28 Day Slater: Day 3
“Whenever fine friends gather to talk football, they talk of the likes of Duke Slater. The pioneers of the National Professional League will remember Duke’s rugged career…That’s because football is a grand old game, and because Duke Slater was one of the hardies who made it so grand.”
– David Condon, Chicago Tribune
We examined yesterday how Duke Slater was a trailblazer for African-Americans in college football. Well, he continued his pioneering ways in the NFL…and beyond.
Duke Slater broke into the National Football League on October 1, 1922, as the first black lineman in NFL history. He quickly established himself as a holy terror on the field, one of the best linemen of any race in the entire NFL.
Duke Slater would go on to have a spectacular ten-year career in the NFL from 1922-1931. He began his NFL journey with the Rock Island Independents in the Quad Cities and played five seasons with them from 1922-1926.
After the Independents shut down in 1926, Slater was quickly signed by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals have since relocated to Arizona but still exist today as the Arizona Cardinals; when Duke Slater joined the Cardinals in 1926, he became the first African-American to play for a current NFL franchise.
Duke played with the Cards in their last two games of the 1926 season and stayed with them for the final five years of his NFL career from 1927-1931. Throughout his decade-long pro career, Slater was widely recognized as one of the most imposing linemen in the game. He was a consistent all-pro from 1923-1930, a remarkably long stretch of dominance for any player of that era.
Just as Slater was a racial trailblazer in college football, he was also a pioneer in the pro game. Duke Slater was one of only a dozen African-Americans to play in the NFL prior to World War II. In fact, for most of the late-1920s, Slater was the only black player in the entire NFL, yet he continued to perform at an all-pro level. Duke Slater single-handedly delayed a color ban from taking place in the NFL for seven years, which is another amazing part of his football legacy.
Duke Slater had a long, full career in professional football. When he made the all-pro team in 1929, he was the oldest man on the squad. His ten NFL seasons ranked third in league history upon his retirement. “I hung up my suit in 1931 when I realized that football is a young man’s game,” Duke later said.
Yet Duke Slater was more than just a mere football player. In his NFL offseasons, he went back to the University of Iowa law school and earned his law degree in 1928. After he retired from the NFL, he became a prominent attorney on the South Side of Chicago.
In 1948, Slater was elected to the Cook County Municipal Court; he was just the second African-American elected as a judge in the city of Chicago. He was elected to two six-year terms on the Municipal Court before being elevated to the Superior Court, then the highest court circuit in the city of Chicago, in 1960. From the field to the bench, Duke Slater was a pioneer for African-Americans all his life.
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