Throwback Thursday: Joe Lillard Becomes the Last Black Man in Pro Football

In 1933, Lillard, also known as the Midnight Express, was a proud NFL superstar with a strong personality. After his final game that season, owners made sure the league was whites-only.

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Dec 3 2015, 7:30pm

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

On December 3, 1933, Joe "The Midnight Express" Lillard, of the Chicago Cardinals, became the last black man in the National Football League. After that Sunday, the slow-brewing effort to ban African-American players—led over eight years by Preston Marshall, the owner of the Washington football team with the racist name—was complete.

For the next thirteen years, pro football in America was—unofficially, of course—a whites-only affair. Things didn't change until 1946, when the Los Angeles Rams signed Woody Strode and Kenny Washington.

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"Not a lot is known about Joe Lillard. He's a mysterious person who deserves to get a light shined on his life because he was ahead of his time," says Charles K. Ross, the chair of the African-American studies program at the University of Mississippi and the author of Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League and next spring's Mavericks, Money, and Men: The AFL, Black Players, and the Evolution of Modern Football. "He was allowed this presence that black players didn't really have in the 1930s, but he paid a price. Given a fair opportunity, who knows what Lillard's legacy could be in the history of pro football?"

Joe Lillard was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1905, the son of a coal miner and a housekeeper. After both his parents died, he landed with two relatives in Mason City, Iowa. At Mason City High School, he was a three-sport star, twice earning all-state honors in both football and basketball, and a state track champion in the long jump, high jump, shot put, discuss, and as lead man on the mile relay team.

Lillard made plans to attend the University of Minnesota after graduating in 1927, but his high school credits weren't up to snuff. When Gophers coach Clarence "Doc" Spears—an actual M.D.—headed West to the University of Oregon, Lillard started playing semi-pro baseball with the Gilkerson Union Giants, a barnstorming club out of Chicago. He was also an original member of the Savoy Big Five, the hoops squad that would become the Harlem Globetrotters.

After saving enough money to get to college, the 6'1" 185-pound Lillard enrolled at Oregon in time to play for the 1930 freshman team. The standard do-it-all halfback of the day tore it up. One Eugene Guard game report noted how much faster he was than anyone on the field, even after he was "deliberately flattened unconscious" by an "over enthusiastic rook." The same newspaper would later label him "Smiling Joe Lillard, God's colored gift to Oregon."

His varsity debut in 1931 didn't disappoint, as he accounted for all the points in Oregon's 9-0 win over Idaho. In his next game, the Webfoots (as the Ducks were then called) upset their rival Washington Huskies, 13-0, behind Lillard's touchdown and two interceptions. Lillard's success would be short-lived: he was already under investigation by the Pacific Coast Conference for the payments he received while playing baseball. (The more things change...)

Lillard claimed that he only got paid to drive the bus, to chauffeur the players around, and that he occasionally filled in on the field for free. His (presumably bullshit) argument didn't take, even though other white stars were playing baseball for money and suffered no consequences. A rumored "gentlemen's agreement" throughout the PCC allowed for white kids to hold semi-pro summer jobs, but according to a College Football Historical Society report, it wasn't on the books and thus never proven. This wouldn't be the last time shady, technically unsubstantiated backroom dealings negatively affected Lillard's football career.

The man by then known as the Midnight Express was ruled ineligible. He wouldn't play another down for the Webfoots, who would lose the following week to a powerful USC team, 53-0. At the time, the Hollywood hit The Spirit of Notre Dame was in theaters. Reportedly, a bunch of Trojans had been paid $10 a day to appear as players in the film, but since it was "movie work," it didn't affect their amateur status.

Lillard dropped out of college and finished the year playing in professional all-star games. His touchdown runs of 55 and 45 yards in back-to-back games caught the eye of NFL scouts. In 1932, he joined the Chicago Cardinals, becoming the thirteenth black player—although the only one that season—to appear in the National Football League since it was formally founded in 1920. (Five other African Americans played professionally prior to the NFL.)

Lillard played in 18 of 21 games for the Cardinals in 1932 and 1933, rushing for 494 yards at nearly 10 a clip, and throwing for 372 yards, but the team's overall record was an abysmal 3-15-3. In 1933, the Cardinals won one miserable game, beating the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 on a Lillard field goal. (Kicking, for what it's worth, was not Lillard's strength. He had a habit of missing extra points, which cost the Cardinals two games.) Still, Lillard was the Cardinals lone bright spot. His season highlight was a newsreel-worthy 50-yard punt return touchdown in which he outran Bears superstar Red Grange. Lillard would finish that season accounting for 31 of the Cardinals' 52 points.

The black newspaper Chicago Defender called Lillard "easily the best halfback in football" and it seems clear his athletic talent was off the charts. What truly sets Lillard apart from the players of his era, however, was his modern attitude. He didn't take shit from nobody.

"On the Cardinals, Lillard didn't have a Jackie Robinson approach," says Ross. "He got into a lot of fights on the field, retaliated when he thought others crossed the line, showed up late to team meetings, and got into it with his head coach in terms of discipline. But the Cardinals were so terrible, they had to put up with his antics."

Fists were thrown, and then thrown some more. In the first game of the 1933 season, Lillard was tossed for getting into it with the Pittsburgh Pirates' Tony Holm. He wasn't even around for the taste of victory against Cincinnati, as he and Reds guard Lester Caywood got ejected for trading haymakers after his fourth-quarter field goal. Opposing white players knew that Lillard didn't back down and could be baited into brawling; they also knew they were much less likely to get thrown out if such a brawl occurred. Referees looked away from physical abuse heaped upon black players.

In a 2003 Sports Illustrated article about forgotten African American pioneers, author Daniel Coyle said that, at times, Lillard's own teammates stopped blocking for him just so opposing defenses could inflict more punishment. And it's not like he had the backing of management: according to Thomas G. Smith's book Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, Cardinals public relations officer Rocky Wolfe (picture a Great Depression version of PFTCommenter, and add sincerity) backed Lillard's teammates who couldn't handle his swagger. Wolfe said that Lillard should change his attitude "by living, walking, and breathing in a manner that does not bespeak supremacy."

Chicago Defender columnist Al Monroe begged Lillard to heed his bosses because he was "the lone link in a place we are holding on to by a very weak string."

The Pirates' Ray Kemp, the only other black NFL player in the 1933 season, called him an "an angry young man." It's not hard to fathom why a proud man like Lillard would be upset. By the end of 1933, Lillard and his temper were seized on by racist owners to ban black players from the NFL.

"In the pre-and-early-NFL days, fans passed the hat on Sundays. There wasn't much money and teams came and went, so teams needed bodies. College football was a much bigger deal. African-American college stars like Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson were drawing cards for team owners, helping the league establish itself," says Ross.

"In 1925, Red Grange becomes arguably the first dominant white superstar, the NFL gains more fans and a measure of stability, so the need for black players diminished. From 1925-33, they're gradually removed and then eliminated altogether after Lillard plays his final game. And let's just says George Preston Marshall was not a supporter of the integration process."

Marshall was a determined segregationist who wouldn't integrate his team until 1962 (and only then because the Kennedy administration forced his hand). He was also instrumental in a 1933 NFL reorganization that set up the East and West divisions and a championship game. It's not exactly clear why Marshall held so much sway, but by most accounts he was the ringleader when it came to following baseball's well-established bigotry in order to "modernize" football. Whether it was at Marshall's behest or his mere suggestion, a wall was built and the league was Bob Lilly-white until after World War II.

"It's been characterized as an informal color barrier, but it's clearly formal because no other black players are offered the opportunity to play again until 1946," says Ross.

So the Cardinals let Lillard go. Later, head coach Paul Schissler would basically say that blacklisting was in everyone's best interests. His paternalistic argument was that since Lillard was a marked man, it made the Cardinals a marked team, so keeping him out of the league was really best for everyone's safety.

In Showdown, Smith writes that some blacks believed owners were using Lillard's fiery personality as a cudgel, a cheap excuse to keep blacks out. The owners, even Marshall, denied that there was any type exclusionary arrangement against African-Americans.

A defiant Lillard would later tell the Brooklyn Eagle that he knew the score. "The pro league and the way they hand out the bumps is a joke. Why I never got hurt among the pros like I did in college," he said. "Fellas on the other team used to be told gang me even when I wasn't in a play, to try and get me off the field."

Even without the NFL, football kept Lillard afloat for a while. He played for a variety of semi-pro teams, including the Westwood Cubs, of the Pacific Coast Football League; the Union City Rams, of the American Pro Football Association (he became the first black captain of a legitimately mixed-race team); and the New York Brown Bombers, which beat two separate all-white all-star teams, 28-6 and 27-0, back-to-back on the same day—no NFL team ever had the guts to give them a game. His last year of football was 1941. For good measure, Lillard also pitched five years in the Negro Leagues, until finally hanging up his glove in 1944. He is one of only three men to play in both the Negro Leagues and the NFL.

"He kind of rented himself out like Satchel Paige, moving from team to team, but this cat was one hell of an athlete, a Bo Jackson-Deion Sanders type of guy who didn't get any press," says Ross.

For a time, Joe Lillard wrote a sports column for the New York Independent News, which was founded by hall-of-fame running back and fellow Brown Bomber teammate Fritz Pollard. In his later years, Lillard moved to Astoria, Queens, where he worked at an appliance store and Vinn Sporting Goods. On September 18, 1978, he suffered a stroke that resulted in agnosia. Lillard died the same day, in New York City's Bellevue Hospital, at the age of 73. Nearly forty years after he was shut out of the NFL, the Midnight Express stopped running.

"In Canton, the Football Hall of Fame has a 'Contributors' category," says Ross. "Lillard is someone they should take a hard look at. I think he warrants induction for his contribution to the game."