Black History Month: Charles Follis

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UPDATED: Thursday February 27, 2014 5:02 PM

Ohio is the birthplace of the NFL, but it’s also home to a black athlete who played professional football before the NFL came to be.

He’s Charles Follis, from Wooster, Ohio.

Follis, the only child of former slaves, got nicknamed the Black Cyclone while the running back for the Wooster High School football team which he organized. The team went undefeated in 1899.

Jim Stoner wrote a play about Follis detailing the travails of the standout black athlete in turn-of-the-century Ohio. He says Follis sometimes had to endure the insult of teammates and players on the opposing team kicking and spitting on him and calling him names.

Back in those days, football was played without helmets or pads. Cleats were little more than dress shoes with nails and screws pounded thru their soles.  Word spread throughout northeast Ohio about Follis' athleticism. In 1902, Frank Shiffer of the Shelby Blues in Shelby, Ohio offered Follis $10 a game to play for his football club. Follis accepted and played four seasons, leading the Blues to a record of 26-5-3.

Stoner says that Charles Follis played the game he loved until his body couldn't anymore. At the end of his last season he had to be carried off the field.

He died of pneumonia at age 31.

A placard honors Follis at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, but his contributions to the game stretched far beyond the Hall.

“I think this story about Charles and what he endured to play sports here in Ohio and how he changed America - even though he didn't know it – is a story people should know about," said Stoner.

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