Bobby Marshall made history in NFL's first game

Marshall and Pollard were the league’s only Black players that year.
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[Bobby Marshall\NFL's First Black Player]
Marshall was 40 years old, a Minneapolis lawyer and the state’s grain commissioner when one of his part-time gigs as a three-sport legend in football, baseball and hockey led him to becoming the first person of color to play a game in the American Professional Football Association, which was later renamed the National Football League.
Photo: Twitter

Bobby Marshall, the first Black player in the NFL, grew up in Minneapolis.

Odds are Bobby Marshall is the greatest football player, the most distinguished Minnesotan and the most multifaceted Black pioneer you’ve never heard of.

As the first full century of NFL games officially faded into the history books this past week, today’s players look forward to a future in which their voices can impact social justice. But it’s also important, leaders say, to look back and honor the backs upon which today’s opportunities were built.

“It’s amazing to me what those guys went through to give us the opportunities we have today,” said Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, a 60-year-old Black man. “I don’t know if I could have done it.”

Born the grandson of Virginia slaves on March 12, 1880, Marshall was 40 years old, a Minneapolis lawyer and the state’s grain commissioner when one of his part-time gigs as a three-sport legend in football, baseball and hockey led him to becoming the first person of color to play a game in the American Professional Football Association, which was later renamed the National Football League.

On Sept. 26, 1920, two weeks before Pro Football Hall of Famer and celebrated Black pioneer Fritz Pollard made his debut with the Akron Pros, the 6-2, 195-pound Marshall hopped a southbound train and played both ways at end as his Rock Island (Ill.) Independents blanked the visiting St. Paul Ideals, an independent pro team, 48-0 in the first game played in league history. On Oct. 3, Marshall’s Independents beat the Muncie Flyers 45-0 in one of the first two games between APFA teams.

Marshall and Pollard were the league’s only Black players that year. Eleven more would play between 1921 and 1933 before an unwritten rule among owners — veiled as a “gentleman’s agreement” — kept Black players out of the league until 1946.

“I give all those guys equal credit because 1920 was a time when racial unrest in this country was worse than it is today,” said Joe Horrigan, retired Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director and the foremost historian of the game.

The country was a tinderbox of tension as it recovered from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the end of World War I. Black workers were migrating from the South in search of better jobs and more racial equality for their contributions to the war efforts. And Black men were being lynched, including three in Duluth on June 15, 1920.

Marshall and Pollard became targets of racism from fans and opposing teams. Pollard would dress in the Akron owner’s nearby cigar store and often be driven by car to midfield moments before kickoff to avoid bottles being thrown at him.

“On the field, Fritz once told me that his trick was to roll over onto his back as soon as he was tackled,” Horrigan said. “That way his cleats were pointing up and he could literally kick guys away as they were coming to pile on.”

Fighting ignorance

Marshall was born in Milwaukee, the son of Richard, a Black man working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Symanthia Gillespie, a Black woman of German-Jewish heritage whose father, Ezekiel, was a former slave who became a civil rights pioneer and won a landmark court case securing voting rights in Wisconsin. The family moved to Minneapolis, where Bobby was a multisport athlete at Central High School, graduating in 1901.

Marshall was the first Black athlete at the University of Minnesota, playing multiple sports and becoming one of the greatest football players in school history. He made the College Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1971. In 1999, the Star Tribune ranked him 51st in its Top 100 most influential Minnesotans — and the state’s 10th-greatest football player — of the 20th century.

Marshall also is believed to be the first Black person to:

• Graduate from Minnesota’s law school.

• Be appointed to the state grain department, where he worked for 39 years.

• Play professional hockey, his favorite sport, in the U.S. when he signed with an independent team in Pennsylvania. • Serve as an assistant coach for Gophers football and the Western Conference, which became the Big Ten.

Yet because he was Black and Jewish, Marshall couldn’t live in the dorms on campus.

Because he was Black, an opposing team from New Prague ordered him to leave the field before a local club pro game in 1907. New Prague wasn’t going to play unless Marshall left. Marshall refused and the game was played.

And because he was Black, Marshall was attacked by two Ironwood, Mich., players while playing for a club team from Hibbing in 1923.

“It happened right in the middle of the game,” said Terry McConnell, whose book “Breaking Through the Line: The NFL’s First African-American, Minnesota’s Bobby Marshall” is due out next spring.

“Marshall, of course, was able to defend himself rather easily. He was a boxer, a wrestler, a phenomenal athlete.”

Marshall was known for a calm, thoughtful demeanor. He wasn’t easily ruffled. Not even on the day as a Gophers assistant when he saw how popular the Ku Klux Klan had become in Minnesota.

“The KKK had a float in the homecoming parade one year,” said Bill Marshall, one of Bobby’s 11 grandchildren. “But my grandfather always carried himself as a complete gentleman. He stressed education first. His general attitude was people respected you if you were educated.

“The racists, in his opinion, were unbelievably stupid. And since he made probably more money than 85 to 90 percent of the white people in this country at the time, who were they?”

Marshall died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1958. He was 78.

Read rest of story here.

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