Black contributions to American professional football are many

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Sun, 1869-11-14

*African American contributions in professional American football are many. We show a lengthy legacy directly reflecting United States society.

Pro Football or the National Football League originated in 1869 from a combination of rugby and soccer. During the early years, African-Americans were banned from the NFL. The first known African-American to play pro football was Charles Follis, with the Shelby Athletic Club in 1902. When Follis retired from professional football in 1906, he was replaced that same year by Charles "Doc" Baker, the second African-American pro-football player. Baker played two years as a running back with the Akron Indians.

In 1911, another African-American, Henry McDonald, began a six-year career as running back with the Rochester Jeffersons. The beginning of the sport's first governing organization, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), began in 1919, which was replaced three years later by the National Football League. Both leagues signed Black players. Robert "Rube" Marshall played tight end for the Rock Island Independents from 1919 to 1921, and Frederick "Fritz" Pollard had three years of action with the Akron Pros. Pollard became the first African-American professional head coach when he was signed by Akron in 1920. He went on to coach at Milwaukee (1922), Hammond (1923-1924), and again at Akron in 1925-1926.

Other African-Americans who entered professional football throughout the 1920s were Paul Robeson, Jay "Inky" Williams, John Shelbourne, James Turner, Edward "Sol" Butler, Dick Hudson, Harold Bradley, David Myers, and Duke Slater. They all excelled for teams in the APFA and the NFL. In 1933, after 31 years of limited integration, the NFL banned African American athletes from participating in league play. When the NFL was reintegrated in 1946, black players made an immediate impact, leading their teams in rushing, passing, and receiving.

The Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to integrate when they hired Black veterans Kenny Washington and Woody Strode the same year. The New York Giants and the Detroit Lions were the only other NFL teams to welcome black players during the 1940s and more NFL teams recruited black players in the 1950s. Several NFL teams stood out for their racist beliefs, including the Washington Redskins, the last professional football team to integrate, signing Bobby Mitchell in 1962. By the 1970s African-Americans were among the NFL's top stars. In the late 1980s, African American players made gains in positions from which they had been discouraged, particularly as quarterbacks.

Among Blacks to play quarterback in the NFL were Willie Thrower, the first Black quarterback in the league (1953), James Harris, Marlin Brisco, and Doug Williams, the only African American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl win. Although African Americans have excelled on the football field they have not been welcomed in management positions. While 67 percent of all players in the NFL are black, there are no African-American owners and one general manager. Ozzie Newsome became the first Black General Manager of an NFL team in 2002. He runs the front office for the Baltimore Ravens. Floyd Reese is currently in the same position with the New Your Giants who won the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2011 and Houston's Rick Smith is the third.

Art Shell became the first African American head coach in the NFL and the second in professional football history when he was hired by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989. Ten years later, head coach Ray Rhodes and his assistants with the Green Bay Packers became the first all-Black staff in the NFL. Currently African American head coaches are down to three; Jim Calwell, Detroit, Marvin Lewis at Cincinnati and Lovie Smith at Tampa. In 1980, there were 14 Black assistants in the NFL, none of them coordinators. By 1997 there were 103 Black assistants. Today even more assistants are Black and more of those are coordinators, compared to 1997.

The ratio of Black coaches is stagnant at best, NFL style. The late Gene Upshaw was one of the few early Blacks to lead the National Football League Player's Association.

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