Who were the early black professional football players?

As early as 1904, Charles W. Follis (1879–?) became the first black professional football player, for the Blues of Shelby, Ohio. Unlike other major American sports, professional football began as an integrated entertainment. Blacks played alongside whites on the gridiron until 1930; then for fifteen years the sport was all white. In 1945 a handful of black players were recruited, including Woodrow “Woody” Strode (1914–1994) and Kenneth “Kenny” Washington (1918–1971) of the Los Angeles Rams, and Benjamin “Ben” Willis (1921–2007) of the Cleveland Browns. Slowly, the number of black players on football rosters increased as the 1950s progressed. In 1957 Jim (James) Nathaniel Brown (1936–) arrived and became a superstar for the Cleveland Indians, leading the league in rushing for eight of his nine years in football and establishing a new career rushing record. Other blacks who joined the sport had emerged as stars by 1966; these included Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers (1943–) and New York Giants safety Emlen “The Gremlin” Tunnell (1925–1975), who in 1965 became the first black coach in the National Football League. The last NFL team to be integrated was the Washington Redskins; in 1962 the team signed Bobby Mitchell (1935–).

Other black icons include Alan Cedric Page (1945–), with the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears; O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson (1947–) of the Buffalo Bills; Herschel Walker (1962–), with the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings; Walter Jerry Payton (1954–1999), with the Chicago Bears; Doug Lee Williams (1955–) of the Washington Redskins (the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl game); Warren Moon (1956–), quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings; Jerry Lee Rice (1962–), wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers; Barry Sanders (1968–), Detroit Lions star running back; and Marcus Allen (1960–), all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, with the Kansas City Chiefs.


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