Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Black History Month: Pioneering Blacks in professional football
By Jason Lewis (Sports Editor)
Published February 9, 2011

Woodley Lewis

Woodley Lewis played at Manual Arts High School and was the first black player to play in the Cotton Bowl while he was at the University of Oregon.  He later played for the Los Angeles Rams.

Charles Follis, Fritz Pollard, Bobby Marshall, Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, George Taliaferro, Wallace Triplett, Woodley Lewis, and Art Shell paved the way for blacks into the NFL


By Jason Lewis
Sports Editor
[email protected]

Black players make up about 2/3s of the NFL, but at one time, just like in baseball, there were none. 

Professional football followed a similar path as baseball.  Jackie Robinson is credited as the first black Major League player in the modern era of baseball, but he was not the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball.  There were black players in the 1890s, but they were banned from the league, and blacks were not seen in the Major Leagues until Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. 

In professional football, Charles W. Follis, a.k.a. “The Black Cyclone,” was the first black professional football player.  He played for the Shelby Blues of the Ohio League from 1902 to 1906.  In 1904 he signed a contract with Shelby, making him the first black player contracted to play professional football.  Follis also played college baseball at Wooster University. 

In 1899, Follis helped organize the varsity football team for Wooster High School. He served as the team’s halfback and was elected the team’s captain by his white schoolmates.  He then led Wooster to an undefeated season.  

During the 1902 and 1903 seasons, Follis played for Shelby and dominated his opponents on the field.  In 1904 he helped lead the Blues to an 8-1-1 record.


In baseball, Follis was known as a power hitter as he played for the Cuban Giants in the Negro League.

One of Follis’ teammates while playing football for Shelby was Branch Ricky, who went on to become the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and he signed Jackie Robinson.  It is believed that Ricky’s observation of Follis influenced his decision to sign Robinson. 

The NFL was established in 1920, and there were nine blacks playing in the league at that time.  Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard and Robert Wells “Bobby” Marshall were the first two black players in the league. 

Pollard played college football at Brown University.  Marshall played at the University of Minnesota. 

Pollard became the first black head coach in the NFL when he was a player/coach for the Akron Pros in 1921.  After Pollard there was not another black head coach in the NFL for nearly 70 years.  The Los Angeles Raiders hired Art Shell as head coach in 1990.

In 1926 Pollard, and the other nine black players at that time, were removed from the NFL.  Over the next seven years black players here and there would pop up in the league for short periods of time, but by 1933, integration in the NFL was over. 

Many believe it was because of George Preston Marshall, who entered the NFL in 1932.  Marshall openly refused to hire black athletes for his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team and he pressured other owners to follow suit.  After the NFL was integrated the Redskins were the last team to sign a black player. 

There were no black players in the NFL until 1946, when the Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles.  In a contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum, it was stipulated that the team had to be integrated.  So the Rams signed Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, both from UCLA.   

The first black football player drafted into the NFL was George Taliaferro in 1949.  He led Indiana University to their only undefeated Big Ten Conference championship.

After being drafted by the Chicago Bears, Taliaferro decided to play for the Los Angeles Dons in the All American Football Conference for a season before going on to play in the NFL, where he played in three Pro Bowls. 

Wallace “Wally” Triplett was the first black player to be drafted and play for a NFL team.  The University of Miami offered him a scholarship, assuming he was white.  But the then segregated university rescinded the offer when they found out that he was black. 
Triplett instead went to play at Penn State.

Woodley Lewis, who was from Los Angeles and attended Manual Arts High School, played college football at Los Angeles City College and the University of Oregon before the Los Angeles Rams drafted him in 1950. 

Over the next 60 years the league has become predominantly black on the field, and thanks to the work on the Fritz Pollard Alliance, there are more black head coaches and general managers than ever.    

It is interesting the influence that the black Greek system has had on the NFL.  Fritz Pollard, Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, Wally Triplett, and Art Shell are all members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. George Taliaferro is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.

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