From Deacon Jones to Steve McNair, many HBCU football players have impacted NFL history. Here, we spotlight three of the first HBCU players to play in the NFL. Tank Younger, Willie Irvin, and Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins.
Paul “Tank” Younger played running back for the Los Angeles Rams from 1949 through 1957. He was a key part of the Rams team that won the 1951 NFL Championship. In 1954, he led the NFL in rushing yards per carry. In 1955, he led the NFL in rushing yards per game. He also occasionally played linebacker for the Rams and had three career interceptions.
Younger spent the 1958 NFL season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After he retired from playing, Younger later worked as an NFL scout and became the NFL’s first Black assistant general manager. As a scout and executive, he was influential in other HBCU stars gaining opportunities to play pro football.
Why is he called Tank Younger?
Tank Younger got his nickname from Grambling sports information director Collie Nicholson. Nicholson told the New York Times, ”It was just after World War II. I was watching him run over everybody he couldn’t run around. I’d been a Marine in the South Pacific, and it reminded me of what I saw those tanks doing down there.”
Younger is credited with scoring 60 touchdowns at Grambling. He was the first pro player that the great Eddie Robinson coached. Younger recalled Coach Robinson telling him that he needed to succeed with the Rams because if he didn’t make it, it would be a long time before another HBCU player would have a chance to play in the NFL. The New York Times quoted Younger as saying, “I left school with the attitude that I couldn’t fail. I saw some tough days, but I hung in there.”
Willie Irvin FAMU
Willie Irvin is the first NFL player to be drafted out of Florida A&M. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the 15th round of the 1953 NFL Draft. Despite playing well for the Eagles, he only played a handful of games for the team.
Irvin played college ball for the great Jake Gaither after starring at Excelsoir High School in St. Augustine, Florida. He made Florida A&M’s varsity team as a freshman and even made the starting lineup. He also ran back an interception for a touchdown as a freshman for the Rattlers. “I was big enough and mean enough and old enough and ugly enough. What I’m saying is I’m trying to tell you if you’re gonna make somebody’s football team, you got to be a man. When I say be a man, you got to be able to cut the mustard. I was able to do it,” Irvin said in an interview for Their Game, Their Times.
He also shined in basketball and starred in one of the most remarkable games in college basketball history. During the 1952 SIAC tournament, the Rattlers faced Alabama State. Florida A&M got into foul trouble and multiple players fouled out of the game. The Rattlers played the last 13 minutes of regulation with only four players, with Irvin leading the way in scoring. The game went into overtime and Florida A&M battled to a tremendous overtime victory.
After football, Irvin went into the military. He later obtained his master’s degree and spent much of his life working in education.
Who was the first NFL quarterback from a HBCU?
Prairie View A&M’s Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins played quarterback for the Green Bay Packers in 1955.
First NFL QB from a HBCU
Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins attended Lincoln High School in Dallas, Texas before starring at quarterback for Billy Nicks at Prairie View A&M. Brackins led the Panthers to three SWAC championships and two Black national championships. An all-around stellar athlete, Brackins played defensive back and served as the team’s place kicker and punter in addition to his quarterbacking duties.
The Green Bay Packers selected Brackins in the 16th round of the 1955 NFL Draft. Brackins was named one of the starting quarterbacks in a scrimmage during training camp. The LaCrosse Tribune noted that Brackins excelled at kicking during camp, making five straight field goals from 45 yards away – a considerable distance during that era. Brackins made the Packers final 33-man roster as the second-string quarterback behind Tobin Rote, the team’s established veteran, although in late August of 1955, the Waco Tribune reported that Brackins had a strong chance to dispel Rote as the starter.
Brackins made only one regular season appearance for the Packers. He threw two passes in a game, both incomplete, against Cleveland in October of 1955. Although Brackins wasn’t the first African American to play quarterback in the NFL’s modern era (Kenny Washington, George Taliaferro, and Willie Thrower previously played at QB in the NFL), Charlie “Choo Choo Brackins” is the first quarterback from an HBCU to play in the NFL.
The Packers released Brackins in November of 1955. According to his obituary in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brackins played briefly with the American Football League’s Dallas Texans in 1960 (that franchise is now known as the Kansas City Chiefs). He also played semi-pro football for the Tucson Rattlers.
Brackins also served in the Army. He worked as a social worker at the Dallas Community Center and as an agent for a life insurance company.
More Early HBCU Pro Football Players
The NFL wasn’t the only big-time pro football league in the 1940s. After World War 2, the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) started play in 1946. The AAFC provided new opportunities for HBCU players, many who have been forgotten by the history books. Although Tank Younger was the first player from Grambling to play in the NFL, other HBCU stars played pro football in the AAFC. You can read more about them here.