No. 83: Duke Slater

There are people in sports history who make sense … and those who do not. Duke Slater is one of those people who does not make sense. He feels fictional, legendary, like something out of a storybook. He played most of his football without a helmet because, as the story goes, shoes cost $6 and a helmet cost $4, and he could only afford one of them. He chose shoes.

And yet he was a star in the NFL 25 years before Jackie Robinson crossed the racial barrier in baseball.

He was a consensus All-American at Iowa in 1921 — this 50 years before John Mitchell became the first black football player at Alabama. That Iowa team went undefeated, including a stunning 10-7 win against a Notre Dame team that had not lost in almost three years. On Iowa’s touchdown run, Slater blocked three Notre Dame defenders. “That fellow Slater just about beat my team single-handed,” Notre Dame’s legendary coach Knute Rockne would say.

There’s another story, one from even earlier, that begins to describe Slater’s almost mythical prowess. This is one of the many incredible stories in Neal Rozendaal’s excellent book, Duke Slater: Pioneering Black NFL Player and Judge.

Yes, he became a judge. We’ll get to that in a little bit.

Anyway, this story comes from when Slater played for Clinton High in Clinton, Iowa. Slater was the son of a Methodist pastor, George Slater, who thought football was much too violent a sport for his son to play. When Duke was 14, George forbade him from ever playing football again.

And do you know what Duke Slater did?

He went on a hunger strike until his father gave in.

I’m telling you, this is a movie character, not a real person.

Anyway, that’s not even the story — no, the story comes from a game that Clinton played against West Aurora, in Aurora, Ill. West Aurora was a football powerhouse, a team that had not lost in three years, and apparently there was a lot of betting action on the game. So when Clinton won the game 14-0 — largely behind the blocking and tackling of Duke Slater — it’s fair to say the fans were not happy.

“After the game, the crowd headed for Duke Slater,” his teammate Burt Ingwersen would say. “I guess they weren’t accustomed to seeing a great Negro athlete.” Remember, this is 1914 — there were more than 50 lynchings across America that year — and the mob closed in around Slater, who found himself backed up against a tree.

And do you know what Duke Slater did?

He got down into a three-point stance and said, “OK, whoever wants to come at me, let’s go.” And one by one, the fans started trying to see if they could get by the blocking Slater. “You should have heard the crowd change from howlers to cheerers,” Ingwersen said. “Duke sure could win friends.”

I have no earthly idea how there has not been a movie made about this guy.

Pro football was entirely different when Slater signed to play with the Rock Island Independents in 1922. That probably goes without saying after you see that he played for a team called the “Rock Island Independents” in Rock Island, Ill., some three hours away from Chicago. The NFL had teams in Canton, Racine, Akron and La Rue, Ohio; and Rochester, Evansville and Hammond, Ind.

I totally wish that there were still NFL teams in all those places.

Beyond geography, the game itself was very different — it was a game of blocking and tackling. Those were the skills that mattered; a great blocker like Slater was viewed with more awe than a great quarterback. Slater was 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, a big man for the time, an immovable object for all time. He was the first black lineman to play in the NFL, and there was always more than a hint of racism surrounding him. But his dominance as a player trumped all.

“How are you going to handle Slater?” a reporter asked Rochester’s coach, Doc Alexander, after Slater had bust open craters for running backs to score nine rushing touchdowns in a 60-0 win over Evansville.

“Who do you birds figure Slater is, anyway?” Alexander grumped. “Do you people figure he’s the first lineman that ever played football? Well, I’m here to tell you our regular man will play against him — and no one else will.”

And then, of course, Alexander put his two best defensive linemen on Slater in the hopes of slowing him down. It didn’t work. Rock Island won 26-0 and Slater pretty much blocked every single Rochester defender at some point in the blowout.

It was the time of two-way players, but even in that time it was noteworthy how Slater never left the field. He played all 60 minutes in his first game against Green Bay. He played all 60 minutes seven years later in one of the most famous early games of NFL history, Thanksgiving 1929, Chicago Cardinals vs. Chicago Bears. People were really interested in the running back matchup between the Cardinals’ Ernie Nevers and the Bears’ Red Grange.

Well, on that day, Nevers rushed for six touchdowns in a 40-6 destruction of the crosstown Bears.*

*Red Grange did not score in the game … but interestingly his younger brother Gardie did.

According to eyewitnesses, Slater’s dominance was so absurd in that game that before the snap, Nevers would point to the spot where he intended to run, fully expecting Slater and company to simply clear the way.

“Duke Slater, the veteran colored tackle, seemed the dominant figure in that forward wall which made the Bear front wobbly,” the Chicago Herald-Examiner wrote. “It was Slater who opened the holes for Nevers when a touchdown was in the making.”

By this point, Slater was not only the first black lineman in NFL history … he was the only African-American player in all of professional football. There was a powerful movement within pro football to segregate the game, the way the owners had many years earlier in baseball. Slater’s unique brilliance and personality simply prevented them from doing that. The NFL needed him.

It’s hard to quantify Slater’s greatness with stats or honors. He was all-NFL four times but it seems certain that he was often overlooked or actively dismissed because of the color of his skin. Even the Pro Football Hall of Fame on its website writes, “Racial bias presumedly kept Slater from being named to the official NFL All-Decade team of the 1920s.” Similar bias undoubtedly kept Slater from being elected to the Hall of Fame until 2020.

And so, like with so many of the great Negro leagues baseball players, we are left hoping that stories will begin to tell of his greatness. There was a game late in Slater’s career where he played a hyperactive college All-American playing in his very first game. And on the first snap, the player came hard at Slater and knocked him backward. On the next play, the player came just as hard. And on the next play. And on the next.

And for a while, the kid just kept coming, all out, full speed, no matter where the play was being run — he just ferociously charged Duke Slater.

Until, as Slater fully knew, the kid ran out of gas. And that that point, Slater began to dominate him.

“What’s the matter?” Slater said with a smile on his face. “Ain’t you won your letter yet?”

And, then Slater gave him all sorts of tips about how to have a long career.

Even while playing in the NFL, Duke Slater went back to college to get his law degree. He was a practicing lawyer in Chicago while playing with the Cardinals. And he later became the second African-American judge in Chicago history and, after that, the first to serve on the Cook County Superior Court, the highest court in Chicago.

Like I say, how has there not been a movie made about Duke Slater?

It’s hard to understand why it took so long for the Hall of Fame to elect him. It’s not like he was a secret. In 1946, he was named to the all-time college football team. In 1951, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame — the only African-American player in that first class. That same year, he was inducted into the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in its first class.

The residence hall closest to the football stadium at Iowa was named Slater Hall.

Earlier this year, Iowa named their field Slater Field.

And from the very start, there was a push to put Duke Slater in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — he was one of the people mentioned by writers and historians alike as someone who might be elected in the first class. Instead, he was passed over repeatedly and then, incredibly, forgotten.

Because of this, Slater’s name doesn’t often get mentioned with the greatest of the greats. Halls of Fame have powerful holds on people’s imaginations. In 2020, finally, the Hall of Fame elected Duke Slater … though I imagine most people barely noticed as the Hall inducted an enormous class to celebrate pro football’s centennial.

And it’s a shame people have missed it because Duke Slater is undoubtedly one of the greatest players in NFL history … and perhaps its greatest story. I do hope that movie gets made.