Historians often credit the American Football League (AFL) with opening up new pro football job opportunities for African Americans. Particularly noted are players from HBCUs such as Prairie View A&M. Not nearly as recognized are the HBCU pioneers who played in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) in the 1940s, a pro football league that spawned the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. The Browns and 49ers later joined the NFL in 1950. (A team named the Baltimore Colts also joined the NFL from the AAFC, but that team is technically not the same franchise as today’s Indianapolis Colts.)
Hall of Famers
Although Tank Younger became the first Grambling player to play in the NFL in 1949, it is important to remember that there were several players in the AAFC that attended HBCUs, some of whom played before Younger. The AAFC’s Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers both later joined the NFL and had former HBCU students on their roster. The Browns featured Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Marion Motley starting in 1946. Motley attended South Carolina State for one year before transferring to Nevada.Embed from Getty Images
ABOVE: Photo of Marion Motley at Nevada.
Another Hall of Famer who started playing in the AAFC was Len Ford, who attended Morgan State before transferring to Michigan for three years. Ford played for the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons starting in 1948 and later played in the NFL alongside Motely on the Cleveland Browns. Ford finished his career with the Green Bay Packers.
AAFC Players from HBCUs
Halfback Elmore Harris played all of his college football at Morgan State. He suited up for the AAFC’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Most of his action came on kick returns.
Tackle Bob Mike played the 1948 and 1949 seasons as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Mike first attended Florida A&M before transferring to UCLA.
Several other HBCU alums played pro football in the AAFC. Bill Bass, who went to Tennessee State before transferring to Nevada, played for the Chicago Rockets in 1947. Hampton’s Tom Casey played for the AAFC’s New York Yanks in 1948. John Brown, from North Carolina Central, played three seasons at linebacker and center for the Los Angeles Dons from 1947-1949 and made three interceptions in 1949. Offensive guard Ben Whaley from Virginia State also played for the Dons in 1949.