Ninety years ago today, on October 1, 1922, Duke Slater became the first African-American lineman to play in the National Football League.  The site was Rock Island, Illinois, where Slater’s Rock Island Independents played their first game of the 1922 season.  Slater, a rookie, earned a start at right tackle for the Independents.  Their opponents that day were the Green Bay Packers, led by iconic quarterback Curly Lambeau.

Rock Island was led in 1922 by their own star quarterback, Jim Conzelman.  The game between Rock Island and Green Bay was a back-and-forth affair, with Conzelman and Lambeau constantly outperforming the other.

Slater’s First NFL Game

The Independents seized a quick 9-0 lead on a touchdown pass and a field goal by Conzelman.  Lambeau responded with a long pass that set up a Packer touchdown and cut the lead to 9-7.

The play was hard-hitting and fierce in this game.  Duke helped Rock Island drive down for a first and goal at the Packer four-yard line, but he took a hit that staggered him and forced him to call an injury timeout to catch his breath.  Slater possessed legendary durability, so for him to take a timeout was a newsworthy event.  Still, Duke stubbornly remained in the game, and two plays later, Rock Island crossed the goal line and extended their lead to 16-7 at halftime.

In the second half, the Packers sliced into Rock Island’s lead with a touchdown, but the Independents came back with a field goal and pushed their lead to five points.  With minutes remaining in the game, Rock Island still led, 19-14.  The Packers got the ball and had to drive the length of the field for a game-winning score.

Curly Lambeau - African-American sports historyThe Packers had a lot of ground to cover, so they went to their passing game.  Curly Lambeau dropped back to pass for the Packers, but Slater broke through the line and drilled him as he got the ball away.  The officials penalized Duke for roughing the passer, which cost Rock Island 15 yards in field position and gave Green Bay a first down.  Undeterred, Slater again broke through the line on the very next play, and this time he swatted Lambeau’s attempted pass to the ground.

Rock Island made two more stops, and Green Bay was forced to punt the ball.  The Independents never gave it back, running out the clock on a 19-14 victory.  Duke Slater came away with a dramatic victory in his first NFL game, but more importantly, his presence on the line represented a major milestone in African-American sports history.

A Major Milestone in African-American Sports History

Quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers may get all the glory in the NFL, but it is the tireless work of the linemen that give them the opportunity to shine.  Then again, linemen are so frequently singled out for their “unappreciated” efforts these days that it’s entirely possible they can’t be considered unappreciated any longer!  Most football commentators today are quick to point out that linemen are the heart and soul of any successful football team.

However, back in the 1920s, linemen really were the forgotten men of football.  And because they were so overlooked, it didn’t necessarily make headlines when an African-American showed up in the trenches alongside his entirely white counterparts.

These days, the offensive and defensive lines of any NFL team are littered with African-Americans.  You probably don’t even give that a second thought, and that’s a wonderful thing.  On the ninetieth anniversary of his debut in pro football, take a moment to appreciate Duke Slater, the man who helped make that possible.

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