Randy Roberts is a celebrity within the boundaries of the Purdue campus because of his engaging lectures on wars, pop culture, and sports history. The 150th Anniversary Professor and Distinguished Professor of History believes those in his profession have a responsibility to present their knowledge to the general public, as well.
“I teach classes, so I reach a certain number of students in the classroom,” Roberts said. “Then I write books, and that’s a way to reach another audience. And documentaries is a way to reach even a bigger audience. As a historian, we don’t want to just write books for ourselves. One of the things that I think historians should do is try to reach a wider public than just the classroom.”
Within a six-day period, Roberts will have accomplished that goal twice.
Last Saturday, he appeared in “Four Sides of the Story: Army-Navy,” a CBS Sports documentary about the Army-Navy football rivalry. Then on Friday at 9 p.m. ET, he will provide historical context regarding one of his specialties – professional boxing – in a Showtime documentary about former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
In fact, the first voice heard in Showtime’s official trailer for “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston” belongs to Roberts: “Fighters keep fighting until they can’t fight anymore. Until they get defeated too many times. Or they die.”
The film covers the intimidating boxer’s career – including historic losses to Muhammad Ali, who is the subject of one of Roberts’ many sports biographies – Liston’s connections to organized crime, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.
“This is a guy that had just a difficult life and was involved in crime and had very few avenues open to him,” Roberts said. “Really, the big mystery is how did he die? Was it a drug overdose? Was he killed? If he was killed, who killed him?”
Roberts is the central voice in the final segment of the Army-Navy documentary, which focused on four of the most consequential installments of the service academies’ annual football game. As author of “A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) about the 1944 Army-Navy game, Roberts was a natural choice to discuss that matchup between college football’s No. 1 and 2 teams set against the backdrop of World War II.
Many colleges dropped their football programs during the war, but those that offered specialized military training programs continued to compete and add players from the dropped programs.
Army – which won the 1944 Army-Navy game and eventually the national title – and Navy emerged as college football’s preeminent programs thanks to the infusion of talent that occurred during this era. During the documentary, Roberts described their 1944 meeting as “the biggest football game ever.”
On a somewhat related note, a similar talent infusion occurred at Purdue – if only for one glorious season, Roberts said.
Thanks to its V-12 Navy College Training Program, Purdue’s football team landed transfer players from across the Midwest who helped the Boilermakers improve their record from 1-8 in 1942 to 9-0 – Purdue’s last undefeated season – in 1943.
“Depending on how many years of college you had and how much training you had to go through, at the end of October – this happened with Purdue – some of the players finished their program and they then had to go. In this case, it was to Parris Island for military training,” Roberts said. “So we lost a lot of the players, including one really good running back who set all kinds of records but had to leave [All-America fullback Tony Butkovich, who was called to active duty by the Marines and later killed in action in Okinawa in 1945]. So the last two or three games that Purdue played were without our best players.”
When he authors an article or book, Roberts and his publisher have ultimate control over the final product. He joked about how that is not the case when he serves as an interview subject in a documentary, noting that it is “always interesting” to see the completed version and how much of his input made the final cut.
“I think my segment in that [Army-Navy] program, it’s a 24-minute program with four different segments, so you’re only talking about six minutes per segment,” Roberts said. “They were here filming and setting up and everything for like five or six hours. So you don’t know what they’re going to take from it. I sat down for the interview part for three or four hours.”
Likewise, Roberts’ interview for the Liston documentary lasted three or four hours and he appears approximately a dozen times throughout the 89-minute film.
However, Roberts offered high praise for what Army-Navy producer Kalil Cage and Liston doc director Simon George accomplished with their respective productions.
“Showtime did a great job. Simon George is a British filmmaker and he’s very, very good,” Roberts said. “And I thought [Cage] did a really good job with the Army-Navy, taking those crucial, decisive Army-Navy games that meant something to America at that moment.”