If statues of an old sportswriter, a fictional television character, and comic strip figures can be put up all around town and at various sports venues, surely one honoring the U of M’s first Black athlete could be erected and installed outside the Gophers football stadium as well.
History Professor Steven Hoffbeck, in a 2004 Minnesota History Magazine article, included several accolades he discovered in newspapers of the early 1900s: Bobby Marshall was called “one of America’s greatest all-around athletes.” The local Minneapolis newspaper in 1999 named him 51st of the top 100 sports figures of the 20th Century and 10th greatest in Minnesota state history.
As a Minnesota Gopher football player, Marshall “catapulted into the realm of sports legends in Minnesota,” wrote Hoffbeck. His performance in a 1903 game against Michigan helped his school earn its second-ever Big Ten title.
He once was carried off as a hero after he kicked a game-winning field goal. A twice-named All-American, he was only the second Black ever to be so named. Some even called Marshall “the most gifted Minnesota football player” in the U of M’s early days of college football.
Marshall also lettered in track and baseball for the Gophers before he graduated in 1907 with a law degree, which he wasn’t able to use much — he worked as a grain inspector for the state for nearly 40 years. But his post-collegiate athletic career included playing semi-pro baseball, and he became the first Black semi-professional hockey player in this country. He also became the state’s first Black high school football coach in 1907 and two years later the country’s first Black head college football coach at Parker College in Winnebago, Minn.
Born down South, Marshall lived all but two of his 78 years — he died in 1958 — in the Twin Cities. With all this said, why hasn’t a statue been erected for Bobby Marshall by now?
“This is our guy,” states Peter Gorton, who earlier this summer helped get a grave marker for William Binga, who was buried in an unmarked grave in a Minneapolis cemetery for almost a half-century. Binga played with Marshall on the St. Paul Colored Gophers baseball team.
“I think it’s time for our community [to] realize that our guy has the credentials to be a larger-than-life statue right out in front of that place for every person to walk past and see,” he says of Marshall.
“That place” is outside the Gophers’ on-campus football stadium.
“I am not thinking we can do this is a week or a month, or 15 years,” explains Gorton. “I can’t tell the university what to do. I’d like to see if it’s possible for an organization coming together and figuring it out.”
U of M football, when it comes to honoring its past, especially Black athletes, has badly fumbled in this regard. The colossal boo-boo a few years ago was when they misspelled Sandy Stephens’ name on a commemorative ticket. He was only the school’s first starting Black quarterback and still remains the only quarterback to lead the Gophers to two Rose Bowls.
The opportunity Gorton speaks of is not a lost cause but rather a right cause crusade that we gladly support. This column is planned as the first in a series of calling, urging, pushing and shoving U of M officials to rightfully honor Marshall.
“People are going to want to say that somebody else deserves it more,” surmises Gorton. “You might say any number of football players should belong outside the TCF stadium. But someone’s got to carry the mantle for somebody or nothing gets done.”
That somebody is Bobby Marshall.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.