Before there was Kirby Puckett and Kevin Garnett, there was Bobby Marshall.
“One of the greatest athletes of all time. He’s up there with the best baseball players, best hockey players, icons of sports,” said Terry McConnell in a recent MSR interview on his new book, “Breaking Through The Line” (Nodin Press).
To call Marshall (1880-1958), who at the turn of the 20th century excelled in three sports, Minnesota’s first Black superstar athlete is not hyperbole. He is comparable to Jackie Robinson, McConnell added: “They’re both very intelligent men, two loving men who were such great examples of integrity. He [Marshall] was never about putting himself first and always other people first.”
Born in Milwaukee, Marshall moved to Minneapolis with his parents at an early age. He soon became a popular athlete, first in high school, then at the University of Minnesota, where he played football and graduated in 1907.
He was the first Black football player to make All-American for the Big Ten and helped lead the Gophers to three conference titles in 1903, 1904, and 1906. He later became the first Black coach in the conference in 1907, as a Minnesota assistant coach.
He also played hockey before the NHL, and played pro baseball before the Negro Leagues. Marshall played well into the 1950s. “He’s playing sports all the time,” marveled McConnell.
The author researched newspaper accounts, including the Minneapolis Spokesman and the Spokesman-Recorder, and talked to several of Marshall’s descendants. “By going to newspapers,” said McConnell, “I got a lot of great information.”
He eventually learned that Marshall and his wife were active members of St. Peter’s AME Church in South Minneapolis. He also attended the U of M Law School, becoming one of the first Black graduates: “He worked his way through college,” said McConnell, as a waiter and working for his father’s construction company. Marshall worked for the State of Minnesota as a grain inspector for almost 40 years.
“The reason he didn’t continue as a lawyer was the sports teams would draw him out of the area,” said McConnell. “He played for teams all over the Midwest.”
McConnell expertly outlines in his book that Marshall was the first NFL Black player—he made All-Pro in 1920 at the age of 40 and played until age 45. If Tom Brady plays next season, he will break Marshall’s mark as the oldest starting pro football player, added the author.
“People have forgotten an interesting story,” said McConnell of Marshall. Along with promoting his book, McConnell is on a campaign to raise $50,000 for a Bobby Marshall scholarship fund at the U of M, and to get Marshall into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He was a man who was way ahead of his time,” said McConnell.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
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