The Grave of Charles Follis
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Sunday, May 17, 2015
The state of Ohio and pro football go together like bacon and eggs. From the Pro Football Hall of Fame located in Canton and the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals of today, to many other Ohio pro teams of the past, the stateís place in pro football history definitely predates the birth of the National Football League in 1920.
In the town of Wooster, Ohio, about 30 minutes west of Canton, they celebrate a local man who may not be a household name to most, but who forged a trail for others to follow.
His name is Charles Follis and he is recognized as the first documented African-American professional football player. Follis grew up in Wooster and even attended Wooster College, but he did not play football in college. Instead, he starred as a catcher on the college baseball team.
Follis first played football for the Wooster Athletic Club in 1901. One of the teams that the club played against that season was the nearby Shelby (Ohio) Athletic Club. The Shelby coach was so impressed with Follisí play as a halfback that he invited him to join the Shelby team the following year. He was so good at running the football that he became known as The Black Cyclone from Wooster.
It was during his playing days with Shelby, from 1902-1906, that documentation of his professional status was discovered in the form of an article in the local paper in 1904 stating that Follis had signed a contract to play for the Shelby team. His pioneering pro status is today recognized with a display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of his teammates on the Shelby team was a man by the name of Branch Rickie, who marveled at Follisí athletic ability. Years later, in 1945, Rickie was the general manager and president of Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. It was he who decided to sign Jackie Robinson to the team, thus breaking the color barrier in baseball. Robinson spent two seasons playing in the minors and made his debut with the Dodgers in 1947. Richie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
Follis played his last football game for Shelby on Thanksgiving Day in 1906. After that, he concentrated on his baseball career. As good as he was at football, his baseball career was even better. He started out playing for the Wooster Giants of the Ohio Trolley League and went on to play for a couple of teams in the Negro League; the Star-Light Champs from Cleveland and the Cuban Giants from New York.
Unfortunately, his promising athletic career was cut short when he died of pneumonia on April 5, 1910 at the age of 31.
Today, the high school football stadium in Wooster is named Follis Field. There is a plaque dedicated to him just inside the entrance to the stadium.
If you go to Wooster
The football field is located next to the Wooster High School on Oldman Road on the north side of town.
Charles Follis is buried in the Wooster Cemetery, which is located just south of US 30. The cemetery address is 983 Madison Anenue. He is buried in Section 16. You can obtain a map of the cemetery at the caretakerís office which is just on the left when you enter. The headstone is small and contains the name of Charles and six other members of the Follis family buried in the family plot.