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Sun, 11.14.1869

Black contributions to American Professional Football, a brief story

NFL Teams

*Black contributions in professional American football are many.  On this date, we show a lengthy legacy directly reflecting United States society through the NFL.

Pro Football or the National Football League originated in 1869 from a combination of rugby and soccer. During the early years, Blacks were banned from the NFL. The first known Black man 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 Black pro-football player.  Baker played two years as a running back with the Akron Indians.

In 1911, another Black man, 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 Black 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, Joe Lillard 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 Black 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 (Emlen Tunnell) 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 Blacks were among the NFL's top stars. In the late 1980s, Black 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 Black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl win. Although Blacks 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 Black owners and there was 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.

In Management positions, the late Gene Upshaw was one of the few early Blacks to lead the National Football League Player's Association.   Art Shell became the first Black 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. By 1997 there were 103 Black assistants. Today even more assistants are Black and more of those are coordinators, compared to 1997.

In 2018, two years after Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem, and one year after the creation of the NFL-Players Coalition social justice platform, some of the projects and programs all 32 teams have put in place.  The include visiting at-risk schools and community centers and mentoring.

Currently non-white head coaches are down to five  Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers and Brian Flores with the Miami Dolphins.  The Houston Texans hired David Culley in 2021, making the 65-year-old longtime assistant the league's third Black head coach hired. The New York Jets previously hired Robert Saleh, the son of Lebanese immigrants and the first NFL head coach who is known to be Muslim.

Culley and Saleh join Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Miami's Brian Flores and Washington's Ron Rivera as the league's only non-white head coaches. This is down from a record eight, in 2018.  In a sport where about 70% of the players are non-whites, the lack of diversity among the head-coaching ranks sticks out.

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