Cover 9@9: A tribute to the legendary Irv Cross, a sports broadcasting pioneer

Irv Cross poses at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in April 8, 1999. Cross, the former NFL defensive back who became the first Black man to work full-time as a sports analyst on national television, died Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. He was 81. The Philadelphia Eagles, the team Cross spent six of his nine NFL seasons with, said Cross' son, Matthew, confirmed his father died near his home in Roseville, Minn. (Ann Heisenfelt/Star Tribune via AP)
Irv Cross poses at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in April 8, 1999. Cross, the former NFL defensive back who became the first Black man to work full-time as a sports analyst on national television, died Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. He was 81. The Philadelphia Eagles, the team Cross spent six of his nine NFL seasons with, said Cross' son, Matthew, confirmed his father died near his home in Roseville, Minn. (Ann Heisenfelt/Star Tribune via AP)

Credit: Ann Heisenfelt

Credit: Ann Heisenfelt

(This week we’re are going to skip the nine items on the Falcons in order to play tribute to legendary sports broadcaster Irv Cross, who died Sunday.)

All of the Black pro athletes that have made the transition from the football field to the broadcast booth owe a hearty round of thanks to the legendary Irvin Acie Cross.

Cross, the former NFL player, became the first full-time Black NFL television pregame analyst on CBS’s “The NFL Today” show in 1975. He died Sunday in Roseville, Minn., at the age of 81.

“The NFL Today” was the first live NFL pregame show that set the standard that is still followed today, decades later.

“He opened the doors,” said Clifton G. Brown, who helped write the memoir “Bearing the Cross” with Cross. “I think a lot of guys in the business don’t even know how important it was that he did well on that show.

“He definitely felt like if that show had bombed or if he had bombed, that would delay Black analysts getting that type of opportunity. He felt that responsibility that he had to be good on that show. People were watching him.”

Over the course of writing the book, which was published in 2017, Brown, a longtime sportswriter who works for the Ravens, talked to Cross between 75 to 100 times.

“He used to talk a lot about being out and mostly Black people, would walk up to him and say, ‘you’re doing a great job. I love seeing you on television,’” Brown said. “He could tell that he was connecting with them. That was important.”

Cross was deeply religious, and he was known to drive back home to Philadelphia after doing the show in New York. He was well-respected by members of the show.

“There was a lot of tension on that show,” Brown said. “It was a great show. People loved it, but Jimmy (”The Greek” Snyder) didn’t get along with Brent (Musburger). Jimmy and Phyllis George had issues. But everybody respected Irv. He was kind like a guy that kept them from being too dysfunctional.

“Phyllis George, when I talked to her, she was like, we were like a dysfunctional family. He was the peacemaker. Nobody ever said, ‘Well I don’t want to do this segment with Irv.’”

Irv Cross (right) in 1976 with his “NFL Today” colleagues Brent Musburger (left) and Phyllis George. (CBS Archives)
Irv Cross (right) in 1976 with his “NFL Today” colleagues Brent Musburger (left) and Phyllis George. (CBS Archives)

Credit: CBS Archives

Credit: CBS Archives

When George left the show, Cross was instrumental in the hiring of former Miss Ohio Jayne Kennedy, who was on the show from 1978-80.

“She had pressure because Phyllis was popular,” Brown said. “Irv was somebody that she could always lean on for support, advice. Yeah, it was real rare to see a sister on the air.

“If Irv had already flamed out, they wouldn’t have hired Jayne. Even if they were going to hire a women, they weren’t going to hire a Black women. Irv’s success made it easier for them to (hire Kennedy).”

Now, there are former Black athletes all over television, from Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America” to a slew of players on ESPN and NFL Network. ESPN’s Kimberley A. Martin and NFL Network’s M.J. Acosta are following in Kennedy’s shoes.

“All of these dudes like Strahan, guys you see now,” Brown said. “Everybody sees it now, step off the field, they go to TV. Ex-players like Tony Gonzalez. ... It wasn’t like that when Irv did it. He was the dude who opened the door.”

Cross, who started his broadcast career locally while still playing for the Eagles, watched the current shows with interest.

“He had some issues with some of the stuff that goes on now,” Brown said. “He mentioned a couple of people, he was like they are not giving me any information. It’s OK to be entertaining, but they (were) not giving (him) information. He respected people who know the game or could tell him something that he didn’t know.”

Cross was respected by the players in the league during his television career, which ended in 1990.

“Irv was often times asked to do a feature on a player,” Brown said. “Players trusted him.”

As a former player, he also was respected by coaches and executives, including Al Davis of the Raiders. He tried to help former Washington football player Dexter Manley on and off the field.

“He had people’s respect,” Brown said.

Cross was the eighth of 15 children in Hammond, Ind. His father, Acie, was a steelworker. His mother, Ellee (Williams) Cross, was a homemaker.

His mother died in childbirth when Irv was 10.

“I had no idea he was one of 15 kids,” Brown said. “I had no idea his mom had died when he was in the fifth grade. I didn’t know that his father was abusive to his mom. I didn’t know any of that when I said, ‘OK, Let’s do the book.’ So, of course, when we talked about that stuff, he was crying talking about how his father would come home drunk after getting paid and be abusive to his mom.

“He used to hear their arguments. He used to hate Friday nights because he knew what was going to happen. He literally started crying.”

After the death of Ellee Cross, Acie Cross stopped drinking and battled to keep the kids together.

“They actually ended up having a decent relationship as Irv got older,” Brown said. “His father became a different person. He kept their family together. They wanted to take away the kids. They didn’t think he could take care of them on his own. He wouldn’t let that happen. He became a different person after his wife died, a better person.

“Irv always thought people could change. … He would talk to homeless people on the street. How did you get here? Why are you here? He always thought there was the potential for somebody to do something good.”

Cross starred in basketball, football and track and field at Hammond High. He went to play at Northwestern. He was a wide receiver and defensive back under coach Ara Parseghian and was chosen Northwestern’s male athlete of the year as a senior.

The Eagles selected him the seventh round of the 1961 NFL draft.

Los Angeles Rams players Irv Cross (left) and Chuck Lamson dive for the ball fumbled by Cleveland's Leroy Kelly in the third period of the NFL Pro Playoff game  Jan. 7, 1968. in Miami.  Los Angeles won 30-6.  (AP)
Los Angeles Rams players Irv Cross (left) and Chuck Lamson dive for the ball fumbled by Cleveland's Leroy Kelly in the third period of the NFL Pro Playoff game Jan. 7, 1968. in Miami. Los Angeles won 30-6. (AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

“He didn’t think he was going to make the team,” Brown said. “He told them, if you’re going to cut me, cut me early because he was going to go straight to grad school. He was like, don’t cost me a whole semester of grad school, if you’re going to cut me on the last cut.”

He didn’t get cut and went to make two Pro Bowls. He was a fierce tackler and had the respect of former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown.

“When they played Cleveland a lot of times, they would just run it to the other side because they knew he was going to try to make the tackle,” Brown said. “He was going to be a problem. He wasn’t one of those corners who was just a cover guy and didn’t want to get physical.”

Cross was honored in 2009 when he received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“That whole show was outside the box,” Brown said. “You had to see them. Nobody else had a woman on, a brother and bookie. It was hey, this is going to be different, and it worked.”

Cross and Brown stayed in contact after the book was published.

“He had a great life,” Brown said. “He wasn’t afraid of getting old and dying. He was at peace with everything. He did everything he wanted to do. He always treated people the right way.”

Cross is survived by his wife, Liz; four children, Susan, Lisa, Matthew, and Sarah; grandson Aiden; brothers Raymond, Teal, and Sam; sisters Joan, Jackie, Julia, Pat, and Gwen; and many nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation or the Concussion Legacy Foundation, according to the Eagles website.

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the pick’s in D. Led’s Mock Draft 1.0: Top five picks

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Ja’Marr Chase, (WR, LSU)

3. Miami Dolphins: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

4. Falcons: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Devonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

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