Bearing the Cross: Pioneering Broadcaster Pens Memoir

Bearing the Cross: Pioneering Broadcaster Pens Memoir

Irv crossSchool of Education and Social Policy alumnus Irv Cross (BS61) was in fifth grade when his teacher, Ruth Ewing, stopped by his desk and whispered, “You’re the kind of young man who can go to college.”

It was an unlikely path for Cross, the eighth of 15 children who grew up in poverty near the steel mills of Hammond, Indiana.

But Cross eagerly embraced her vision of his future. In his new memoir, Bearing the Cross, My Inspiring Journey from Poverty to the NFL and Sports Television, Cross credits Ewing with inspiring his remarkable rise from hardscrabble beginnings to Northwestern University, the National Football League (NFL), and a pioneering career in sports broadcasting, where he became the first African American to work as a full-time sports analyst on television. 

“Miss Ewing planted the seed for a new way of thinking, and that was a key turning point in my life,” said Cross, who dedicated his book to Ewing. “I knew if I could get to college, it would open doors for me that reached far beyond Hammond doors that would be closed without education.”

In Bearing the Cross, co-written with Clifton Brown, Cross emphasizes the value of his education, family, and faith. In addition to Ewing, he singles out other caring people who molded his life, including former Northwestern and Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian and recruiters Ed Vennon (’58) and Charles “Doc” Glass.

Cross, Northwestern’s 1961 Male Athlete of the Year in football and track, played for nine seasons in the NFL and made two Pro Bowl appearances before he joined the groundbreaking NFL Today show in 1975 with former Northwestern classmate Brent Musburger (’61).

In 2009, Cross received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in recognition of  his"longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.” Over the last 15 years, he has worked to make life better for former players as a member of the NFL Retired Players Association.

Now 78 and coping with mild dementia, spinal injuries, numbness in his limbs, and unrelenting headaches, Cross plans to have his brain tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy at Boston University after he dies. But there is joy in his voice as he recounts still-vivid memories of his days on and off the playing field.

We reached Cross on a cool fall day at his home in Roseville, Minn., where he took a break from raking leaves to reminisce about playing for Parseghian, his career highlight at Northwestern and whether the NFL will help players cover health expenses.

Excerpts from his book and our phone interview follow:

On meeting his idol, Jackie Robinson, as a child:

I remember it like it was yesterday. Jackie had that white hair. He had that great smile. And my heart was pounding. When he shook hands with me, he looked at me and said, “Son, whatever you do in life, make your parents proud.” It stuck with me. I've come to realize how important it was for Jackie to do what he did that night -- talking to young people, inspiring dreams. That's why Jackie Robinson remains a hero to me. It's one thing to be a great player. It's another thing to be a great person. Jackie was both.

On racism:

After I won the Male Athlete of the Year Award (in high school), a couple of teammates took me to dinner to celebrate. The first restaurant we went to wouldn’t let me in because I was black. The restaurant was right across the street from our high school. Of course, we found somewhere else to eat. But along with the happy thoughts of that evening, not being able to eat there is something that still sticks in my mind.

On choosing Northwestern in 1957:

Ed Vennon (’58) was a Hammond High graduate who was a volunteer recruiter for the University. In 1957, this country was still a very tough place to live for blacks. Ed spent an untold amount of time with me at my home and drove me to Evanston for my meeting with coach Parseghian. I was impressed that Northwestern followed the rules when they recruited me. Other schools were willing to cheat; one offered me $500 and a 1957 convertible Ford Fairlane. Parseghian said, We can’t offer you anything except a first-class education and an opportunity to play in the Big Ten. I told him, “Coach, I’m on my way.’

On his Northwestern football career:

I was the Class of 1957, the first class Parseghian recruited. The group included Dick Thornton who should have been All-American but wound up breaking his leg his senior year. Elbert (BS62) and Albert (BS62) Kimbrough were outstanding, but the thing we liked was that Ara was very careful to get people he thought were well qualified to get through Northwestern in four years. Physically we weren’t as big as other teams, but we would not make mental errors, and we played both offense and defense so we knew both sides of the football. But the greatest thing about Northwestern is that we knew we were prepared for the next chapter in life.

On his college career highlight:

I caught a 78-yard touchdown pass from John Talley (BS60) during a 30-24 victory over Notre Dame as a junior. At the time, it was the longest touchdown reception in Northwestern history. We didn’t have much depth, but Parseghian was great at moving guys around and getting the most out of them. His teams beat Notre Dame three straight times from 1959 to 1961, and there was no doubt that helped him eventually get the head coaching job in South Bend.

On playing both ways:

I was a rookie (with the Philadelphia Eagles), and we had a written test to see if we knew our assignments. I was the last guy finished; coach thought I was having problems. But when I turned in my paper, he said, ‘What’s this?’ Instead of putting down my individual defensive assignment I wrote the assignments for all 22 players. I said, “Coach, that’s how we did it at Northwestern. That was our biggest edge.” So as a rookie, I became one of the Eagles’ signal-callers. It gave me another element I could bring to the team.

On his foray into broadcasting:

During my rookie year in Philadelphia, I agreed to speak at events for nothing, and I got a lot of jobs. The key was that I took a number of public speaking courses for teachers at Northwestern; my diction and approach to presenting really started there. When I was younger, I could be in a room for two hours, and you wouldn’t know I was there. I wouldn’t say a word. Even now I’d rather be home than in public.

On being the first African American full-time sports analyst on national television:

It felt like everybody was watching. I don’t refer to myself as a ‘pioneer’ in television, but others do. But in 1975, when the NFL Today was launched, the sports TV landscape looked much different, much whiter. I never focused on that, but I was keenly aware that if I failed, it might be a long time before another black person got a similar opportunity.

On protecting the health of football players:

Owners today, and frankly a lot of today’s players, don’t have an appreciation of what people went through in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Players were like raw hamburger being ground up. We’re a tool for entertainment. We bring the crowds. But nobody thinks about what it looks like in the training room when the game is over... The damage being done is serious. The league is going to have to pay huge sums of money to players, but the NFL will find a way to slow those payments down. Sometimes I think the league’s position is to deny, deny until enough of us die. As long as you can play, they’re with you. But once the body starts to break, see you later.



By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 1/21/19