First Black pro football player is subject of new biography | Book Talk

First Black pro football player is subject of new biography | Book Talk

Barbara McIntyre

Special to USA TODAY Network Ohio

Why isn’t Charles Follis in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? One might think the first Black professional football player in America would be a shoo-in. In “Follis: Greatness Transcends,” former Beacon Journal sportswriter Ralph N. Paulk presents an absorbing biography with a strong argument for enshrinement.

Follis was born in Virginia in 1879, son of formerly enslaved parents who had been tobacco farmers. In 1881 and again in 1884 their house was torched by Ku Klux Klan members; the second incident killed their 3-year-old son; they moved to Wooster in 1884.

The elder Follis, who worked in a bank, became a community leader and founded a Baptist church whose congregation still exists. It was baseball, not football, that first captivated young Charles, and he was a star catcher for the College of Wooster before turning pro in 1902 when he agreed to play for the Shelby Blues for $10 a game.

He soon became an audience attraction, charismatic and handsome but also abused by racists: “The bulk of Blues’ fans may be calling Charles every off-colored name in the book, but they can’t resist buying a ticket.” In one instance, the captain of the opposing team approached the rowdy spectators and rebuked them for their behavior. Follis gained the nickname “The Black Cyclone,” which he found offensive.

Charles’ younger brother Curtis, also playing in the pre-helmet era, was subjected to the same outrages as Charles, with disastrous consequences. Charles Follis himself had a tragic end and the authors dispute its official cause.

“Follis: Greatness Transcends” (196 pages, softcover) costs $19.02. In an email, Paulk explained that the amount signifies the year that Follis signed his contract with the Shelby Blues.

Paulk is president of Tiretown Golf Club/Tiretown Golf Charities and is also the author of “Jim O’Brien: Breaking the Odds,” about the Ohio State basketball coach. Herman D. Smith, great-nephew of Follis, is co-founder of the Charles Follis Foundation.

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