Before 1960, only a handful of African-Americans lettered in football at the University of Minnesota.

One of those pioneers was Robert “Bob” Blakley. A three-sport standout at St. Paul Central High School, he lettered for the Gophers in 1956 and 1957 — leading the team in rushing in 1957.

“He was one of the best athletes I ever played with or against,” said former Gophers athletic director Tom Moe, a teammate of Blakley.

Blakley, who went on to serve in the U.S. Army before playing for teams in three professional leagues, died Oct. 30. He was 79.

“He was a good guy — humble,” said Floyd Smaller. “We were great friends. We always supported each other even though we were always competing against each other.”

Blakley, who great up in the Rondo neighborhood, and Smaller started out together at St. Paul Marshall High School. When Marshall closed in 1953, Blakley went to Central while Smaller went to Mechanic Arts.

“What I remember most was all the time we spent working out and competing,” said Smaller, who coached football at Central from 1976 to 2000. “We’d go to Central’s stadium on Saturday and Sunday mornings and practice the shot put, practice the discus, catching and throwing a football.”

At Central, Blakley led the Minutemen to a state title in track and field and a St. Paul City Conference championship in football. In 1954, Blakley led the Minutemen to a 27-7 victory over Minneapolis Washburn in the Twin Cities Championship game, scoring all of his team’s points on four touchdowns and three extra points. The game was played before 15,500 at Memorial Stadium.

In addition to his athletic accomplishments, Blakley was part of another historic event at St. Paul Central. In October of 1954, Blakley was named St. Paul Central’s homecoming king.

The story was front-page news in Twin Cities newspapers and drew national attention. A picture of Blakley and homecoming queen Janet Berry was published in Jet magazine.

“Our picture was in newspapers around the country; my uncle saw it in California,” Berry told the Star Tribune in 2005. “Looking back, I can say it stunned St. Paul.”

In a front-page story for the Tribune in November 1954, Central Principal William J. Scanlan said: “He’s likable and minds his own business. He conducted himself with dignity and a lot of good sense when he was elected homecoming king.” Scanlan estimated that fewer than 10 percent of Central students were black.

Before joining the Gophers freshman football team in fall 1955, Blakley was captain of the North team in the state high school All-Star football game.

“We consider him one of the finest prospects we have had at Minnesota and have been counting upon him heavily for next year,” Gophers coach Murray Warmath told the Minneapolis Tribune in October 1955.

After playing for the Gophers, Blakley had stints with teams in the Canadian Football League, American Football League and the Continental League.

“We played together on a semipro team in St. Paul,” Smaller said. “He stayed in football for years.”

After his playing career ended, Blakley worked in sales and construction.

Blakley’s son, Robert Jr., was a standout at St. Paul Central and played in the NFL. Both Blakleys still hold a record in a St. Paul City Conference track and field event.

Blakley is survived by his son and daughter-in-law. Services have been held. He was interred at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.