On Nov. 28, 1929, Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers set a National Football Record that will more than likely never be broken. In a game played in the Windy City, Nevers scored all forty points the Cardinals would have in a victory over their cross-town rivals, the Chicago Bears. The games was a bright spot in the Cardinals 1929 campaign where they went 6-6-1.
And while Nevers’ record may never be broken, by all accounts, he wasn’t the star of the game. That honor went to a long time veteran lineman playing in the twilight of his career. That player was Duke Slater. Chicago Bears coach George Halas heaped praise on the offensive tackle.
“I can’t say too much about Duke Slater as a football player and as a gentleman. In the old Cardinal-Bears games, I learned it was absolutely useless to run against Slater’s side of the Cardinal line. They talked about Fordham’s famous Seven Blocks of Granite in the mid-1930s and what a line that was. Well, Slater was a One Man Line a decade before that. Seven Blocks of Granite? He was the Rock of Gibraltar,” Bears Coach George Halas recollected of the offensive lineman.
In all, Slater, would play ten years in the National Football League, barnstorming across the Midwest as the league’s best lineman. A graduate of the University of Iowa, he was a dominant force on the Hawkeye’s 1921 National Championship season.
And by this point, you are probably wondering why Duke Slater is such an important part of the history of the National Football League. Well, Duke Slater played with a distinctive difference that no other player of his caliber in the league had at the time; he was African-American.
A good 30 years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Duke Slater was not just playing professional football, he was one of the best ever at the position he was playing.
But this isn’t to say that National Football League was somehow more welcoming of African-American players. In his career, Duke Slater missed one game. In 1924, Slater’s Rock Island Independents surged to the top of the league standings and were scheduled to play in Kansas City against the Blues. A “gentlemen’s agreement” kept Slater on the sidelines during that game in the south. The Blues would win the game and the loss would keep the Independents from winning the league title.
Duke Slater would retire from the game in 1931 with seven All-Pro selections. Shortly after he retired, the league enacted a ban on African-American players that wasn’t lifted until 1945.
This past week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that Duke Slater will join his teammate Ernie Nevers in the Hall of Fame. Nevers was enshrined in the hall in the inaugural class in 1963. In the eyes of many, this honor for Slater has come fifty seven years too late.
I can’t help but think that the fact that Slater was an African-American kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is curious if you have ever visited the museum in Canton. In the central part of the building, is the Hall where there are bronze busts of all the honorees. It is clearly the quietest and most solemn part of the whole museum.
And in the dimly-lit hall there is no black, there is no white, there is just bronze. Bronze busts of the greatest players, coaches and contributors the game has produced. You couldn’t tell the ethnicity of the players if you tried.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we not only take a moment to remember Dr. King, but we should take a moment to properly recognize the contributions from those that history has forgotten for regrettable reasons.
Duke Slater can easily be recognized as one of those contributors. He helped shape the early years of the National Football League and demonstrated that anyone, regardless of race, can be the best in their position. He is certainly deserving of his place in Canton. And while time may have forgotten him, I am certainly glad that many in the National Football League did not.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.