Irv Cross, a Pro Bowl defensive back with two N.F.L. teams who later made history as the first Black full-time television analyst for a network television sports show, died on Sunday in a hospice in North Oaks, Minn. He was 81.
The cause was ischemic cardiomyopathy, a heart disease, said his wife, Liz Cross. He also had dementia, which he believed had been caused by concussions he endured in his playing days. He had arranged to donate his brain to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
By 1975, after nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams and four years as a game analyst for CBS Sports, the network hired Mr. Cross to join the cast of its pregame show, “The NFL Today,” beginning a 15-year run as a high-profile commentator. He, Brent Musburger and Phyllis George — and, starting a year later, the betting maven Jimmy Snyder, who was known as the Greek — previewed and analyzed the day’s coming games and gave half-time scores.
The cast was unlike others in N.F.L. television programming, with Mr. Cross in a job that no other Black sports journalist had held before, and Ms. George, a former Miss America, becoming one of the first female sportscasters. With entertaining banter and byplay, the combination of personalities proved extremely popular.
“Irv was a very smart, hardworking, hugely kind person who always had a warmth about him,” Ted Shaker, the former executive producer of CBS Sports, said in a phone interview. “He had built up his credibility as a player and game analyst, and he was our anchor at ‘The NFL Today.’” He added, “Like Phyllis, Irv was a true pioneer.” (Ms. George died in May at 70.)
In 1988, CBS fired Mr. Snyder over widely publicized comments he had made in an interview about the physical differences between Black and white athletes. His comments, Mr. Cross said at the time, “don’t reflect the Jimmy the Greek I know, and I’ve known him for almost 13 years.” (Mr. Snyder died in 1996.)
After CBS fired Mr. Musburger in a contract dispute in 1990, the network overhauled “The NFL Today,” ending Mr. Cross’s long run on the program. He returned to being a game analyst at CBS for two years, but after his contract was not renewed he did not work in network television again.
“I didn’t have an agent, and I didn’t search for a TV position as aggressively as I should have,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “I just quietly faded away.”
His broadcasting work was honored in 2009 when he received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Irvin Acie Cross was born on July 27, 1939, in Hammond, Ind., the eighth of 15 children. His father, Acie, was a steelworker; his mother, Ellee (Williams) Cross, was a homemaker.
Mr. Cross said his father, a heavy drinker, had beaten his mother. “It tears me up,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 2018. “It was frightening. You could tell it was coming. We tried stopping him a few times. We’d jump on his back. It’s absolutely raw for me.”
Ellee Cross died in childbirth when Irv was 10, leaving him to wonder whether the beatings had worsened his mother’s health problems.
After excelling at football at Hammond High School — which earned him a place in its hall of fame — Mr. Cross was a wide receiver and a defensive back at Northwestern University under Coach Ara Parseghian. As a junior, he caught a 78-yard touchdown pass during a 30-24 Northwestern victory over Notre Dame.
“We didn’t have much depth, but Parseghian was great at moving guys around and getting the most of them,” Mr. Cross told a Northwestern online publication in 2018. “His teams beat Notre Dame three straight times from 1958 to 1961.” Mr. Parseghian left Northwestern after the 1963 season to begin a storied run as coach of Notre Dame.
As a senior, Mr. Cross was named Northwestern’s male athlete of the year.
The Eagles chose him in the seventh round of the 1961 N.F.L. draft. He intercepted a career-high five passes in 1962 and played in the Pro Bowl in 1964 and 1965. The Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown once said, “No one in the league tackles harder than Cross.”
After five seasons with the Eagles, Mr. Cross was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1965 and played there for three years. He returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player and a defensive backs coach. After retiring as a player at the end of the season, he continued to coach for one more year.
Mr. Cross began planning for a television career while he was with the Eagles, working as a radio sports commentator and a weekend TV sports anchor in Philadelphia during the off-season. Though tempted by the Dallas Cowboys’ offer of a front office job in 1971, he chose to work for CBS Sports instead.
Joining “The NFL Today” came with a certain amount of pressure. He recalled in the Northwestern interview that in 1975 “the TV landscape was much different, much whiter.”
“I never focused on that,” Mr. Cross said, “but I was keenly aware that if I failed it might be a long time before another Black person got a similar opportunity.”
When the cast of the show was changed in 1990, Greg Gumbel, who is Black, was hired to work alongside the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
After Mr. Cross left CBS he changed course, working as the athletic director at Idaho State University in Pocatello from 1996 to ’98 and at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., from 1999 to 2005.
In addition to his wife, Liz (Tucker) Cross, he is survived by his daughters, Susan, Lisa and Sandra Cross; his son, Matthew; a grandson; his sisters, Joan Motley, Jackie McEntyre Julia Hopson, Pat Grant and Gwen Robinson; and his brothers, Raymond, Teal and Sam. His first marriage ended in divorce. He lived in Roseville, Minn., outside the Twin Cities.
When Mr. Cross played, concussions were usually not taken seriously. He sustained several in his rookie season, enough for his teammates to nickname him Paper Head. One of the concussions knocked him unconscious and sent him to the hospital.
To protect himself, Mr. Cross had a helmet made with extra padding.
“I just tried to keep my head out of the way while making tackles,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018. “But that’s just the way it was. Most of the time, they gave you some smelling salts and you went back in. We didn’t know.”