By Coach Earl H. Smith, Jr., Gary Crusader
Over 500 guests came out to honor nine individuals who were inducted into the Indiana Region One, Indiana Football Hall of Fame on May 7. Gary native Robert Stearnes was the only African American among the distinguished inductees at the Avalon Manor Banquet Hall in Merrillville, Indiana.
From the welcome address to the closing remarks it was a night to remember the great achievements of Indiana athletes before, during and after their remarkable sports careers. The inductees were Rick Fulton, Raymond Hays, Jr., Michel C. Leland, MD, Tom Largus, Steve Letnich, David Mttix, Mark Ribordy, Robert Stearnes and Robert “Bob”Strieter.
Robert “Bob” Stearnes was escorted by his high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, Bennetta. One of his closest friends Earl H. Smith, Jr. introduced him while Fred Mitchell presented him with the award. He joins two of his closest friends, who were his teammates and classmates —Claude Taliaferro, inducted in 2009; and Earl Smith, Jr., inducted in 2007.
Stearnes, who was born in Gary in 1932, attended Roosevelt High School, where he was awarded 12 Varsity Letters for 3 different sports. In 1950-51 during his senior year in high school he was the first Black to be chosen for the First Team All State Quarterback for the State of Indiana. Selected from a panel of 60 coaches, sportswriters and sportscasters who were asked to recommend players for an all-state team. Stearnes led the team through a winning season with the exception of one tie match.
After graduation in 1951 Bob accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. He was one of the few players to have four years of competitive play, ranking second in rushing with 24 years for a 2.5 average. Stearnes returned to Gary, Indiana to teach briefly after his graduation in 1955. Although he was drafted in the U.S. Army in 1956, he was still a valuable player in football at Fort Ord in California and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
In June of 1956, he married Bennetta and after Bob’s service in the Army they moved to Gary, Indiana where he continue his teaching and coaching career.
Although Gary’s High Schools opened their doors for many African Americans returning to Gary after college to pursue teaching careers in the 60s, opportunities were limited when it came to head coaching positions. Stearnes became a trailblazer in Gary’s athletic history when he became the first Black head football coach in a Gary high school, other than Gary Roosevelt, when he was appointed head football coach at Gary Tolleston.
In 1970, Stearnes relocated his family to DeKalb, IL to accept an administrative position with Northern Illinois University. Although not a coach, Stearnes maintained professional sports relationships with athlete students and coaches, which enabled him to create opportunities for NIU and the students. East Chicago’s Jim Bradley, who became one of the greatest players of his time, declined several offers opting instead to attend NIU because of Stearnes’ influence.
During the 1980s Stearnes pursued other business interests including owning and operating a restaurant, some of which were successful. He retired in 1990.