By Kate Arhar // @ClvlndK8
Frederick Wayman “Duke” Slater (December 9, 1898 – August 14, 1966) was an American football player who will be enshrined posthumously as part of the 2020 Centennial Class in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
In high school in the early 1900’s, he had to choose between buying shoes or a helmet in order to play football. He chose shoes so he played every game of his career at Clinton High School without a helmet. He played the tackle and fullback positions.
In 1918, at the age of 20, he was allowed to enter the University of Iowa and play for four years despite his age due to rules being relaxed during World War I. He earned four letters along with All Big Ten and All-American honors.
He made history when he joined the NFL’s Rock Island Independents in 1922, becoming the first black lineman in NFL history. And that’s just the beginning of this story.
“This fellow Slater just about beat my team single-handed in the only contest we lost. Realizing the great strength of Slater and the fact that he knew how to use that strength to intelligent advantage, I had four of my players massed around Slater throughout the game. Occasionally my boys would stop the big tackle, but those times were the exception. Usually, he made such holes in my strong line that fullback Locke would go through for long gains, often standing straight up as he advanced with the ball.” – Knute Rockne, Notre Dame head coach
He was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. Playing the tackle position on the line, he was a first team All-American in 1921 and a member of the Hawkeyes’ 1921 national championship team. Slater joined the NFL the following year, becoming the first black lineman in league history. He played ten seasons in the NFL for the Rock Island Independents and the Chicago Cardinals, garnering seven all-pro selections.
— Hawkerella (@Hawkerella) September 19, 2020
In 1924, The Independents surged to the top of the NFL standings a month into the season. They suffered their first loss of the year when the previously-winless Kansas City Blues upset them, 23-7. Slater was held out of the game because the NFL had a “gentlemen’s agreement” prohibiting black players from participating in games held in Missouri; it was the only contest Slater missed in his ten-year NFL career.
Slater moved on to play for the Chicago Cardinals from 1926 through 1931. In 1928, at his urging, the Cardinals signed Harold Bradley Sr. to play guard alongside Slater, making Bradley the second black lineman in NFL history. Aside from the two games Bradley played, Slater as the only African American in the national football league from 1927 – 1929.
Ernie Nevers still holds the record for most points scored in an NFL game – 40. And he was able to rush for those scores because Duke Slater played every minute of that game. Every. Minute. He played both sides of the ball because he was that good, that dedicated.
Slater earned his law degree in 1928 and began to practice law as a Chicago attorney. In 1948, he was elected to the Cook County Municipal Court, becoming just the second African-American judge in Chicago history. Slater served as a Chicago judge for nearly two decades until his death in 1966.
Fellow Hall of Famers that played with Duke Slater thought highly of him and the game he played.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 10, 2020
While playing in the NFL, Duke Slater returned to Iowa in the off-seasons to attend law school and he earned his law degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Law in 1928. In 1948, he was elected to the Cook County Municipal Court, receiving nearly one million votes. Duke Slater was only the second African-American judge in Chicago history. Slater served two six-year terms on the Municipal Court. In 1960, he was the first African-American elevated to the Cook County Superior Court, the highest court in Chicago at the time. Four years later, Slater moved to the Circuit Court of Cook County following that institution’s formation.
Duke Slater was an active booster and recruiter for the University of Iowa throughout his life. He married Etta Searcy in 1926. She passed away in 1962 and they never had any children. Slater later succumbed to stomach cancer in 1966 and died at the age of 67.
These are the kind of men who get me right in “my feels” when it comes to the Hall of Fame. He’s gone now and left no family behind so it’s up to us to remember his legacy, to keep his story alive, to tell future generations about men like this who were not only beasts on the field but they were history makers in all aspects of their lives.
Talk Pro Football Hall of Fame with Kate on Twitter // @ClvlndK8