Charles Follis is a name you may not recognize, but as the first documented black professional football player it is a name we should recognize and pay more attention to. Follis never played in the NFL, the NFL didn't even exist when he made his professional debut in 1902. In fact his status as the first black player in professional football wasn't even accepted as valid until 1975.
Charles Follis' life is an interesting story to say the least. Born on February third of 1879 in Cloverdale, Virginia, hollis was one of six children. Charles had an early exposure to the game of football and organized and captained his schools first ever football team, no small feat in 1899 or even today. Upon garduation Follis attended Wooster University where he played on an amateur football team. It was during a game against a professional team out of Shelby Ohio that Follis was discovered and offered a spot on the team. He accepted and in 1902 moved to Shelby where he was given a job that worked around his football schedule and more importantly secured his place in history.
It wasn't however until 1904 when he actually signed a professional contract that made football his full time job. During 1902-03 he was a member of the team, he did play, but he did so without a contrct that recognized him as a professional. Call me crazy but whether he had a contract or not he was playing on the same field as pro's during professional games and as such I am pleased the Football Hall of Fame historians recognized this after years of taking the contrary stance.
Follis didn't have it easy by any means. No matter how talented he was, no matter how many touchdowns he piled up racism was a fact of life. He was bashed in newspapers in advance of of games in other cities inciting crowds to taunt him. It got particularly ugly in 1905 when the Toledo Newspaper ran a rather harsh (To put it mildly) story about Follis urging people to single him out for their abuse due to his skin color, something they were happy to do, and for the Toledo players "take him out of the game." While reports vary that the Toledo team threatened to forfeit the game if the hometown crowd didn't settle down on thing is certain, he was stood up for by at least one member of the Toledo team. Jack Tattersall, Toledo's team captain, stood on the field and addressed the crowd admonishing them for their treatment of Follis. Part of what Tattersall said was "Don't call Follis a nigger. He is a gentleman and a clean player, please don't call him that!"
Follis played two more seasons after signing his professional contract but left the game in part because of the discrimination he faced. On top of that many teams targeted him for extremely rough questionable tactics on the field which were often ignored by officials. Worth noting is that one of his teammates on those teams was Branch Rickey who played a major role in breaking Major League baseball's color barrier by signing and promoting Jackie Robinson, whether his years with Follis had anything to do with shaping his view of black athletes in professional sports is unknown, but Rickey was cited as calling Follis "a wonder."
Something people forget or just don't know abouut Follis is he was an even better baseball player than football player. He was the starting catcher on Wooster's A.A. team in the Ohio Trolley League which he led to a championship as their leading hitter. He was a great all around player who stole bases at will and even turned two triple plays, but what he was best known as was a power hitter. He even played briefly for a black professional team in Cleveland. Had it not been for the color barrier many said Follis could have not only played in the majors, he could have been a star.
Tragedy followed him everywhere however it would seem. As a torn ligament and outright discrimination drove him away from football, death from pneumonia at the too young age 0f 31 ended his baseball career as well. Tragedy follows him still today as all too often he is a forgotten pioneer and hero who paved the way for black athletes in all sports. It is our tragedy if we fail to recognize him and give him all the credit and adulation he deserved while alive.