NYT > Sports
Irv Cross, a Pro Bowl defender with two NFL teams who later made history as the first full-time black television analyst for a television sports show, died Sunday in a hospice in North Oaks, Minnesota. He was 81 years old.
The cause was ischemic cardiomyopathy, a heart disease, said his wife, Liz Cross. He also had dementia, which he believed was caused by concussions he had suffered on his play days. He had agreed to donate his brain to the Boston University Center for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
In 1975, after nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams and four years as a game analyst with CBS Sports, the network hired Mr. Cross to join the cast of its pregame show “The NFL Today,” which began at 15 – Year as a high-profile commentator. He, Brent Musburger and Phyllis George – and from a year later the competitor Jimmy Snyder, known as Greek – previewed the upcoming games of the day, analyzed them and achieved halftime results.
The cast was unlike anyone else on the NFL television show, with Mr. Cross in a job no other black sports journalist had before and Mrs. George, a former Miss America, becoming one of the earliest female sports promoters. With entertaining jokes and side games, the combination of personalities turned out to be extremely popular.
“Irv was a very smart, hardworking, extremely kind person who always showed a warmth to him,” said Ted Shaker, former executive producer of CBS Sports, in a telephone interview. “He had built his credibility as a player and game analyst and was our anchor on The NFL Today.” He added, “Like Phyllis, Irv was a true pioneer.” (Mrs. George died in May at the age of 70.)
In 1988, CBS fired Mr. Snyder for widespread comments he made in an interview about the physical differences between black and white athletes. His comments, said Mr Cross at the time, “do not reflect the Jimmy the Greek that I know and I have known him for nearly 13 years.” (Mr. Snyder died in 1996.)
After CBS fired Mr. Musburger in 1990 in a contract dispute, the network revamped The NFL Today, ending Mr. Cross’ longstanding program. He returned to CBS as a game analyst for two years, but stopped working on network television after his contract wasn’t renewed.
“I didn’t have an agent and wasn’t looking for a TV position as aggressively as I should have,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1996.
His broadcast work was honored in 2009 when he received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Irvin Acie Cross was born on July 27, 1939 in Hammond, Indiana, the eighth of 15 children. His father Acie was a steel worker; his mother, Ellee (Williams) Cross, was a housewife.
Mr. Cross said his father, who was a heavy drinker, hit his mother. “It’s tearing me apart,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 2018. You could see it was coming. We tried to stop him a couple of times. We’d jump on his back. It’s absolutely raw to me. “
Ellee Cross died in childbirth when Irv was 10, leaving him wondering if the beatings had made his mother’s health problems worse.
After playing soccer at Hammond High School – which earned him a place in the Hall of Fame – Mr. Cross was a broad receiver and defender at Northwestern University under coach Ara Parseghian. As a junior, he caught a 78-yard touchdown pass during a 30-24 Northwestern win over Notre Dame.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth, but Parseghian was great at moving people and getting the most out of them,” Cross told an online publication in the Northwest in 2018. “His teams beat Notre Dame three times in a row from 1958 to 1961.” Mr. Parseghian left Northwestern after the 1963 season to begin a legendary run as coach of Notre Dame.
As a senior, Mr. Cross was named Northwest Male Athlete of the Year.
The Eagles voted him in the seventh round of the 1961 NFL Draft. He intercepted five passes in 1962 and played in the Pro Bowl in 1964 and 1965. The Hall of Fame, where Jim Brown ran back, once said, “Nobody in the league goes harder than Cross.”
After five seasons with the Eagles, Mr. Cross was sold to the Los Angeles Rams in 1965 and played there for three years. He returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player and defensive coach. After retiring as a player at the end of the season, he trained for another year.
Mr. Cross began planning a television career while with the Eagles and serving as a radio sports commentator and weekend television sports anchor in Philadelphia during the off season. Although tempted by the Dallas Cowboys’ offer to get a front office job in 1971, he chose to work for CBS Sports instead.
Joining “The NFL Today” came with a certain amount of pressure. In the Northwestern interview, he recalled that in 1975 “the TV landscape was much different and much whiter”.
“I never focused on that,” said Mr. Cross, “but I was very aware that if I fail, it could be a long time before another black person got a similar opportunity.”
When the cast changed on the show in 1990, Greg Gumbel, who is Black, was hired to work with former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
After leaving CBS, Mr. Cross switched courses and served as the director of sport at Idaho State University in Pocatello from 1996 to 1998 and at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1999 to 2005.
In addition to his wife Liz (Tucker) Cross, his daughters Susan, Lisa and Sandra Cross survive. his son Matthew; a grandson; his sisters Joan Motley, Jackie McEntyre, Julia Hopson, Pat Grant, and Gwen Robinson; and his brothers Raymond, Teal and Sam. His first marriage ended in divorce. He lived in Roseville, Minnesota, outside of the Twin Cities.
When Mr. Cross was playing, concussions weren’t usually taken seriously. In his rookie season, he had several, enough for his teammates to call him Paper Head. One of the tremors knocked him unconscious and sent him to the hospital.
To protect himself, Mr. Cross had a helmet made with additional padding.
“I was just trying to get my head out of the way while doing tackles,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018. “But that’s just how it was.” Most of the time they gave you smelling salts and you went back inside. We didn’t know. “