Dora Dobbins’ husband, John, is one of the most important figures in the history of Virginia Tech football.
He was a groundbreaking pioneer, a pioneer – the first African-American scholarship football player at the school. The Radford native dominated at Radford High and then decided to play for Jerry Claiborne in the early 1970s just two years after Jerry Gaines broke the school’s athletic color barrier by becoming the first African-American scholarship athlete (track and field) at Tech.
John Dobbins arrived at Tech in the fall of 1969. In fact, he and his high school teammate, Tommy Edwards, a white running back and defensive back, signed to play for the school live on Claiborne’s coaches TV show.
Dobbins had grown up a Virginia Tech fan even though the team had no African-American players and few African-Americans attended the school. He knew all about the Gobblers, as they were called then, having attended games in the late 1960s with his coaches.
According to his family, Dobbins enjoyed his experiences at Virginia Tech. Occasionally, he heard racist comments from the fans of opposing teams during the Gobblers’ road games, but in Blacksburg, he liked the fans, and he loved his teammates. He and former quarterback Don Strock roomed together until John and Dora married during John’s junior season. A group of them became closely knit, woven together by a love for the team and the school that transcended skin color.
“I would cook because we had an apartment,” Dora Dobbins said. “They would come over and eat, and we would have parties. We were a pretty close group: Don, Dave [Strock], Bobby Dabbs, just a bunch of different football players. They would come over. He had a good experience with those guys. We had fun with those guys.”
“Being in sports and being on the field – and I do remember him saying that – that was like their space where everything was equal,” said Deitra Dobbins, John’s daughter. “Now, outside of it, it was different, but I think that’s why he enjoyed playing sports and did it so much because everyone was on an equal playing field then. You had to prove yourself to be on the field, and that’s why I think it was a good experience for him because he did what he loved to do – play football.”
Dobbins lettered all three seasons of his career – the NCAA prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity team in those days – and he finished with 705 yards rushing and three touchdowns. He accumulated 1,261 all-purpose yards in those three seasons.
In late September, Virginia Tech Athletics launched a #LOVE initiative as a way to do its part in helping to eliminate racism and discrimination that came to the nation’s collective forefront this summer and early fall. The initiative focuses on love as the conqueror of all other emotions and as the choice for all those who represent Virginia Tech Athletics.
According to his family, John Dobbins would approve. “I think he would be for the peaceful protests, but all this other stuff going on, I don’t think he would have wanted any part of it,” Dora Dobbins said.
Her daughter agreed.
“I think he would be all for the protesting, but not the violence of it,” she said. “You’re trying to make a change, and you’re passionate about this is the right thing to do. He was all about doing something that he loved, so I think he would be for the protests right now. I think he would be all for the young people doing what they need to do to get their voices heard, but not the violence and all that.”
Dobbins passed away from a heart attack in 2003 at the Volvo plant in Dublin where he worked as a supervisor. He was a pioneer there, too, as the first African-American supervisor.
His death had such an impact through the New River Valley that the family stood in line for more than three hours at the funeral home, greeting people from Radford, Virginia Tech and Volvo who all came to pay their respects and share in the family’s mourning. Workers drove Volvo trucks to the funeral the next day and led the procession.
His impact still lives. Radford High School inducted him into its Hall of Fame, and city officials there named a downtown park after him. In 2014, Virginia Tech Athletics recognized him and his family during a football halftime ceremony.
Dora Dobbins still remains a fixture in the community, especially as a volunteer at her local church. She plans on retiring in July after spending 50 years with Federal Mogul, a local company. Her son works locally, too, and Deitra fittingly works for Volvo Trucks in Greensboro, N.C.