Duke Slater was so good the NFL couldn’t stop him from entering.
For a black gamer of the 1920s and 1930s, this was a remarkable achievement.
And now, Slater is entering the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
The pioneering two-way lineman was part of the centennial class announced in 2020 to celebrate the 100th NFL season. He was recognized by the hall in April and will be included in the induction festivities on August 7 and 8 after they were postponed last year due to the pandemic.
Slater tackled fanaticism head-on and blocked it as well. He was the first African-American lineman in the NFL and often the only black player on the field. After his retirement, he broke more racial barriers to become a judge in Chicago.
All-American at the University of Iowa, Slater created an NFL racetrack for stars such as Ernie Nevers and Jim Thorpe, and has been named All-Pro three times. George Halas called it the Rock of Gibraltar.
He was a 60-minute man and a model of sustainability despite being the target of some brutal play. The only game he missed in his 10 seasons in the NFL, against the Kansas City Blues, was due to a league deal preventing the Blacks from playing in Missouri.
After Slater retired, the league imposed a ban on blacks that lasted until 1946. He died in 1966 at age 67, and the collective memory of his pioneering career has faded.
“Finally, finally, he’s entering the Hall of Fame after all these years,” said John Wooten, a Pro Bowl keeper in the 1960s and an activist for racial equality. “You have to smile. “
The Hall of Fame can be just as much for the forgotten as it is for the celebrities. One PA story once listed Slater as a strong candidate for induction, but that was in 1963.
“Why did it take so long, when he had such great skills?” former NFL coach Tony Dungy said. “It’s obviously – I don’t mean shameful, but here is a guy who was dominant. Just so people don’t know, it’s almost like we’re hiding something, rather than talking about one of the great players of the 1920s. ”
Slater’s induction offers a chance to revisit his story.
The son of a minister, he attended high school in Clinton, Iowa, where he honed his muscles by cutting ice on the Mississippi River in the winter. He staged a hunger strike to get his reluctant father’s permission to play football.
With money tight, Slater had to choose in high school between buying shoes or a helmet, and still played without a helmet as a high school student. Shoes weren’t easy to get either: the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Slater was wearing a size 14½ FF.
He played four years in Iowa and helped the 1921 Hawkeyes to a 7-0 finish, including a victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and coach Knute Rockne that ended their 20-game winning streak. He entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Slater made his NFL debut in 1922 with the Rock Island Independents and played with them until 1925, then spent his last five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals.
He played all 60 minutes of the Cardinals’ annual Thanksgiving game against the Bears in 1929, when his block helped Nevers score 40 points, a record that still stands.
Slater excelled in an environment where he wasn’t really welcome, Wooten said.
“He had this attitude, ‘You won’t stop me from playing the game,’” Wooten said.
“The Blacks who once played and what they had to go through, that time was very difficult. The blatant racism that existed at the time – it was so segregated that they had to dress in their cars. There was the call name; you couldn’t eat or stay with the team. It was a horrible time. It’s horrible now, but nothing like what these guys went through.
At times, Slater was the only black player in the league.
“Someone so dominant, you would think that would have paved the way for other African Americans,” Dungy said. ” But this is not the case. It tells you how it was.
NFL owners were talking in the 1920s of a baseball-like ban in color, and they finally adopted one in 1934. Slater had retired, but he fought the ban by coaching black teams in football. assault for several seasons.
Although Slater has no children, his niece, Sandy Wilkens, and other family members plan to attend the induction ceremony.
Wilkens was born in 1939, the year before Slater left training. She knew her uncle as a lawyer and judge rather than an athlete.
“He was so humble. I had no idea what he did in football, ”she said. “But I was so impressed with the way he handled segregation throughout his life. It didn’t seem like he was getting angry. Our parents didn’t talk about it much, because those moments were hurtful.
Slater graduated from Iowa Law School while still in the NFL. He worked as a prosecutor and in the Illinois Department of Commerce, and was elected a judge.
In 1960, Slater became the first black judge to sit on the Chicago Superior Court.
“He was revolutionary,” Dungy said, “in so many ways.”
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