

''I had the opportunity to get to know Mr. Robinson, and he was a very engaging, inspiring person," Ron Prince, the first black head football coach at Kansas State, said in a statement.

''His story was so compelling and the challenges he faced were so great that we cannot comprehend them."

Mr. Robinson was born and raised in Manhattan, where he made the varsity football squad in high school. After graduation, he decided to try out for Kansas State's team.

It was 1949, and there were no blacks on the Wildcats' squad or any of the teams in what was then the Big Seven Conference.

''When I walked on the practice field I was waiting for someone to say, 'Hey, you're not supposed to be here.' But nobody ever said anything," he told the Kansas State Collegian, the campus newspaper, in an interview in September 2003.

Mr. Robinson recalled that the coach, Ralph M. Graham, welcomed him to the team. Graham, who died in October, had coached black players at a previous job at Wichita State, where he took the Shockers to their first bowl game.

''People have to give him credit for letting black players on the team," Mr. Robinson told the student newspaper.

''Jackie Robinson had Branch Rickey, who brought him into Major League Baseball. If it wasn't for Ralph Graham, I wouldn't have been playing at K State."

After Harold Robinson made the football team, Jackie Robinson -- who was not related -- wrote Harold Robinson a letter of congratulations.

''He didn't know my address, so he just sent it to K State Athletics," Mr. Robinson said of the man who had broken baseball's color barrier just two years earlier in 1947. ''I still have the envelope."

When Harold Robinson began playing, the US Supreme Court was still five years away from issuing the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision that ended segregated education. Jim Crow laws were commonplace.

While his teammates stayed in hotels during away games, Mr. Robinson often had to stay in private homes. He told the student newspaper he missed only one game during his time at Kansas State.

Memphis State, he recalled, ''didn't even allow blacks in the stadium, much less players."

At first, he said, some coaches from other schools and even some players objected to his presence.

''All these guys who didn't care for me, the next thing you know they were my buddies. The whole team, they all protected me. I enjoyed it all. At the time I didn't realize how important it was. All I wanted to do was play ball."

And play he did. Mr. Robinson earned first team All-Big Seven honors in 1950, despite playing on a 1-9-1 team. He was inducted into the Kansas State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2004.

Other black athletes followed in Mr. Robinson's footsteps. Among them was Earl Woods, who became the first black baseball player in the conference when he joined Kansas State's squad in 1952, and later became the father of golfer Tiger Woods.

Mr. Robinson served with the Army during the Korean War. He was injured and awarded a Purple Heart.

He leaves his wife, Ann, and four daughters, Beth R. Shann, Melanie Robinson, Judith Robinson-Phillips, and Sherry L. Robinson.

A service is planned in Wharton, N.J., followed by a funeral tomorrow in Manhattan.

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