Excerpted from Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks
If he'd played in another era, Joe Lillard might be remembered today as one of the best athletes in the history of football. Growing up in the boomtown of Mason City, Iowa, he excelled in everything— football, basketball, baseball, track. At Oregon, he played and dominated two games as a freshman halfback before he lost eligibility when it was discovered he'd played baseball and basketball for semi-pro black teams. So in 1932, he went pro, and was signed by the Chicago Cardinals as the only black player in the NFL. For a year, he was used to rush, kick, return punts, and throw. In 1933, he was released. He and Ray Kemp share the honor of being the last black men to play in the NFL before an unofficial ban on African-Americans took hold. This "gentlemen's agreement" lasted until 1946.
For a number of reasons, race relations between blacks and whites in the 1930s were more strained than they had been at any time since Reconstruction. Racial inequality and segregation were written into law, as ever, but when the Great Depression hit, many Americans, both white and black, lost everything. And many Americans, both white and black, were suddenly fighting for the same menial jobs.
Minorities were vilified during the Great Depression, as they usually are in times of economic strife. In and out of the workplace, blacks were perceived and treated as threats. We think of this now as a Southern matter, which it was, but it was a Southern matter because so many blacks in the South were written out of FDR's New Deal, their access to new federal programs horsetraded away to secure the support of a Southern bloc unwilling to budge on Jim Crow. (The Social Security Act, for instance, exempted domestic and agricultural workers.) Policy and culture conspired to reinforce one another, the flaws of the former giving warrant to the bigotry and predations of the latter. Blacks were harassed. They were beaten, shot, dragged, and hanged.
Into this context burst Joe Lillard. He was special. He was electric. The Chicago Defender called him "easily the best halfback in football." A Boston columnist wrote: "Lillard is not only the ace of the Cardinal backfield but he is one of the greatest all-around players that has ever displayed his wares on any gridiron in this section of the country."
The problem was that he knew it. He was an arrogant black man in a white man's game. He had a live-wire temper, nearly causing a riot after one game when he launched a retaliatory uppercut at the chin of an opponent. Opposing teams lit him up with dirty shots, and some of his teammates hated him so much that they supposedly refused to block for him. "Football players, like anyone else, will always be jealous," Rocky Wolfe, the team's PR guy, said, echoing the things people would say many years later about Richard Sherman. "But a fellow can always clear up such a situation by living, walking and breathing in a manner that does not bespeak supremacy—a thing Lillard hasn't learned."
Lillard still produced, though, and still held down a job on the Cardinals in 1932, albeit tenuously. That year—the year in which FDR won his first term in office, carrying 75 percent of the black vote—the NFL changed forever: George Preston Marshall, along with several other investors, founded the Boston Braves. Marshall, born in West Virginia in 1896, was the heir to his father's laundry store empire. He was a visionary and a bigot, and the NFL is still wrestling with his legacy today. In his first year with the NFL, Marshall standardized schedules and carved the league into divisions; he set up a league championship; he made the forward pass legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. In 1933, his partners dropped out, and as the sole owner, he renamed his team the Redskins. Then he brokered a league-wide ban on black players.
Well, no one would cop to the ban outright. Writes Thomas G. Smith in Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins:
Professional owners, like their Major League Baseball counterparts, publicly denied the existence of a racial ban. "For myself and for most of the owners," Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained to me decades later, "I can say there never was any racial bias." George Halas of the Chicago Bears declared to sportswriter Myron Cope in 1970 that there had been no unwritten exclusionary agreement, "in no way, shape, or form." Tex Schramm of the Los Angeles Rams did not recall a gentleman's agreement: "You just didn't do it—it wasn't the thing that was done." Tim Mara of the Giants also denied that minorities had been blackballed. Despite the disclaimers, however, blacks had disappeared from the game altogether.
Lillard's contract was not renewed after the 1933 season. Was it racism? Smith has written elsewhere:
The black press claimed that Lillard had been "Too Good For His Own Good" and that the "color of his skin had driven him out of the National Football League." In 1935 Coach [Paul] Schlissler conceded that an unwritten rule barred blacks from the game for their own protection. Lillard, he said, had been a victim of racism.
"He was a fine fellow, not as rugged as most in the pro game, but very clever," he explained. "But he was a marked man, and I don't mean that just the southern boys took it out on him either; after a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works, and I'd have to take him out." Lillard's presence, the coach continued, made the Cardinals a "marked team" and the "rest of the league took it out on us! We had to let him go, for our own sake, and for his, too!"
Marshall moved the Boston Redskins to the Southern, segregated city of Washington D.C. in 1937. The racial ban was still in effect, with owners mounting specious arguments in their own defense. Some said there was just no black talent in college football worth drafting. That was untrue.
The 1939 UCLA football team, for example, fielded four blacks. One was a transfer named Jackie Robinson, a four-sport letterman who averaged 12.2 yards per carry. Another was Kenny Washington, a teammate one year ahead of Robinson with a cannon for an arm. Robinson later declared Washington "the greatest football player [he'd] ever seen," and "probably the greatest long passer ever." Time wrote in 1940 that he was "considered by West Coast fans the most brilliant in the U.S. last year." Many regarded him as one of the best players in the history of the sport. When he graduated from UCLA, he was barred by NFL owners from entering the league. He instead played for the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Then the United States went to war. Though blacks were still second-class citizens by law, shared service began to erode barriers—blacks, for instance, competed alongside and against whites on service teams. When the All-America Football Conference launched in 1946 as a direct competitor to the NFL, it distinguished itself in one significant way: There was no ban on black athletes.
It was a shrewd move, and forced NFL owners to lift their own ban. (You could put together a pocket history of racial relations in sports by looking at the ebbs and flows of upstart leagues—a little competition in the marketplace has always been good for racial advancement.) Kenny Washington became the first black player signed to an NFL roster in the postwar era when he put in with the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams in March 1946. He played three seasons and retired in 1948. Though he was considered one of the greatest passers ever, he threw only 14 times in that period.
George Preston Marshall, meanwhile, proclaimed that he'd never put a black player on his roster, a promise he kept until 1962. He relented only when President John F. Kennedy threatened to nullify the Redskins' 30-year lease on what's now known as RFK Stadium.
And Joe Lillard? He never got another chance to play in the NFL. He retired from the sport in 1941.
Joe Lillard | 1932-1933 | Chicago Cardinals
18 games (12 starts) | 372 yards passing | 2 passing TDs | 19 INTs | 28.4 comp. % | 10.8 QB rating | 494 yards rushing | 1 rushing touchdown | 0 fumbles
"Joe Lillard of the Chicago Cardinals was undoubtedly the most outstanding player on a white professional eleven."—Baltimore Afro-American