"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In honor of Martin Luther King day, it seems only fitting that we pay homage to some of the greatest sports pioneers of our time--men who dared to reach for something beyond what the bigotry and isolation of their day seemed offered them. I have often criticized the ESPN-fueled "healing power of sports," most notably in the form of the carefully packaged and marketed "Boston Strong" mantra that the Mickey Mouse sports echo chamber couldn't seem to let die. That brand of manufactured emotion and ad-selling swill deserves every last ounce of ridicule. There is, however, great dignity in having the courage to walk into an arena where the mere act of competing invites hatred, ridicule, and threats. Men of sport, like gladiators in a bygone era, are the vicarious representatives of a school, a city, a state, and a nation. They fight our battles and settle our scores in a civilized society. Here, we take moment to recognize those gentlemen who sought nothing more than earn an equal footing in our coliseums.
The "Buckeye Bullet"
Jesse Owens. Born James C. Owens, the son of sharecropper parents in Alabama, he became Jesse when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Upon enrolling in school, his teacher misheard his name "J.C." as "Jesse" and the die was cast. He showed immense promise at Cleveland East Technical High School, winning every race he ran--including three Ohio state championships. At the National Interscholastic Meet in Chicago, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash and set the high school record in the 220-yard dash. When it came time for college, Jesse enrolled at Ohio State even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship. He worked a number of jobs to support himself and his new wife, Ruth. He worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, and a filling station pump-hand. He also worked in the library stacks, and served as a page in the Ohio Statehouse. At the 1935 Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor, he set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of 45 minutes. Jesse would go on to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to become the only athlete to win four gold medals in the history of the Olympics--a record that stood until 1984. To boot, he did it in front of Adolf Hitler. In Hitler's house. Then he saluted Old Glory. Badass.
The track in Ohio Stadium, where Jesse ran, was named the Jesse Owens track until it was removed for a stadium expansion. In its place, the school built a new multimillion-dollar track & field complex which bears his name still--the Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
First Among Firsts
William H. Lewis. To laud Mr. Lewis simply for being the first black college football player would like congratulating Ferrari on making a really nice glovebox. Born in Berkley, Virginia to former slaves, Lewis enrolled at Viriginia Normal & Collegiate Institute to receive his education. After showing great academic promise, he transferred to the prestigious Amherst College, where he became the first black college football player. After three years as a standout center, he was elected a team captain (another first).
Upon graduation from Amherst, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, and played two years for Harvard's team--at that time the most powerful program in the country (think about that for a second). He was the first black player to be named to the All-America team. He was the first black player to be named to the All-America team twice. He was the first black player to be named captain of a Harvard team. After graduating, he was named (you guessed it) the first black coach in the history of football at a non-historically black college. Walter Camp named him to the 1900 All-Time America team as "the best center who ever put on a football jacket." While he was busy being the first black coach in the history of Harvard and major college football, and writing books which showed him to be the greatest football mind of the day, he also become the first black Assistant U.S. Attorney in history. And the first black member of the American Bar Association. And the first black member of the Cambridge city council.
Christ, I'm happy to be the first one in the bathroom in the morning, seeing as our shoestring budget only allows for one toothbrush. A doff of the cap to you, Mr. Lewis.
The Madman of the Middle
Bill Willis. The issue of the first black pro football player is one rife with debate, much like the exact length of Donald Trump's combover or how Keith Olbermann keeps getting hired. The issue is complex because the NFL was born out of many earlier leagues, some tracing all the way back to the turn of the century. Technically speaking, a man named Charles Follis was the first black professional player. He was paid to play for the Shelby, Ohio Steamfitters of the Ohio League around the 1902-1906 timeframe (Shelby is the home of the American seamless pipe industry, go figure).
Technicalities aside, the man who broke the color barrier in the modern pro football era--and did so in a most convincing fashion--was Bill Willis. Willis was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1921. Like his siblings, he attended Columbus East High School. Worried that his all-star fullback brother Claude would overshadow him, he decided to make his mark on defense. After graduating from high school after a very successful run on the gridiron, he enrolled at Ohio State. Willis played on the school's first national championship team in 1942, punishing opposing offenses despite his small 202-pound frame.
In 1946, he heard his old OSU coach Paul Brown had started a pro club in Cleveland and made the trip to try out. Though he only weighed an undersized 210 pounds at the time, Willis played the middle guard position with such tenacity that he was offered a contract after crushing all-pro QB Otto Graham on four straight plays in practice. He played for the Browns until 1953 as an unparalleled middle guard in the 5-man defensive front-a job which saw him lining up on the line of scrimmage for one play, and then dropping into coverage the next. This unique approach to the position, coupled with his downhill attacking style and speed led to the creation of the position we now know as the linebacker.
While he wasn't technically the first black professional player ever, he broke the big-time pro ball color barrier a year before Jackie Robinson took the field in Brooklyn and gave birth to an entire position. Well done, Bill. Sorry you had to spend your career in Cleveland. At least you had the good years.
Burt Toler. In 1965 Toler became the first black NFL referee, a year before the first black umpire called a major league game. Sorry, Burt, even when you're a pioneer, everyone hates the ref. That's the sad life of the man in stripes. You wore it well, though Burt. You wore it well.