Young Charley Conerly, his back pressed not too far from his own goal line, took the ball from center and fled backward in apparent disorder. Licking their chops in bloodthirsty eagerness, the Bears swarmed in on him. The cool kid from Mississippi waited until they were about to hammer him into the turf and wheeled quickly to his left. He threw. Out by the left sideline lurked Gene Roberts, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and the engine was all stoked up. Conerly’s pass shot into Roberts’s arms on the 15-yard line. It seemed as though every Giant in the park was in front of him, mopping up any stray Bears they could find as Choo Choo chugged 85 yards to the winning touchdown.
Gene Roberts had a short but spectacular career with the Giants, in which he set several records that would stand for decades. Roberts was a speedy back from Kansas who could run the 100 in 9.8 seconds. He was drafted in the eighth round of the 1946 draft, but he stayed at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (hence, the “Choo Choo” nickname) for another season, in which he scored 18 touchdowns in 10 games.
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Roberts’s third and greatest year in New York was 1949. He finished fourth in the NFL in rushing, with 634 yards; fourth in receiving yards, with 711; first in touchdowns, with 17; and first in points, with 102. He became the first back to have two games of more than 200 yards receiving. He also had two games in which he gained more than 100 yards rushing; the Giants went 4-0 in those four games but 2-6 the rest of the year.
Choo Choo was a home-run hitter who had touchdown runs of 62 and 63 yards and touchdown catches of 49, 68, and 85 yards. In 1950, he set the NFL single-game rushing mark with 218 yards against the Cardinals, in a game in which Steve Owen brought back his old A-formation.
Roberts announced he was retiring to his Brazilian ranch in April 1951. He was traded to the Packers on July 23 of that year, but he signed with Montreal of the Canadian Football League the following day.
He spent four seasons in Canada, leading the CFL in scoring in 1953.
His Giants records have been slowly erased over the years: Del Shofner had 269 receiving yards in a 1962 game; Joe Morris scored 21 touchdowns in 1985; and Tiki Barber had games of 220 and 234 yards rushing in 2005 and 2006. However, Choo Choo should be remembered as the pass-catching halfback prototype that Gifford and Barber followed.