Since February is Black History Month, I decided to take a trip back through the ages and spotlight black athletes who helped lay the groundwork for many of today’s African-American athletes to succeed. So sit back and take a trip through sports history.
Lots of blacks are in the NFL today, but if you could go back to the 1940s, there were hardly any because the NFL wasn’t officially integrated until 1946. But the following black athletes brought changes to the pro football league.
Charlie Follis: Follis, also known as The Black Cyclone, is believed to be the first black player to play in professional football. Follis played for the Shelby Blues (located in Shelby, Ohio) from 1902-1906. The Blues were part of the Ohio League. Information about Follis is hard to come by, but I also learned that Follis played for the College of Wooster.
Jim Brown: Brown played nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns (1957-65). The running back was the first black to be an NFL rushing champion (8 times) and be named to the first all-pro team (8 times). He also was the first black running back to be named to the Pro Bowl, and he was chosen every year of his career. Brown is a true legend – not just in the NFL, but for black athletes in all sports because he was the first major black athlete in a major sport.
Doug Williams: Williams was the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl (also the first to play in one), and he was the first black named Super Bowl MVP. Williams won Super Bowl XXII with the Washington Redskins in 1988, beating the Denver Broncos 42-10. Williams also was the first black football player to go back and coach his former college (Grambling State University). Besides coaching for Grambling (where he still coaches today), Williams has also coached for Navy (running backs coach), the Scottish Claymores (offensive coordinator), Jacksonville Jaguars (scout) and Morehouse College (head coach). In addition to playing for the Redskins in the NFL, Williams played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his NFL career, he completed 1,240 passes out of 2,507 attempts, for a completion rate of 49.5 percent. Williams also threw 100 touchdowns compared to 93 interceptions. His total in passing yards was 16,998, and his average quarterback rating was 69.4. Williams also had a stint with the Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws (USFL) from 1984-1985.
Tony Dungy: A lot of people know Dungy was probably one of the best coaches in the NFL, but he was also a pretty good player, both in college and the pros. Dungy was a starting quarterback at the University of Minnesota, but he went undrafted in the 1976 draft and was later signed as a free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a defensive back with the Steelers, Dungy won the 1978 Super Bowl. After his playing career, Dungy turned to coaching, and he took supporting roles with many different teams, including the University of Minnesota, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings. Dungy finally broke through and got his first head coaching job as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer in 1996, after Dungy’s impressive stint with the Buccaneers, the Indianapolis Colts were the first team to jump on him. Dungy retired in 2009 with a head coaching record of 139-69. Before he retired, though, Dungy also put his name in the history books for being the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl (2006). Another part about that game that was historic was that both head coaches in the game were African Americans. (Lovie Smith was the coach for the Chicago Bears). So in case you lost track, Dungy won two Super Bowls – one as a player and another as a coach.
Sure, a lot of talented blacks have played NFL football, but these four stand out to me as among the most notable.
Although both the American Basketball League and the National Basketball League were officially integrated in 1950, the NBA had a lot more black players than the ABA did. The two leagues merged in 1976 to form today’s NBA. The following black players really made integration happen for today’s basketball players.
Wilton Norman Chamberlain: Chamberlain was and still is one of the best basketball players ever. Since he was 6 foot 11 in high school, he felt pressured to play basketball and became a center for his team. More than 200 colleges sought to bring Chamberlain onto their campuses, and he narrowed it down to three: UCLA, where Chamberlain could become a movie star; the University of Pennsylvania, where they wanted to buy him diamonds; or the University of Kansas, where he’d be guaranteed a starting position. Chamberlain ended up choosing Kansas, and he played there for three years as a Jayhawk. After college, Chamberlain went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for only one year before moving to the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors (1959-1965), Philadelphia 76ers (1965-1968) and the Los Angeles Lakers (1968-1973). Chamberlain set a record in the NBA that will never be broken and that was the game on March 2, 1962, in which he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. (The final score was Philadelphia 169,New York 147.) And that is why Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain will always be the best player in NBA history.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson: Johnson was a successful player with the Los Angeles Lakers. But before that, Johnson was a great point guard/forward at Michigan State University (1977-1979) and led that team to a national championship in 1979. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft and was selected by the Lakers. With the Lakers, Johnson won five NBA Championships and was a three-time NBA Championship MVP. In addition, he earned three NBA MVP awards, was an NBA All-Star 12 times, and was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All Time Team. Before the start of the 1991-1992 season, Johnson found out that he had HIV. About a quarter of the way through the season, he said in a news conference that he would retire immediately. Johnson went on to play for the 1992 Olympic basketball team and to write a book promoting safe sex. He’s a successful businessman today.
Michael Jordan: When people think of basketball and the NBA, they think about Jordan – and they should, because Jordan has done so much to make the league what it is today. Jordan certainly wasn’t the first African American to play the game, but he was the first to do so and make fans out of nearly everyone in the country. In 1984, Jordan made his professional debut in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls as they started a long period of dominance in the league. He retired in 1998, but came out of retirement to join the Washington Wizards for 2001-2003. Jordan was a six-time NBA champion, a six-time NBA Finals MVP, a five-time NBA MVP, a 14-time All-Star, a 10-time scoring champion, a 10-time member of the NBA first team, and a nine-time member of the NBA all-defensive first team. Even though MJ has been gone from the league for almost a decade, he still is in the talk around the NBA today. There’s always something about him on Sports Center, and one of his games is always being rerun on some sports channel. He’s also part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Yes, I haven’t forgotten that Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dewayne Wade, Carmello Anthony and Chris Paul are good players in the NBA, but they haven’t yet had the profound impact of the players I singled out.
Major League Baseball
Of all the major sports, baseball went through perhaps the most painful integration of blacks. And if I could only pick only one person to name as a trailblazer, it would have to be Jackie Robinson.
Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson: Yes, the real Mr. October will always be the king of baseball. Robinson was the first black to integrate into the MLB. Robinson did play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League in 1945 and the Montreal Royals in 1946. Then Robinson broke the color barrier and got into the MLB, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956. Robinson endured a lot of discrimination and harassment, but he persevered and earned a place in the MLB Hall of Fame. But he didn’t get there just for being the first black player. Robinson had a .311 career batting average (in the MLB), along with 1,158 hits, 137 homeruns, 734 runs batted in (RBI), and 197 stolen bases. Robinson got into the HOF on his first year of eligibility in 1962 by taking the votes in a landslide (77.5 percent of all votes went to Robinson). Robinson is in the final resting place of all baseball stars, Cooperstown, New York.
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron: The real homerun leader, Hank Aaron was and will always be the greatest baseball player in the world. Even though he is officially second in homeruns, Aaron is really and truly the homerun king since he didn’t use steroids to accomplish the feat like Barry Bonds did. Aaron started his career in the Negro League, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, then he made it to the majors, first with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1954-1974) and then for the Milwaukee Brewers (1975-1976). Aaron played his entire career as a right fielder. He was a 25-time All-Star, a three-time Golden Glove winner, a two-time winner of the National League Batting title, a four- time homerun champion, and the 1957 MVP. Aaron’s stats are legendary, including a .305 lifetime batting average, 755 homeruns, 3,771 career hits, 2,297 RBIs, 6,856 total bases, 1,477 extra-base hits, and finally 17 consecutive seasons with 150 or more hits.
All other sports
There are lots more sports around the world, and African Americans have affected all of them. Here’s a quick list of some big players who have affected their sports in positive ways.
J.R. Todd: Driver of the Skull Shine Top Fuel Dragster; won six career events in eight final round appearances.
Bill Lester: First black driver to race in any three of NASCAR’s classes. Lester never tasted victory, but he did capture seven top 10 finishes and three poles in the Camping World Truck Series.
Antron Brown: NHRA Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcyclist who has won in both classes (16 total wins in both categories).
James “Bubba” Stewart: AMA racer who has won five World Finals, two Regional Finals and five National Finals.
Lewis Hamilton: A Formula 1 driver, Hamilton has 17 wins, a championship (2008), 42 podiums (finishing in the top 3) and 19 career poles.
Arthur Ashe: The first African American player to win the men’s singles at each of three huge tournaments: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. Ashe went 818–260 in singles competition and 323–176 in doubles.
Serena Williams: Williams has won many tournaments in her career. She is 39-14 in singles, 20-1 in doubles and 2-2 in mixed doubles.
Venus Williams: Serena’s sister, Venus has also had her share fair of tennis success. Venus is 43-27 in singles competition, 19-1 in doubles, and 2-1 in mixed doubles.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (aka “Muhammad Ali”): In 61 fights, Ali went 56-5, with 37 wins by knockout. He won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and was involved in the three biggest boxing matches in history: The Fight of the Century (Ali lost to Joe Frazier), The Rumble in the Jungle (Ali beat George Foreman) and The Thrilla in Manila (Ali defeated Frazier).
“Smokin’ ” Joe Frazier: In 37 fights, Frazier went 32-4-1, with 27 wins by knockout. Like Ali, Frazier won gold at the Olympics, but Frazier won at the 1964 Tokyo Games. In addition to the aforementioned fights with Ali, Frazier also fought in the The Sunshine Showdown (Foreman beat him).
George Foreman: Yes, this is the guy whose name is on your kitchen grill. But before he turned to making life easier in the kitchen, Foreman was a great boxer. In 81 fights, Forman went 76-5, with 68 wins by knockout.