Breakthrough biography reveals Bobby Marshall’s greatness

MSR/Wikipedia Bobby Marshall’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren sport shirts bearing his image. (l to r), Lorie Washington, Kathy Washington, and Betty Washington.

Bobby Marshall, a great athletic “everyman,” may be one of the greatest Twin Citians to ever live while remaining one of our least-known bright lights. But that is changing as a result of a biography released last week in the Twin Cities about his life titled, “Breaking Through the Line: Bobby Marshall, The N.F.L.’s First African American Player,” by Terry McConnell.  

Marshall was also nominated and presented to the NFL Hall of Fame selection committee by Minneapolis Star Tribune sportswriter Mark Craig, for consideration for induction in the 2022 Hall of Fame class.

Long before turning pro, Marshall starred playing football at the University of Minnesota from 1904 to 1906 after graduating from Minneapolis Central High School, where he shined in baseball, football and track. Marshall was born in Milwaukee on March 12, 1880, the grandson of Virginia slaves. He came to Minneapolis after his family migrated there.

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Marshall was the first Black player in the Western Conference (later to be named the Big Ten Conference) and the first to be named All American. He was a two-way star, playing both defensive and offensive end. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1907 with a law degree and practiced law in the Twin Cities for several years.

Marshall was the first Black person to play professional football, starring for the Rock Island Independents at the age of 40 in 1920. Weeks later he was joined in the league by African American Fritz Pollard, who weeks later began playing for the Akron Pros of the then-American Professional Football Association, which soon changed its name to the National Football League.

(l to r), Tina Schlief, Don Marshall, Natalie Sims, Bobby Marshall’s grandchildren

Incidentally, 13 African Americans would enter the NFL from 1920 to 1933 before an unwritten agreement among league owners kept more from entering the league until the agreement was reluctantly rescinded in 1946.

“I thought it was important that all people get to know about Bobby Marshall,” said McConnell. The author’s interest in Marshall’s story was piqued by his grandfather, OC Olson, who owned a semi-pro team, the Minneapolis Deans, which the former Gopher starred on from 1907 to 1909. McConnell said his grandfather called Marshall a tremendous presence.

Writing the biography took him seven years and became a quest. “I had never had a hero that I can relate to like Bobby Marshall,” said the author.

Marshall entered the NFL in 1920 during what has become known as the “Red Summer,” the same year that a group of Black men were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota. White resentment and hatred for Blacks had reached a fever pitch as Blacks returned with a renewed sense of pride from having fought in World War I. Their “somebody-ness” served as a catalyst for racial violence, particularly in the North.

Racism and White supremacy in the U.S. were in their heyday in the North and the South. The Ku Klux Klan had begun to make a comeback, and in Minnesota, the Minnesota Eugenics Society advocated sterilization of POC.

Marshall and Pollard were harassed by fans from opposing teams because of their color. It was said that Pollard was forced to dress in the Akron owner’s cigar store and be driven to games only moments before kickoff to avoid being hit by thrown projectiles like bottles.

MSR Author Terry McConnell

Marshall was not only a great football player entering the NFL at 40 years old; he was also an accomplished lawyer, selected as the state’s grain commissioner while still finding time to play hockey and baseball.

“Marshall lived in incredibly racist times, but he never held any animosity,” said McConnell. “He didn’t hold any hatred.”

McConnell and Bobby Marshall’s grandson Bill Marshall have established the Bobby Marshall Scholarship. Recipients are expected to exemplify Marshall’s character traits and priorities, which include a commitment to academics, leadership, and service. The scholarship is designed for student-athletes at the University of Minnesota.

Marshall died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1958. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.