Breaking Pro Football's Color Line: The Story of Charles W. Follis
The name, Charles W. Follis (pictured center, holding football), may not ring any bells upon mention, but his place in sports history should be stated: He was the first black professional football player.
Born Feb. 3, 1879 in Cloverdale, VA, Follis' parents moved to the City of Wooster, OH when he was a young boy.
He would take an early interest in the game of football and played a primary role in organizing his Wooster High School's first varsity football team in 1899 while he was just a junior.
Serving, that season, as both his team's starting halfback and its captain, Follis led the team to a perfect season as they were neither beaten nor scored upon in their debut.
Follis was recognized at that time for his great power and speed; breaking through defensive lines with ease and shedding tacklers like loose clothing.
Standing at 6'0" feet and weighing 200 pounds, Follis was often bigger than his opponents, which gave him quite the advantage as a ball carrier—he simply ran over people.
Playing the game came with ease and he enjoyed it mightily.
After graduation, in 1901, he entered Wooster College in 1901. He chose to play football for the Wooster Athletic Association (WAA), rather than his college squad—it is there that he would earn the nickname "The Black Cyclone."
Frank C. Schieffer was the manager of the Shelby A.A. team of Shelby, OH—they were the reigning champs of the Northern Ohio region. Hollis would catch the attention of Schieffer during a narrow 5-0 win by the Shelby Club—it was a game that featured Hollis not only as a devastating runner on offense but as a solid tackler on defense as well.
Schieffer, in an interview with the Wooster Republican is quoted as saying he "wanted Follis playing with his team, not against them."
Following that interview, Schieffer approached Hollis with the idea of playing for his club in Shelby. Hollis agreed and Schieffer took it upon himself to secure employment for Hollis so that he could move to be near the team.
During the 1902 and 1903 seasons, Follis played for Schieffer and continued to dominate his opponents on the field.
In one of the team's many convincing wins, Follis broke away for a 60-yard touchdown, in route to a 58-0 win over Fremont—in that game, he gave new meaning to the term "3-yards and a pile of dust" as he left all his defenders falling down behind him.
His play earned him the admiration and respect of not only the locals in Shelby, OH, but of his Shelby teammates as well. Unfortunately, Follis was not as respected in other places.
On many occasions he found himself at the pointy end of ignorance—both on and off the playing field.
Teammates recalled games where Follis was the target of excessively rough play. Opposing teams would single him out and try their best to make his life miserable—taking extra hits after he was down, kicking, and being generally unsportsmanlike during the games.
The referee would sometimes call the fouls, but so many of the offenses took place after the whistle was blown and out of the view of the referee that it was hard to know what was happening.
Fans were even harsher; in one notable game against Toledo in 1905, the crowd was screaming racial epithets at Follis in such a harsh manner that the team captain of Toledo interceded and asked the crowd to stop—stating Follis was "a gentleman and a clean player" and did not deserve such disrespect; the crowd didn't bother Follis any further after that.
Despite the vitriol, however, Follis never stooped to the level of ignorance of many of his counterparts. He chose, instead, to focus on his play and the overall genuine respect and praise he received from those who admired him for his courage and his talents.
Follis signed a contract with Shelby in 1904 and his exceptional play was paramount to their attaining a stellar 8-1-1 record—their only loss coming to the eventual league champions.
He continued to play well through the '05 season but by 1906 when the, up to that point half professional, Shelby team became the fully professional Shelby Blues, Follis had begun to show signs of wearing down.
At the beginning of the the '06 season, he missed a number of games early due to injury and, though he would return later, he was no longer the dominant player that people had come to admire.
By the time he suffered his final football playing injury, on Thanksgiving Day in 1906, he as well as everyone else knew it was over—Follis had left the field for good.
Follis never played football again but he did play baseball. He excelled at that just as he had at football—making a solid name for himself as a top flight catcher for the Cuban Giants. He was as good a defensive player as he was an offensive one.
Many feel that had he been able, he could have been a great player in the major leagues.
Follis had garnered the respect of both football and baseball aficionados alike and his impact would not be understood for many years after his death from pneumonia at the young age of 31.
However, he did leave a mark. One that not even he could have ever thought possible.
One of Follis' biggest fans was a teammate of his from the Shelby A.A. team—he admired the poise and class with which Follis handled the pressure of being the only black player on the team.
It showed him that the character of a man is so much more important than the color of his skin. That players name was future Dodger's executive Branch Rickey.
Rickey was not only Follis' teammate in football but, years earlier, he found himself in competition with Follis for the state's top catching honors—Rickey knew Follis well and had always thought he was "a wonder." He never forgot him even after they went their separate ways.
It is often thought that Follis' poise and class under the pressures of such racial tension, as well as his exceptional play in spite of it, is what could have inspired Rickey to make a groundbreaking move of his own some 40-years later by signing Jackie Robinson.
Today, as a number of young, black pro players put on their pads and run out onto pro fields to hoards of cheering fans, they are not likely to know who Charles W. Follis was—he is nothing more than a deep footnote in sporting history; likely only to be remembered by Ohio football historians and Shelby locals.
He never played on the NFL. He never got his shot at major league baseball. He didn't attend a big-time college or earn numerous trophies for his remarkable talents.
No. He was just a man who loved to play the game and, in his mind, he just happened to be black.
It was never for the individual glory. It was for the team. Accolades were nice but the satisfaction of winning was always primary for Follis.
No, Follis won't likely ever appear on a commemorative coin or show up as an ovaled number attached to a pro player's jersey.
He was just a man who played the game with a lot of heart who happened to be exceptional at doing so—praise and accolades were never necessary; just a field and a football.
It's an attitude that, no matter your skin color, is hard not to applaud.
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