Bob Pickens, 75, the first African-American to wrestle in Olympics passed away

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | April 20, 2018, 3:33 p.m. (ET)
Photo of Bob Pickens, back row left, and Bobby Douglas, front row right, with 1964 Olympic Team. Courtesy of Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Bob Pickens, 75, the first African-American wrestler to compete in the Olympics when he wrestled Greco-Roman at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, and a successful businessman and community leader, passed away in Georgia.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Pickens is 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.

Pickens played football for the NFL Chicago Bears, became a successful businessman and community leader in the greater Chicago area, and maintained a passion for wrestling throughout his life.

Pickens has served a number of years on USA Wrestling's Diversity Committee, helping the organization expand opportunity within the sport and develop programs to be more inclusive.

“I love wrestling. Wrestling was my A game, and football was my B game. Wrestling gave me so much great opportunity. As exciting as pro football sounds, there is nothing like wrestling, that mano a mano battle that tests you,” said Pickens.

Pickens grew up in Illinois, a big tough kid with little direction or focus. It was a coach, the legendary Elias George, who introduced him to wrestling at Evanston Township High School, something that changed his life forever. George became his mentor and a lifelong friend of more than 55 years.

“He was the first person in my life who saw promise in me. He saw something in me through a confrontation, which led him to challenge me to come out for wrestling. If he didn’t challenge me that day, I would not be where I am today. It comes down to the principles he instilled in me and the toughness I learned to succeed in my life,” said Pickens.

A state high school champion in wrestling and all-state in football, Pickens went to the University of Wisconsin where he wrestled and played football. He was given a chance to try out for the 1964 Olympic team in freestyle wrestling, which ultimately led to making the Greco-Roman team.

There were three African Americans on the 1964 Olympic wrestling team, Pickens and freestyle wrestlers Bobby Douglas and Charles Tribble. Since Greco-Roman went first in Tokyo Games, it was Pickens who was the first African American to wrestle in the Olympics. The three, as a group of friends, made history together that year.

“I wasn’t aware of the scope of it then as I am now. We were bonded closely together as three guys on the team. We did a lot of things together. We were walking together in the Olympic Village. One Black player asked, ‘Who are these guys? They don’t play basketball?’ We all understood the magnitude of being on the Olympic Team, period. That’s whether you are Black, Orange or Green. It was a huge responsibility and opportunity to represent your nation,” said Pickens.

Pickens finished sixth in his weight class. Pickens looks back at it now with pride, saying “nobody can ever take that away from us.”

After the Olympics, he played football at the University of Nebraska and went on to the NFL, and later success in numerous businesses. He was also a Chicago Park District Commissioner.

TheMat.com feature profiling Bob Pickens

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES OBITUARY: Bob Pickens, former Bear who was among first black Olympic wrestlers, dead at 75
by Maureen O'Donnell


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.

Click HERE for full Sun-Times obituary