Sometimes things just get lost in history and such was the case for Wooster, Ohio resident Charles Follis, who was the first black professional football player in America.
In the first part of the last century, the game of football was born in Ohio. During the early years of the Ohio Football League, small towns across Ohio–Fremont, Upper Sandusky, Shelby, Massillon and others–slugged it out on Sunday afternoons, for bragging rights only! Volunteer players–rolling around in mud, punching, kicking and sometimes biting each other for the fun of it–popularized the game. So much so that by 1902 dominant teams like the Shelby Blues began paying their players.
In 1901, Coach Frank Schiffer took his team from Shelby to play the Wooster Athletic Association. While Shelby was by far the dominant team, Charles Follis was Wooster’s star player and his talents even earned him the nickname the “Black Cyclone.”
Despite being the dominant team, Shelby only won 8-0 even though they were accustomed to winning by 20+ points! Schiffer was so impressed by Follis’s skill, he decided he’d rather have Follis play with his team, and immediately offered him $10.00 a game to move to Shelby, a “Sundown Town,” and play for his Shelby Blues.
Schiffer was smart enough to also “grease the skids” a little by bringing a young graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University to the Blues, a man who had consistently welcomed men of color onto sports teams while at OWU. This helped considerably, and he and Follis became fast friends while they won games and changed racist attitudes, at least for a time, in Shelby.
(Charles Follis is seated in the second row of this Shelby Athletic Club team photo)
This occurred at a time in history when football was extremely dangerous–16 people died each year playing the sport in Ohio (1902-1906). President Teddy Roosevelt, if not for some critical changes in the game, threatened to ban football altogether. Due to injury, Follis left football and Shelby in 1902 to play baseball in The Negro Leagues of Baseball, barnstorming for the superstar “Cuban Giants.” Sadly, his career ended sooner than expected with his sudden death in 1910 of pneumonia. He was only 31.
But his legacy didn’t end there. A close friend, never forgetting Follis, would go on to play in Major League Baseball and ultimately owned The Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1947, this man, Branch Rickey, recalling the “ability, talent and character of Charles Follis,” sought out a player like him and signed Jackie Robinson to his Major League Baseball Club, finally integrating “America’s Game” and changing sports and the country forever.
How did this story get lost? Football was a rogue outfit in the early days, mostly run by ruffians who were concerned more with the game and less with record-keeping. Football was not “organized” until 1920, and by then racist attitudes had once again limited African Americans in the sport.
When World War II broke out, the league kept even fewer official records. African American athletes started trickling into football once it gained a popular foothold in America in the 50’s, but none could say they were the first contracted black player. Now we know, through a contract archived in Canton, that Charles Follis, born of former slaves in Cloverdale, Virginia and raised in Wooster, Ohio, was, in fact, the first paid professional football player.
Ohio steps out yet again as a leader in desegregation. Things happen for a reason, and to quote Archie Griffin, “So if it hadn’t been for Charles Follis, we would likely have not had Jackie Robinson for decades.” Charles is no longer lost, and is receiving his due reward through the designation of February 3, 2019 as Charles Follis Day here in Ohio. Welcome back to the pages of Ohio history.
Jim Stoner is a Football Historian who has penned the play, and now screenplay, “The Black Cyclone.” You can learn more about this project at www.blackcyclone.org.