Charles Follis led early black pioneers in pro football

Although he is recognized today as the first professional football player, William (Pudge) Heffelfinger's pro debut in 1892 wasn't exactly headline news. In fact, his acceptance of $500 to play a single game for the Allegheny Athletic Association wasn't reported — no doubt they didn't know about it — by the local press. Evidence of Heffelfinger's "first" came some 80 years later when Pro Football Hall of Fame officials discovered the AAA's accounting ledger with its notation of payment to the Yale All-America. The now historic document can be seen at the pro football museum in Canton, Ohio, in a display commemorating the birth of professional football.

In the same display is a sampling of early-day pro teams, including one from Shelby, Ohio. While not too unlike the others, the 1902 Shelbyteam photo does have at least one notable difference.


Portrait photo of Charles Follis in his football gear.
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Upon close examination it becomes apparent that one player is slightly offset from the rest. He is seated between and at the end of the first and second rows of the three-row arrangement. Standing rigidly behind the player with his hand firmly placed on his shoulder like a protective father is the team's promoter. This slightly odd arrangement of people in any other photo probably would go unnoticed. However, in this case the Shelby player receiving special treatment is Charles Follis, the first documented African American professional football player.

Like Heffelfinger, Follis's pioneering role was not recognized by sports historians until many years later. Unlike the Heffelfinger debut, however, Follis's professionalism was reported by the local press.

In 1975, researchers John Seaburn and Milt Roberts rediscovered halfback Follis's on-field achievements while leafing through the pages of the Shelby Daily Globe. The goal of the research by Seaburn and Roberts was to locate evidence that Follis had played as a professional. After hours of research, Roberts came across an article in the September 16, 1904, edition that announced Follis had signed a contract for that season.

Although the researchers knew Follis had played for the Shelbyclub beginning in 1902, they were unable to cite proof that the 1902 team was professional. However, recent research by the Hall of Fame does indicate that the 1902 Shelby Athletic Club may indeed have been pro, which would change Follis's "first" by two years.

After Follis, only five blacks appeared in the play-for-pay version of football during the pre-NFL years. The next to emerge was Charles (Doc) Baker.  Baker, who earned his nickname while serving as an aide to an Akron, Ohio, physician, played halfback for the Akron Indians from 1906 until 1908, and a final season in 1911.

The best-known black pro during the pre-NFL years may have been Henry McDonald. A flashy halfback, McDonald began his pro career in 1911 with the Rochester (New York ) Jeffersons.

Born in Haiti in 1890, he came to the United States when he was five after his natural parents agreed to his adoption by an American coconut and banana importer.

After spending his early childhood in Canandaigua, New York, he and his family moved to Rochester. There he became the first black to graduate from Rochester 's East High School. Almost immediately after graduation he began a pro football career that would last until 1917.

During his seven-year career, McDonald recalled only one serious racial incident. The unfortunate episode occurred in 1917, when McDonald and an All-Syracuse team traveled to Ohio to meet the Jim Thorpe-led Canton Bulldogs. The trouble began when Canton's Earle (Greasy) Neale threw McDonald out of bounds and made his feelings concerning the black player quite clear. "Black is black and white is white where I come from and the two don't mix," Neale snapped.

McDonald, an accomplished boxer, stood ready to answer Neale's challenge. Thorpe intervened. "'We're here to play football,' "McDonald recalled Thorpe telling his teammate.  "I never had any trouble after that," he said. "Thorpe's word was law on that field."

The last black to play exclusively during the pre-NFL years was Gideon (Charlie) Smith, a tackle, who played just one game—and only as a late fourth-quarter substitute —for the 1915 Canton Bulldogs, But, he made a game-saving fumble recovery that preserved a 6-0 Canton victory over Massillon for the "state championship."

Finally, though both are better known as the first blacks to compete in the National Football League, Robert (Rube) Marshall, an end with the Rock Island Independents, and Frederick (Fritz) Pollard, a halfback with the Akron Pros, actually began their pro careers in 1919, a year before the birth of the organization that became the NFL.      

Reprinted from the Pro Football Researchers Association Annual by permission of the author.