PHILADELPHIA — Irv 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. He was 81.
The Philadelphia Eagles, the team Cross spent his six of his nine NFL seasons with, said Cross’ son, Matthew, confirmed his father died near his home in Roseville, Minnesota. The cause of death was not provided.
“All of us at CBS Sports are saddened by the news of Irv Cross’ passing,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said in a statement. “Irv was a pioneer who made significant contributions to the storied history and tradition of CBS Sports and, along with Phyllis George and Brent Musburger, set the standard for NFL pregame shows with `The NFL Today.? He was a true gentleman and a trail blazer in the sports television industry and will be remembered for his accomplishments and the paths he paved for those who followed.”
From Hammond, Indiana, Cross starred in football and track and field at Northwestern. He was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia in 1961, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966 and returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player coach for his final season.
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, eight forced fumbles and a pair of defensive touchdowns. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and returned punts.
Read more here, from the Chicago Tribune:
For Irv Cross, the eighth of 15 children in an impoverished family in Hammond, Ind., football was a lifeline, a gateway to a Northwestern degree, a pro career and the first full-time sports analyst job on network television for a Black man.
But Cross — whose death at 81 on Sunday near his home in Roseville, Minn., was announced by the Philadelphia Eagles — paid a price too.
No cause of death was announced, but the man who gained fame on CBS’ “The NFL Today” in the 1970s and ’80s was plagued in recent years by memory lapses, headaches, backaches and neck pain, an apparent legacy of his playing days.
He reportedly carried a card in his wallet with instructions to have his brain sent to Boston University after he died so it can be tested for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating condition thought to be a byproduct of head trauma common to contact sports.
“That’s affected a lot of players from my generation. We didn’t think about things like safety,” Cross told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 when promoting his autobiography, “Bearing the Cross: My Inspiring Journey from Poverty to the NFL and Sports Television,” co-written with Clifton Brown.
“I don’t talk about how I feel. I’ve got some damage, obviously. But unlike a lot of guys I played with in Philadelphia and Los Angeles (with the Rams), I’m still here. I’m very fortunate.”
Cross’ childhood was rough. His mother died during childbirth when he was 10, and he told the Post-Tribune his father was abusive until giving up alcohol.
It was Cross’ athletic prowess, combined with smarts and determination, that helped him get into Northwestern, where he played wide receiver, defensive back and defensive end for Ara Parseghian and earned a degree from the School of Education and Social Policy.
That led him into a nine-season NFL career, which paved the way to a pioneering sportscasting career and more.
“All of us at CBS Sports are saddened by the news of Irv Cross’ passing,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said in a statement. “Irv was a pioneer who made significant contributions to the storied history and tradition of CBS Sports.”
Cross showed academic promise and was a football, basketball and track star at Hammond High School.
The Times of Northwest Indiana named him its 1957 Male Athlete of the Year, but Cross would tell of not being able to celebrate with friends at a restaurant near his school because it would not serve him. They went elsewhere, but Cross remembered the hurt that accompanied his triumph.
Cross was a member of Parseghian’s first Northwestern recruiting class. A three-year letterman for the Wildcats, he also competed in track and as a senior was the university’s male athlete of the year.
The Eagles drafted Cross in the seventh round of the 1961 NFL draft. He nearly opted to play for the New York Titans of the American Football League because their games were on Saturday rather than Sunday. But the Eagles persuaded him to come aboard with the promise of pregame chapel services for players.
The Eagles traded him after five seasons — the last two as a Pro Bowl pick — to the Rams. The Rams sent him back to Philadelphia for a final season in 1969 as a player-coach under head coach Jerry Williams. He continued as just an assistant coach in 1970.
“My hope one day was to be a general manager someplace in the league,” he once said. “That never developed.”
Part of that was circumstance, but part also was choice.
The Inquirer said Cross, who also worked for Campbell Soup and as a licensed stockbroker, turned down a front-office job with the Dallas Cowboys, turning instead toward broadcasting.
“There is no doubt in my mind Irv Cross would have become the NFL’s first Black general manager,” former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt wrote in the foreword of Cross’ book, according to the Inquirer.
One of the things Cross did at Northwestern was take speech classes. This would serve him well, as it helped him score part-time radio and TV sportscasting work in Philadelphia while a player there. He parlayed that into a career after retiring from the game.
Cross joined CBS Sports in 1971, covering a variety of sports and paving a way for other Black athletes to get into broadcasting.
His big break was in 1975 when he was named analyst on CBS’ revamped “The NFL Today,” which under Bob Wussler, a former boss at Chicago’s WBBM-TV, established a template for the modern game-day studio show.
Cross was teamed with host Brent Musburger (with whom he had attended Northwestern) and former Miss America-turned-feature reporter Phyllis George, and the trio had a looser feel than previous such programs. Sports wagering enthusiast Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was added in 1976 to offer predictions.
“Irv was one of the finest gentleman I’ve been with,” Musburger said on Twitter. “We met at Northwestern where Irv played both ways for Coach Parseghian. He later became my go-to mainstay on the NFL TODAY. No one ever had a bad thing to say about Irv. He led the way for African Americans to host NFL and other sports shows. Rest in peace my friend.”
Cross left “The NFL Today” in 1989 and CBS in 1994. He later served as athletic director at Idaho State and special assistant to the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
He also for a time was executive director of the Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Central Minnesota and contributed football commentary to a Twin Cities TV station.
Cross’ survivors include wife Liz, four children, a grandson, three brothers and five sisters.