THE BLACK CYCLONE
Charles W. Follis:
The First African American Professional Football Player
Everyone knows the name Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, he ran onto the baseball field and into the history books as the first African American professional baseball player in the modern era. However, hardly anyone knows the name of the man who first broke the color barrier in professional football 43 years earlier, Charles Follis.
While Follis never knew the magnitude of the impact he would have, his legacy is still standing strong and inspiring people today. One hundred and nine years later, on September 13, 2019, the Ohio History Connection unveiled an Ohio Historical Marker recognizing Charles W. Follis as the first African American professional football player. The marker is located just outside the Follis Field football stadium at Wooster High School at 515 Oldman Road in Wooster, Ohio.
The ceremony was attended by many, including representatives from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ohio History Connection.
Follis’ great-grandniece Muriel Edwards and her two sons, Todd and Bradley Edwards, had the honor of unveiling the historical plaque with the help of Wooster High School football team players.
“I was overwhelmed and humbled to be a part of that,” Edwards said. “I felt so honored. It’s hard to explain, but I was proud of the Follis name. I was overjoyed. I also felt sadness for the things my great-grand-uncle endured to get this acknowledgment, but I’m sure he wasn’t feeling that way at the time. He just was a team player. He was gifted. And I felt very blessed to stand there with my sons.”
The two milestones between Jackie Robinson and Follis were bridged by another well-known name – Branch Rickey. This Stockdale, Ohio native was the teammate of Charles Follis when Follis inconspicuously became pro football’s first African American player. Decades later, Rickey, as the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, signed Robinson to a contract, making major headlines across the nation and beyond.
When Follis turned pro, it was with complete obscurity. There was no fanfare. Players getting paid at the time were considered dishonorable, and the team’s conduct was seen as unsportsmanlike. Follis loved to play football, so he just fell in line, put his head down, and continued to carry himself with poise and class, even in the face of bigotry that could turn violent both on and off the field of play.
“He is a wonder,” Branch Rickey once said of Follis. And it is a wonder that this story isn’t widely known or told.
Follis’ parents, J. Henry, and Cathryn, were slaves from Virginia who moved to Wooster, Ohio, after being freed. When Charles Follis was a Wooster High School student, he helped organize and establish the school’s first varsity football team in 1899. He was a popular young man, beloved by his teammates. He was named team captain. As the star halfback, he led the way to an undefeated season.
Coinciding with Follis’ adolescence was the adolescence of professional football.
American football in the late 1880s combined existing sports like rugby. This hybrid of sorts was credited to Walter Chauncey Camp, known now as the “Father of American Football.” Camp invented the line of scrimmage, the system of downs, and other rules and contributions that are the backbone of the game today. He played and coached for Yale teams recognized as national champions in the late 1800s. In Camp’s career, he was a football player, coach, and sports writer.
In 1892, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first known professional football player. The Allegheny Athletic Association paid him $500 to play in a game versus the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Three years later, the Latrobe Athletic Association and Jeannette Athletic Club played the first fully professional football game in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Two years after that, and two years before Follis took the field for Wooster High School, the Latrobe Athletic Club paid the entire team for an entire season, making them the first professional football team.
The first professional football league was launched in 1902. Although it was called the National Football League, it was not the same National Football League (NFL) that was born on August 20, 1920, in Canton, Ohio, under the initial name of the American Professional Football Association (APFA). It changed its name to the National Football League two years later, which has reigned the sport ever since.
Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe was the league’s first president. Jim Thorpe rose to fame during the 1912 Olympics as the first Native American to win a gold medal. He was stripped of his Olympic medals when he was accused of playing semi-professional baseball, violating the Olympics’ amateur rules then. This decision was overturned in 1983, long after his death. Thorpe led the Canton Bulldogs football team to three professional championships as part of the Ohio League, the center of the pro football universe and direct descendent of the modern NFL. Five of the original fourteen NFL teams hailed from Ohio. It is because of the modern sport’s connection to Canton, Ohio, that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located there.
But the years of discrimination experienced by Thorpe and his predecessors, such as Follis, were ugly times.
“I remember my mother talking about him and the verbal abuse he endured, including the N-word,” said Edwards, born and raised in Wooster, Ohio. “When his teammates exited the bus at games in ‘Caucasian country,’ he’d have to stay on it. But his teammates loved him, so he took it in stride. Sometimes he had to stay on the bus, but his teammates brought him food. I was just a kid when my mother told me about his struggles. It floored me. I couldn’t believe people did that. But as I got older, I found out it was true.”
Follis enrolled at the College of Wooster after graduating high school. While a student there in 1901, he played football for the Wooster Athletic Association, an amateur football team. That’s when he was dubbed the “Black Cyclone from Wooster.”
Education was an emphasis of the Follis family. Edward’s mother graduated from Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, in the 1940s and became an English teacher. Her grandfather, Joseph, was Charles Follis’ younger brother. He also attended and worked in the chemistry department at the College of Wooster. Edward’s aunt Florence graduated from the College of Wooster, and her aunt Dot graduated from Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Wilberforce was the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. Their brother Ben drowned in WWII and was also a college graduate.
Always a hard worker, Follis gained employment at a hardware store in rural Shelby, Ohio, in 1902. The owner, Frank Schieffer, was the manager of the Shelby Athletic Association. So, Follis geared up for the Shelby Steamfitters football team for the following two seasons. Turning heads for his play on the field, Follis – nicknamed The Black Cyclone – was offered a contract to play for the Shelby Athletic Club (later becoming the Shelby Blues) in 1904. And it was with this – at the time, non-consequential – the contract that Charles W. Follis would make history, albeit long after the fact, and unbeknownst to him, as the first African American professional football player.
The Shelby Blues played in the Ohio League from 1900 to 1919. When the league became the APFA (later the NFL), the Shelby Blues did not join. However, they still played games against APFA teams.
Branch Rickey was one of Follis’ Shelby teammates. Rickey was a paid player on the team while attending Ohio Wesleyan University, which has always been known for admitting students regardless of religion or race. He befriended Follis during the years that they played together. Follis’ grace under fire and standing stoicism in the face of hate undoubtedly made an impression on Rickey.
However, it was a baseball teammate during that time that Rickey cited in an interview many years later as having helped persuade him that the color barrier in the major leagues could be broken by the right person: a person who could stand strong in the face of overt bigotry, and frightening death threats. That teammate was an African American catcher by the name of Charles Thomas. Thomas endured heckling and racial slurs, even death threats, like Follis. And like Follis, he remained a gentleman. Mental toughness like his made Rickey believe that Jackie Robinson had what it would take to endure years of looking into the eyes of the worst of mankind and not flinch. In doing so, he succeeded in playing the game he loved and in challenging the law of “separate but equal” by integrating major league baseball.
Although Jackie Robinson did this on the world stage, his predecessor, Charles Follis, did much of the same in the early days of pro football, but with no known fanfare.
“I remember one story about a guy in Toledo who stopped the game and said, ‘he is a man – do not call him [the N-word],” said Edwards about her great grand-uncle, Charles Follis. “Fans shouted, ‘Go home [N-word]’ and ‘Why are you here, [N-word].’ The stories passed down were awful to hear but important to know.”
Football was a much more brutal sport in the early 20th Century, so verbal abuse often turned physical on the gridiron. Because Follis was such a talented, game-changing running back, the opposing players intentionally sought to injure him by taking cheap shots during and even after plays. And referees often looked the other way when violent cheap shots targeted certain players like Follis.
Football during that era could be a bloodbath even without bringing in the element of race. Harvard and Yale stopped playing against each other for three years after four players suffered crippling injuries in an infamous 1894 game, “The Hampden Park Bloodbath.” The annual Army vs. Navy game was halted the same year for about the same timeframe for similar brutality. In 1897, a University of Georgia player died on the field. His wasn’t the only death. There were 19 football deaths in 1905, a year after Follis turned pro. One year after that, during a Thanksgiving Day game, Follis’ football career ended with an injury. Five years later, he died of pneumonia in Cleveland, Ohio. He was only 31 years old. And he had no idea of the legacy he left on the game.
He is buried in a family gravesite in Wooster Cemetery with his parents (J. Henry and Catherine Follis) and his brother (Curtis Follis). The headstone is located in section 16, lot 645.
In his honor, the Wooster High School football field is named Follis Field. Inside is another plaque honoring Charles Follis. One of the engravings on it says, “The life he led and the examples he set will long serve as a beacon for those who follow.”
Over 100 years after his death, Edwards looked up at the entryway to the stadium, locked arms with her sons, and whispered, “Oh my Lord, what we had to endure.”
Today, the Charles Follis Trail highlights important locations and milestones in Follis’s life, including his boyhood home, church, family burial plot, and the Wooster High School Football Field that bears his name and where Follis earned the name the “Black Cyclone.”
By Frank Rocco Satullo, the OhioTraveler