NDN All-Star “FIRSTS” – The First Native American Pro Football Player

NDN All-Stars "FIRSTS" - George Shelafo, First Native American Professional Football player

In an earlier “FIRSTS” I talked about the importance of NDN All-Star #4 Louis Sockalexis (Penobscot) and his place in history as the first Native American baseball player.

What about football? There have been a lot of great professional football players with Native American heritage.  Players like the immortal Jim Thorpe, Hall of Famer Joe Guyon, Sonny Sixkiller, and more.  But – who was the FIRST?

The answer is NDN All-Star #198 George Shelafo (Chippewa). Shelafo holds the unique place in the history of American football as the first Native American to get paid to play the game.

Shelafo started his football career at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, famous for its pioneering football program under legendary coach Pop Warner. The Carlisle football team was known for its innovative strategies and for producing some of the most outstanding players of the time. He played at Carlisle from 1894-1896.

Shelafo took a big step in his football career in 1897 by signing with the Latrobe Athletic Association. Latrobe was the first football team to play an entire season with only professional players, a notable moment in the early days of professional football. David J. Berry, the manager of the Latrobe team, heavily recruited him – even though Shelafo already had plans to attend the University of Chicago that fall​.

This was a big decision for Shelafo. In the 1890s, people had mixed feelings about professional football. The sport was becoming popular, especially in working-class areas and was a big deal for local communities, bringing pride and a sense of identity. However, not everyone was happy about it. Some people thought that paying players ruined the “purity of the game,” which was supposed to be about building character and playing fair.

Newspapers wrote a lot about football, but they often focused on the roughness and injuries – so much so that there was a movement to ban football altogether. Taken in that light, Shelafo’s decision  to leave college and throw in with a professional team was not the easy decision that it is for players today.

The 1897 season was memorable for Shelafo and the now all professional Latrobe Athletic Association football team. They started the season strong with a 7-0-1 record including victories over the Pittsburgh Emeralds and the Western University of Pennsylvania​. Shelafo’s play on the field was a big part of these wins, highlighting his skills and athleticism. Playing in these games, Shelafo and his teammates helped to establish the credibility and competitiveness of professional football teams during that era.

As the first Native American to play football professionally, Shelafo helped pave the way for future generations of Native American athletes. His path from college football at Carlisle to playing professionally for Latrobe is evidence of the talent and determination of Native American players who contributed to the sport of football’s early development.

Shelafo’s pioneering role – while mostly overlooked at the time, draws attention to the influence of Native American athletes in shaping the game of American football. His story is a strong reminder of the rich history of early football and the critical role played by Native American pioneers like NDN All-Star #198 George Shelafo in the development of pro football.

#ndnallstars #georgeshelafo #Chippewa #Carlilsle #Latrobe #FIRSTS

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