(This is part of a special series on getting “Justice for the Judge.”)

Duke Slater deserves to be enshrined in the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor. He was one of the franchise’s greatest linemen ever, and his accomplishments with the Cardinals merit such recognition.

A Brief History of the Cardinals

Many casual sports fans may not be aware of this, but the Arizona Cardinals have a long, storied past. In fact, they are the oldest continuously run professional football franchise in the United States. The franchise was founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1898 and adopted the Cardinals nickname in 1901.

Eleven professional football clubs came together in 1920 to form the league which we recognize today as the NFL. Of the franchises that formed the original NFL, only two still exist today – the then-Chicago Cardinals and the Chicago Bears.

The Chicago Cardinals-Chicago Bears rivalry quickly developed into one of the best rivalries in football. The Bears represented the affluent North Side, while the Cardinals resided on the tough, gritty South Side. It was not unlike how the Cubs and White Sox divide the city today. It was during these early years in the 1920s and 1930s that Duke Slater wore the Cardinal red. Slater played six seasons with the Chicago Cardinals from 1926-1931, and his battles with George Halas’ troops were the stuff of legend.

Relocation and the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor

In 1960, the Cards flew south to St. Louis and left the Windy City to the Bears. The St. Louis (football) Cardinals competed from 1960-1987 before relocating again, this time to Arizona. It has been a long migration for these Arizona Cardinals, but for more than a century, the franchise has been a part of pro football at its highest level. On the field, the Cardinals have rarely ranked among the league’s best teams. Even so, their long history is one of the things that makes the Arizona Cardinals so great. They are truly a living reflection of the NFL’s glorious past.

The Arizona Cardinals moved into a new stadium in 2006. Their new stadium was equipped with a Ring of Honor to recognize Cardinal greats from all eras of the franchise’s history. To date, 13 Cardinals have been inducted into the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor. Three of those 13 – Jim Conzelman, Paddy Driscoll, and Ernie Nevers – were Slater’s contemporaries in pro football, men Duke played with or against. The Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor represents the best of the best of pro football’s most historic franchise.

Members of the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor

Inaugural inductees (inducted August 12, 2006):

Paddy Driscoll, quarterback, six seasons – 1920-1925

Ernie Nevers, fullback, three seasons – 1929-1931

Jim Conzelman, coach, three seasons – 1946-1948

Charles Bidwill, owner, fourteen years – 1933-1947

Marshall Goldberg, running back, ten seasons – 1939-1948

Charley Trippi, running back, nine seasons – 1947-1955

Ollie Matson, running back, six seasons – 1952, 1954-1958

Dick “Night Train” Lane, cornerback, six seasons – 1954-1959

Recent inductees (by date of induction):

Larry Wilson, safety, 13 seasons – 1960-1972 (inducted September 10, 2006)

Dan Dierdorf, tackle, 13 seasons – 1971-1983 (inducted October 16, 2006)

Pat Tillman, safety, four seasons – 1998-2001 (inducted November 12, 2006)

Roger Wehrli, cornerback, 14 seasons – 1969-1982 (inducted October 14, 2007)

Aeneas Williams, cornerback, ten seasons – 1991-2000 (inducted November 10, 2008)

Duke Slater and the Cardinals

Duke Slater joined the Cardinals organization at the tail end of the 1926 season, which was a significant event in NFL history.  When Slater lined up for the Cardinals on November 25, 1926, he became the first African-American to play for a current NFL franchise.  (The Cardinals’ annual Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Chicago Bears ended in a scoreless draw.)  A few other African-Americans played for now-defunct NFL teams like the Akron Pros or the Milwaukee Badgers, but Slater was the first black player to suit up for a franchise that still exists today.  Of the 32 current NFL teams, the Arizona Cardinals’ franchise was the first to play an African-American – and that was Duke Slater in 1926.

The Cards were bad in Slater’s first three seasons with the squad from 1926-1928, yet Duke was often mentioned as a difference maker and a player who never stopped giving solid effort, even when the Cardinals were badly outmanned.  He earned all-pro honors with the Cardinals in 1927 despite being the only African-American in the entire NFL!  Duke Slater was a fan favorite, not only among the fans of the South Side of Chicago but also among his teammates.

The Cardinals’ fortunes turned around dramatically in 1929 with the acquisition of fullback Ernie Nevers.  For three seasons from 1929-1931, Nevers thrilled Cardinals fans with his offensive heroics.  Duke Slater was right there with him, providing blocking for him in the line for all three of Nevers’ seasons with the Cards.  Slater was an integral part of Nevers’ record-setting exploits, none more spectacular than his Thanksgiving Day performance in 1929.

On November 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers set an all-time NFL record with 40 points in a single game in a 40-6 victory over the Chicago Bears.  Duke Slater played all sixty minutes in that game, providing the blocking that made Nevers’ legendary day possible.  Duke Slater was again an all-pro for the Cardinals in 1929, despite again being the only African-American in the entire NFL.  The Nevers-Slater era was one of the most memorable periods in the long history of the Cardinals franchise.

Justice for the Judge

Arizona Cardinals Ring of HonorWhen the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor opened in 2006, they started it by inducting eight Chicago Cardinals; all eight of these Cardinals were members of the franchise when it was still located in Chicago.  One of those eight players inducted was Ernie Nevers, in recognition of his three stellar seasons with the franchise.  Duke Slater, a man who was right there with Nevers for all three of those seasons (plus three more), was overlooked.

The Cardinals have gone on to induct five more members into their Ring of Honor.  Three of them – Larry Wilson, Dan Dierdorf, and Roger Wehrli – played with the franchise when it was in St. Louis.  Only two members of the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor – Pat Tillman and Aeneas Williams – actually played for the franchise while it was located in Arizona.

Given that lack of representation, I know many Arizona Cardinals fans would rather see the franchise recognize a long-time Arizona-based player – like Larry Centers, for example – in their Ring of Honor to balance out those numbers a bit.  I’m sure that several of those fans don’t want the Cardinals putting yet another player in their Ring of Honor who didn’t spend any time in Arizona.  I understand that argument totally, and to be honest, it will be a difficult sentiment for many to overcome.

But if you’re truly going to honor all eras of the Cardinal franchise, you need to recognize Slater’s contributions to the Cardinals.  His omission was an understandable yet disappointing oversight, given how important he was to the history of the franchise and the whole NFL.  On the surface, some may criticize the fact that Duke Slater only played six seasons with the Cardinals, but upon closer inspection, that was actually considered a solid career at the time.  Of the seven Chicago Cardinals inducted into the Ring of Honor (excluding the owner Bidwell), five of them were with the organization for six seasons or fewer.  It was a different era, and in that era, Slater’s six seasons in Cardinal red was definitely a long enough time to make a memorable impact.

For more stories about Duke Slater and his time with the Cardinals, you can check out Chapters 10 through 12 of Duke Slater.  But one thing is certain: Duke Slater proudly sported Cardinal red, and that’s something for Cardinals everywhere to celebrate.  Slater was one of the greatest linemen of his era and an African-American trailblazer to boot.  Several of his contemporaries are up in the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor.  Duke Slater deserves to be up there, too.

At present, there are 13 people enshrined in the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor. The 14th inductee should be #14, Duke Slater.  In recognition of one of the greatest Cardinals of all time, it’s the right thing to do.

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