Bob Pickens, former Bear who was among first black Olympic wrestlers, dead at 75
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As a kid, Bob Pickens had been overweight. He told people he learned to run fast to escape neighborhood bullies. He ended up being an Olympic athlete and playing for the Chicago Bears.
One of the first African-Americans to wrestle for the United States in the Olympics, he died April 12 at his home in Atlanta. Mr. Pickens — who also kept a home in Chicago — was 75.
As he had in sports, he forged a successful career in business, working in influential posts at Sears and at the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding.
He also was a Chicago Park District commissioner and a Big 10 football referee who worked postseason games including the Rose Bowl.
He started his own toy company, Rainbow Classics, making frequent trips to Asia to oversee production and imports of black dolls, according to his son Todd.
Even after all of his successes, he’d look back, in his later years, and recall the pain of being bullied growing up in Evanston, where he attended the old Foster School and Haven School, according to his sister Rose Cannon.
“That was really one of the key factors that pushed him to excel,” Cannon said.
“I was bullied all my life, chased,” Mr. Pickens said in a YouTube interview.
Things changed for him at Evanston Township High School, where he was stopped by coach Elias George as he tried cutting to the head of a line to get some pencils. “He says, ‘Not on my watch,’ ” Mr. Pickens recalled in the YouTube interview with writer Andy Reistetter.
Then 15, Mr. Pickens was 5-feet-7 and 275 pounds. George — a champion wrestler and Evanston coach for more than 50 years who learned to wrestle growing up with 12 brothers — saw in him a heavyweight he could mold into an athlete and urged him to try out for wrestling.
Mr. Pickens said he replied, “Anybody can wrestle.”
Still, he started training with the coach, and soon he was excelling in a variety of sports.
“Four or five months later, I’d lost about 60 pounds, and I’d grown about three inches,” Mr. Pickens said. “Three years later, I’d become a state champion.”
Mr. Pickens was recruited for football by the University of Wisconsin but “lost my focus” there. Returning home, he told George he planned to join the military. Instead, the coach took him to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the Olympic trials were being held.
“I went to the fair, qualified and made the Olympic team,” Mr. Pickens said.
At the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he, Bobby Douglas and Charles Tribble became the first African-Americans to wrestle in the Olympics, according to Dr. Bill Mallon, co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
Douglas and Tribble wrestled freestyle, making Mr. Pickens the first African-American to compete at the Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, which, unlike freestyle wrestling, doesn’t allow holds below the waist. He placed sixth in the heavyweight division, Mallon said.
After the Olympics, he was recruited to play football at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Once I walked through the arches of Nebraska, I never looked back,” he said.
His entrepreneurial instincts soon surfaced. At Nebraska, “He did things like renting his clothes out,” his sister said.
In 1966, the Bears picked him in the third round of the National Football League draft. He played tackle for the Bears from 1967 to 1969.
Later, while playing in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos, he also worked in human resources in Chicago for FCB, his son said. He went on to travel the world as a toy buyer for Sears and the owner of Rainbow Classics toys.
The Pickens family lived in South Shore, and his son said that, growing up, “We had every popular toy. My friends called the house ‘the toy store.’ ”
Before Atari games or Cabbage Patch dolls hit the market, the Pickens kids had them.
Mr. Pickens used to love eating at the old Trader Vic’s at the Palmer House and at Mustard’s Last Stand in Evanston.
He also worked as a construction coordinator for DJP Development and Consulting, a real estate company headed by his wife Dorris, who died in 2001.
While refereeing Big 10 football games on weekends, his 300-pound, 6-foot-4-inch frame drew attention, said his friend and fellow referee Michael Sheahan, the former Cook County sheriff. One time, Sheahan remembers, “A coach asked us, ‘Does he have any eligibility left?’ ”
Mr. Pickens is also survived by his second wife Judith J. Pickens, his daughter Tori A. Pickens, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A service is planned for 4 p.m. May 11 at the South Shore Cultural Center.