Most Americans are familiar with the historic career of Jackie Robinson. He is one of baseball’s most famous players, and a man who helped change the trajectory of professional sports forever.
Fewer of us are familiar with the man who broke the racial barrier in professional football.
Meet America’s first professional black football player, Charles Follis.
Charles Follis was born February 3, 1879 in Cloverdale, Virginia. His family eventually moved to Wooster, Ohio where Follis helped establish the first varsity football team as a student at Wooster High School. He became the team captain and led the squad to zero-loss season in their first year.
In 1901, Follis joined Wooster’s amateur football team – the Wooster Athletics association. At six-foot and two hundred pounds he was a force to be reckoned with. He became known as the “Black Cyclone from Wooster.”
He was “discovered” when his team played the Shelby Blues. Team manager Frank C. Schiffer was so impressed with what he saw from Follis, he brought the young star to play for Shelby. Although playing football didn’t pay at the time, at least not for Follis, Schiffer secured a job for him at a local hardware store. Follis worked and played football there for two seasons.
Historical records indicate he signed an actual contract with the Shelby blues in 1904, making him the first black professional football player in American history. In an interesting twist of fate, one of Follis’ Shelby teammates was Branch Rickey. Rickey would eventually become the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and is the man who signed Jackie Robinson to his first Major League Baseball contract in 1947.
Unsurprisingly, Follis faced great discrimination during his days as a professional football player. Fans would taunt him, shouting racial slurs. At one game against Toledo the abuse from the audience became so intolerable the captain of the Toledo team paused the game to chastise the audience and demand they stop. Follis was often unable to celebrate with his teammates in local establishments. One newspaper reported an incident in which the ground-breaking athlete was denied entry into a Shelby bar when he attempted to join the rest of his team for a meal.
Still, Follis endured and played the game until an injury ended his career in 1906. Afterwards, he went on to play baseball in the Negro leagues for the Cuban Giants. Unfortunately, his baseball career did not last very long.
Charles Follis died of pneumonia in 1910. He was 31-years-old. He is buried in the Wooster Cemetery in Wooster, Ohio.
Follis’ story was almost lost to the changing tides of history. In 1975, a group of historical researchers found records of Follis’ achievements while reviewing old editions of the Shelby Daily Globe. It was in that paper they discovered news of Follis’ professional sports contract, making the accomplished half-back a permanent part of American history.
These days we take the integration of professional sports for granted. We can only do that now because of the determination and professionalism of men like Charles Follis, who fought the odds and an often hostile audience to play the sports he loved – sports that have become the lifeblood of American pride and entertainment.
Follis seems like an exemplary subject for our series, so close to Super Bowl Sunday. RedState is proud to celebrate Charles Follis this Black History Month.
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