Football | 2/1/2021 6:00:00 AM
As a Black man at a time when under 1 percent of Minnesota’s population was non-white, Bobby Marshall’s mere presence in a Gophers uniform would have been enough to turn heads. But Marshall earned even more attention for his athletic abilities than his different appearance. The first Black letter winner in what would become the Big Ten Conference, the two-time All-American end led Minnesota football to a 27-2 record over the 1904-06 seasons. He was also an all-conference baseball player, varsity sprinter, boxer, and hockey player, all while studying law at the university.
One of Marshall’s signature moments on the gridiron came against the University of Chicago in 1906. He made several major defensive plays and booted a long field goal (then worth 4 points) to give Minnesota a 4-2 victory.
Marshall continued to compile many “firsts” following graduation. He was one of the first African-Americans to play professional football, and was the first African-American (along with Fritz Pollard) to play in what is now the NFL. He played for the Rock Island Independents in the league’s first game at age 40 in 1920. He was also the first African-American to play semi-professional hockey. Marshall became Minnesota’s first Black high school coach when he got the job at Minneapolis Central, where he had excelled as a student-athlete prior to his time at the U of M. He was the Gophers’ first Black coach as a football assistant.
Marshall also played Negro League and semi-pro baseball, including time with the St. Paul Colored Gophers and Chicago Leland Giants. Outside of sports, he practiced law and held an appointment to the state grain department for 39 years. However, “outside of sports” was not a place Marshall seemed to be for long. He drifted in and out of various leagues for decades, playing football until age 56, and baseball and softball until his 60s.
Marshall’s accomplishments and legacy sometimes seem to be understated. In Gopher football lore, later Black pioneers like Sandy Stephens and Bobby Bell–whose jersey numbers are retired–are more recent and more familiar. Despite his significant and prolific career, Marshall was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1971, 20 years after its founding and 13 years after his death.
The NFL’s 100th season in 2019 and the 100th anniversary of the first game in October 2020 have renewed some awareness of Marshall’s story. In acknowledging football’s complicated racial history, including a 12-year period when Black players were kept out of the NFL, Marshall and other trailblazers have been highlighted.
Written by Justine Buerkle
Special Contributor to gophersports.com
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