Film to focus on Georgia Tech, fight against segregation at 1956 Sugar Bowl

Bobby Grier (36) became the first Black player to participate in a Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 1956, when Pitt played Georgia Tech. (Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)

Credit: Univ. of Pittsburgh

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Bobby Grier (36) became the first Black player to participate in a Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 1956, when Pitt played Georgia Tech. (Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)

Credit: Univ. of Pittsburgh

A pivotal moment in college football history is coming to the big screen with Georgia Tech and the University of Pittsburgh at the forefront. The film will focus on the impact Pitt football player Bobby Grier and Georgia Tech President Blake Van Leer made on the 1956 Sugar Bowl that shined a light on segregation in the Deep South.

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In November 1955, the Sugar Bowl committee invited No. 7 Tech to take on No. 11 Pittsburgh on Jan. 2, 1956. However, the spotlight shifted from football to segregation when Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin demanded that Tech forfeit the game if Grier, Pitt’s Black fullback, were allowed to play against their all-white team.

“The South stands at Armageddon,” Griffin said in a telegram to the Georgia Board of Regents. “The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike, and the relentless enemy will rush in and destroy us.”

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Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin opposed the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team taking the field for the 1956 Sugar Bowl because its opponent, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, had a Black player, Bobby Grier. Tech students protested in late 1955 with a Griffin effigy. (Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives)

Credit: Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives

Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin opposed the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team taking the field for the 1956 Sugar Bowl because its opponent, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, had a Black player, Bobby Grier. Tech students protested in late 1955 with a Griffin effigy. (Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives)

Credit: Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin opposed the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team taking the field for the 1956 Sugar Bowl because its opponent, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, had a Black player, Bobby Grier. Tech students protested in late 1955 with a Griffin effigy. (Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives)

Credit: Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives

Credit: Photo by Bill Young from the AJC archives

In response to the governor’s demands, Van Leer threatened to resign if the governor dared to block Tech’s participation.

“Either we’re going to the Sugar Bowl, or you can find yourself another damn president of Georgia Tech,” Van Leer said in 1955.

Students and players from the Tech community erupted in dismay at the governor’s stance. Ultimately, the Board of Regents voted 10-1 that the Yellow Jackets could compete in New Orleans in what would be the first integrated bowl game in the Deep South.

Tech won the game 7-0, but the bigger victory was the breaking of the color barrier.

“I greatly admired Bobby’s courage during that time and also the way (Tech) coach (Bobby) Dodd and my teammates stood firm against the political efforts to stop us from playing that game,” Wade Mitchell, Tech’s quarterback that season, said in a statement supplied to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this article. “There was a lot of pressure on Bobby, but he remained true to his values, and I hope that his legacy can be shared more widely through this project.”

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Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell visited in the Georgia Tech athletic building when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courte

Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell visited in the Georgia Tech athletic building when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courte

Combined ShapeCaption
Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell visited in the Georgia Tech athletic building when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courte

Credit: Photo courte

Now 66 years later, Rob Grier Jr. – Bobby Grier’s son – and Blake Van Leer – the Tech president’s great-grandson – will co-produce “Bowl Game Armageddon” to honor Grier and Van Leer’s fight against Griffin’s segregationist views.

“It won’t be just a football film, it is definitely going to be a film of hope and of coming together in perseverance,” Grier told the AJC. “It’s going to be impactful for Dad, it’s going to be impactful for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it’s going to be impactful for Atlanta, as well as for Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh, and then also Georgia Tech.”

With its connection to the story, ever-growing film industry and compelling history in the civil rights movement, the younger Grier and Van Leer knew it was only fitting to have the film produced in Atlanta. The movie currently is in the development phase and is expected to come out in two years.

The idea to tell this story initially came to the two as an idea for a book until reality TV show producer Colby Gaines suggested going the film route to reach a broader audience in light of the issues going on today.

After much planning, members of the Grier and Van Leer families visited Atlanta recently to meet with local producers and allow 89-year-old Bobby Grier to see Tech’s campus for the first time. In a surprise to them all, Mitchell met and shook hands with Grier for the first time since 1956.

“I’ve been there (Tech) a few times,” Van Leer said. “I get goose bumps every time. … But this one was, in particular, the first-time visit for the Grier bunch, but to be with them on campus was very surreal. It definitely felt historical.”

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Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell met in front of the Bobby Dodd statue on the Georgia Tech campus when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. The legendary Dodd was Tech’s coach from 1945-66. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wright M

Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell met in front of the Bobby Dodd statue on the Georgia Tech campus when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. The legendary Dodd was Tech’s coach from 1945-66. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wright M

Combined ShapeCaption
Bobby Grier (seated) and Wade Mitchell met in front of the Bobby Dodd statue on the Georgia Tech campus when Grier took a tour of the Tech campus in June. Grier played football at the University of Pittsburgh and Mitchell at Tech. Their teams met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a game known as a significant one in the history of segregation in the South. Grier played fullback for Pitt, and Mitchell was Tech's quarterback. The legendary Dodd was Tech’s coach from 1945-66. (Photo courtesy of Wright Mitchell)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wright M

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wright M