Jenkins wasn’t allowed headgear, and opposing teams were allowed to fire shotguns at him
November 12, 1920–When the Chicago Bears ran on to their home field on that windy day 93 years ago, few had any idea they would be taking part in history. Bears players were appalled when they looked at the opposing team, the Washington Blackskins, and saw Steamroll Jenkins, an African-American, warming up as a running back. It would be the first time many of the players had ever seen a black man. And Jenkins would become the first black man to play in an NFL game.
“It just wasn’t proper for a white man in that time to see a black man,” says football historian Brock Stern, “As a matter of fact, it was against the law for a black man to even want to play sports. So there has always been a question about Jenkins’ desire.”
No one was questioning Jenkins’ desire by the end of the game, as the Blackskins running back gained 897 yards and ran for 16 touchdowns on just six carries.
“It was an embarrassment for the white NFL,” says Stern, “It seems almost impossible, which, mathematically, I guess it is. But nothing was impossible that day for Steamroll. A local sportswriter even coined the phrase, ‘to get steamrolled’ after that game. It was a day that should have changed sports forever.”
Unfortunately, Steamroll Jenkins has been largely forgotten. His first NFL game would also be his last. And the last for any black man for nearly 40 years.
“Steamroll disappeared shortly after the game,” says Stern, “His fate to this day remains a mystery. No black man played in the NFL again until Jim Brown broke into the league in 1957 by basically threatening to kill any man who got in his way with his bare hands.”
Following the game, the Washington Blackskins were shunned by the league and forced to change their name, which they had taken to honor the freed slaves who worked on the White House kitchen staff. They settled on the Washington Redskins, in honor of President Woodrow Wilson, who was the last president to publicly skin alive a Native American on the White House lawn.
“Steamroll may not be in the history books, but his legacy remains,” says Stern, “For several years following that game, some white players started wearing blackface during games to intimidate the opposing team. You can still see remnants of that with the eyeblack that players wear. And the NFL rule that only black players can be tested for performance enhancing substances? That’s unofficially known as the Steamroll Rule.”