Breaking Barriers: Celebrating African-American Firsts in the NFL

Breaking Barriers: Celebrating African-American Firsts in the NFL - partycasino

Today, African-American pro sports players have a strong presence in the NFL, making up 60-70% of its registered players. However, that wasn't always the case.

If it wasn't for a number of strong-minded individuals who were willing to fight the status quo, the NFL wouldn't be the diverse sport that it is today. October is Black History Month in Europe, so here's a look at some of the outstanding African-Americans who broke down barriers in the NFL and the firsts they achieved.

Kenny Washington

Born in 1918, Kenny Washington played college football at UCLA before becoming the first black player to sign a pro contract with the NFL in the post-World War II modern era. It was a time when signing black players was seen as controversial, and despite his talent, Washington was passed over many times. 

Eventually, the LA Rams signed Washington along with UCLA team-mate Woody Strode, breaking down the first barrier for African-Americans in the NFL. 

Interestingly, Washington played with Jackie Robinson at UCLA too. Robinson was a prolific all-rounder but later went on to be a huge MLB star and is credited for advancing race relations in baseball.

Burl Toler

Even though players are the undoubted stars, there needs to be an all-round change to end discrimination. This extends to the officials and referees, with Burl Toler paving the way for others to follow. 

Born in 1928, Toler was the first African-American official in the NFL. His career spanned 25 seasons as both a field judge and head linesmen, and he was well-respected by all in the industry. But it was his appointment as head linesman in 1965 that he will be remembered for and his appearance as an official in the 1980 Super Bowl. On both occasions, he broke records for being the first African-American linesman, a statistic that now seems unthinkable. 

For Toler's efforts, expertise and commitment to breaking down racial discrimination in the sport, he was admitted to the Hall of Fame. 

A special mention here also goes to Johnny Grier, who became the first African-American referee in the NFL.

Emlen Tunnell

Known by the nickname of The Gremlin, Emlen Tunnell was a pro footballer who played for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers before going on to coach. During the 14 seasons he played in the NFL (1948-1961), his record was startling. He played in nine Pro Bowls, was chosen for the All-Pro six times, was a double NFL champion, and held records for interceptions, punt return yards, interception return yards, and punt returns on retirement. 

It would have been impossible not to enshrine Emlen Tunnell into the Hall of Fame with such an outstanding record. In 1967, he became the first African-American to feature in the Hall of Fame, a critical watershed moment in black history. 

In addition to all of the above, Tunnell was also the first African-American to play for the New York Giants when he signed for them in 1948. To get that opportunity, he'd hiked from his family home to speak to the son of the Giants founder and request a try-out. A trailblazer in every way, Tunnell has a revered place in African-American history within the NFL.