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Ex-Eagles star and NFL broadcasting pioneer Irv Cross passes away at 81

He became a national face of the NFL in the '70s, when broadcasting was almost exclusively white.

(Clockwise, from left) Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Jack Whitaker, Brent Musburger, Jayne Kennedy, and Irv Cross.
(Clockwise, from left) Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Jack Whitaker, Brent Musburger, Jayne Kennedy, and Irv Cross.Read moreAP File

Irv Cross, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Eagles who later became the first Black host of an network NFL pregame show, died Sunday morning at his home in Roseville, Minn., the team announced. He was 81.

Mr. Cross was a good NFL player for nine seasons, six with the Eagles and three with the Rams, but he gained national fame in the 1970s on CBS’ NFL Today, with Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. He also was the first Black person to do TV sports reports in Philadelphia, and was in the first wave of Black network color analysts.

Mr. Cross told The Inquirer in a 2018 interview that he had been diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia, and had stopped driving, for fear that he would go somewhere and not remember the way home.

Mr. Cross, born in Hammond, Ind., as one of 15 children of a steelworker and his wife, was a seventh-round Eagles draft pick in 1961 out of Northwestern. That was where he first met Musburger, who was a fellow undergrad.

Mr. Cross became a starter eight games into his rookie season when a broken leg ended Tom Brookshier’s career. Concussions were a repeated problem that year; in the 2018 interview, he recalled being knocked unconscious Dec. 3 that year in Pittsburgh, while blocking for a Timmy Brown punt return, the injury resulting in a three-day hospital stay.

“Dr. [Mike] Manderino was our team doctor, and he told me any kind of substantial blow to the head might be fatal,” Cross said. “So I had a helmet made with a little extra padding and played. I just tried to keep my head out of the way while making tackles. But that’s just the way it was. Most of the time, they gave you some smelling salts and you went back in. We didn’t know.”

Mr. Cross said that he carried a card in his wallet instructing that, after his death, Boston University should test his brain for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

He was traded to the Rams after the 1965 season but came back to the Eagles as a player-coach in 1969, and remained in the coaching role the next year. He was working as a licensed stockbroker, living in West Mount Airy, when CBS hired him for color commentary; Mr. Cross had filled in as a weekend sports anchor for KYW-TV during his playing career. In 1976 he began a 15-year NFL Today run.

Clifton Brown, who co-wrote Mr. Cross’ memoir, Bearing the Cross, told the Eagles’ website that Mr. Cross took his pioneering TV role very seriously.

“He knew that it was important for him to do well. Irv knew that if the show had failed, that it might hurt down the road for other Black sportscasters to get a similar opportunity. He was carrying that weight and he did it so superbly. It’s just a seamless transition now. We’re just so used to seeing former athletes on television. But all of them, particularly those who are African-American, whether they know it or not, I believe they owe a debt to Irv Cross.

“It’s kind of symbolic that he passed away on the last day of Black History Month. He is a historic figure in television ... I loved how good he was at his job. I loved that he looked like me and he was a guy on television at that time, in that position, where you didn’t see people who looked like me. And he handled himself so well. He was an inspirational figure to me and I think a lot of people felt that way.”

CBS Sports released a statement from chairman Sean McManus, who called Mr. Cross “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 trailblazer in the sports television industry and will be remembered for his accomplishments and the paths he paved for those who followed.”

Mr. Cross received the league’s Pete Rozelle Radio-TV award in 2009.

The Eagles said Mr. Cross is survived by his wife, Liz; 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. They said that In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation or the Concussion Legacy Foundation.