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Duke Slater deserves your attention

Frederick Wayman "Duke" Slater. 6-2, 207 pounds. All-American at the University of Iowa. Seven-time All-Pro NFL tackle. Lawyer. Judge.

I gotta say something about Duke Slater here because his career and life warrant so much more recognition, and I hope he gets it this summer, if not earlier.

In the late 1920s, Slater was the only Black player in the NFL as a result of owners colluding to bar minorities from the league. That's how good Slater was. The lone Black exception to the NFL's racist rule. He played with the Milwaukee Badgers and Rock Island Independents in his first four seasons and the Chicago Cardinals for his final six.

Remember when Alvin Kamara scored six rushing touchdowns for the Saints on Christmas Day 2020 against the Vikings? He tied a record set by Ernie Nevers in 1929. But Nevers also kicked four extra points in his game against the cross-town rival Bears, so he still holds the NFL record for most points in a game at 40. Guess who was the star lineman on that '29 Cardinals team bulldozing the defense and opening gaping holes for Nevers all season, especially on November 28.


When the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis in the 1960s, they were putting down roots as a competitive team that would catch my attention in the early 1980s. The Big Red were my team as a kid growing up across the Mississippi River. But I never heard of Duke Slater. Still hadn't heard about him until three or four years ago.

I learned about him when researching pioneering Black pro football players, especially offensive linemen. There had long been a stigma attached to Black players through the baseless beliefs that positions along the o-line (especially center), middle linebacker and quarterback couldn't be manned by a Black player. (Look into players such as Fritz Pollard, John Brown, Willie Lanier, Ray Donaldson, to name a brief few.) Not only was Slater leading the offensive line, he was doing it as the only Black player in the NFL, regardless of position. I know this by reading Neal Rozendaal's fine book published in 2012, "Duke Slater: Pioneering Black NFL Player and Judge." What we know about Jackie Robinson quietly enduring hatred and ill treatment in professional baseball in 1947 and beyond can be applied to Slater's experiences in the 1920s and 1930s. He attended the University of Iowa, then considered a friendly safe haven for Black college athletes, much like the University of Minnesota, and made a name for himself as an All-American.

After graduating from Iowa, Slater began taking classes at the law school toward his J.D. and continued to do so in the NFL offseason while living in Iowa City and working various jobs to pay tuition. What a remarkable story of a driven young man focused on his goals despite daily animosity.

Following his playing career, Slater became Judge Slater, the second Black judge in Chicago history. He served on the bench until his death in 1966.

For several years recently, Rozendaal led a campaign to convince voters to select Slater for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Slater was part of the inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951) I was so inspired by Slater's story that I joined the letter-writing campaign. I won't pretend my efforts made any difference. The lone response I recall receiving was along the lines of "thanks for writing - we are well aware of Duke Slater." Whatever caused voters to change their minds after several years, I'm thrilled to see Duke Slater on the list of inductees in the 2020 class.

This summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct the 2020 and 2021 classes because last year's celebration was a COVID casualty.

I usually don't pay much attention to Hall of Fame speeches and the induction ceremony. How are posthumous inductees celebrated? I'm sure the Cardinals organization will do something special. And I hope a lot more people learn about Slater's story.

For me, I decided to celebrate by buying an old Matt Leinart #7 Cardinals road jersey through eBay (naturally). It's the simple design of the all-red jersey, similar to the old St. Louis style, no stripes or design flourishes, just the Cardinal head on both sleeves. Then I asked my neighbor to hot-press a "SLATER" nameplate over the top of Leinart's name. Slater wore #7 for the 1929 Chicago Cardinals. Who knows? Maybe we'll return to Canton this year and I can help spread the word.

"Is that a Leinart jersey?"

"No, man! Duke Slater! Lemme tell you!"


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