SI Vault
Daniel Coyle
December 15, 2003
In the 1930s, when black players were barred from the NFL, an enterprising former halfback joined with a numbers kingpin to create a powerful team in Harlem
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 15, 2003

Invisible Men

In the 1930s, when black players were barred from the NFL, an enterprising former halfback joined with a numbers kingpin to create a powerful team in Harlem

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In the meantime Pollard started two-a-day practices, necessary to teach the complex offense that he christened, with typical flair, the Aeroplane Shift. A variation of the wide-open offense he'd run at Brown and with the Akron Pros, the Aeroplane featured frequent passes, split lines and reverses. This scheme required a halfback who could run, pass and kick. What Pollard needed was the man who'd been called the NFL's best before he was suspended for disciplinary reasons and then dropped by the Chicago Cardinals after the '33 season. What Pollard needed was the Midnight Express, Joe Lillard.

While Lillard was clearly the country's best black halfback, he was also a brawler, and Pollard had to know that bringing him in was a gamble. A riot or a scuffle could end the Bombers' chances of survival. For the team to succeed, Pollard would have to persuade Lillard to toe the line.

The son of an Oklahoma coal miner, Lillard was orphaned at 10 and sent to live with relatives who ran a cement company in Mason City, Iowa, a rough-edged boomtown of Greek, Mexican, English, German and Hungarian immigrants, and a welter of prostitution, drugs, bootlegging and ethnic violence. Lillard grew up fast and strong, building an impressive sports r�sum� as a baseball and football player. By the the time he graduated from high school in Mason City, he had filled out to roughly the same classical proportions as Jim Thorpe—six-feet tall, 185 pounds—and he showed similar speed, power and versatility.

He played guard for the Savoy Big Five, which would become the Harlem Globetrotters, in the late '20s. In '32 and '33 he was a pitcher and switch-hitter in the Negro leagues. And coming to the lowly football Cardinals in '32 after an abbreviated college football career at Oregon, he'd scored fully half the team's points and outrun the Galloping Ghost himself, Red Grange, on a punt return. But then, just when it seemed that Lillard would break out as a bona fide star, something happened.

Actually there were several somethings, all following the same script: A rival player would provoke Lillard, and Lillard would fight back. At a time when black athletes were expected to perform the act of stoicism known as "taking it," Lillard's retaliations were regarded by all whites and many blacks as prideful foolishness, if not sheer lunacy. "An angry young man" is how fellow black NFL player Ray Kemp remembered Lillard. By November of his first year with the Cardinals, Lillard's teammates had stopped blocking for him. Chicago Defender columnist Al Monroe pleaded with him to "learn to play upon the vanity" of whites. "He is the lone link in a place we are holding on to by a very weak string."

But Lillard did not listen: In his second NFL season he was thrown out of a game against Pittsburgh. Two weeks later he punctuated his game-winning field goal with a retaliatory uppercut to the chin of Cincinnati Reds guard Lester Caywood—who had punched him just after the kick—causing a near riot. By the time the string finally snapped, Lillard had evolved into a segregationist's fondest dream: living proof that whites and blacks should not mix. After being let go by the Cardinals, he retreated to Los Angeles to play with the semipro Westwood Cubs.

As September 1935 wore on, Pollard kept calling Lillard. Finally, on Oct. 2, 11 days before the Brown Bombers' first game, the halfback arrived by train from L.A. He joined the team at Dyckman Oval and began to practice. The rest of the Bombers wore gold helmets, but Lillard chose to keep his old blue one from the Cubs. He didn't mind setting himself apart.

During that first season, the Bombers had plenty to sing about. After defeating Cagle's team in the opener, they beat the Rose Bowl Lions, another all-star team, 27-0, beginning a string of four shutouts. In fact, things may have gone too well for the Bombers: White teams were growing wary of them. Pollard was having difficulty scheduling games and had to abandon the Aeroplane Shift in favor of a more basic offense in order to avoid running up the score.

The Bombers' fifth game, however, required no such reluctance. New Jersey's Passaic Red Devils had won three Eastern professional titles and featured six current or former NFL players on their roster, including Tony Siano, one of Ford-ham's original "seven blocks of granite"; Wee Willie Smith, the former Giants running back; and Walt Singer, an active Giant who took advantage of his team's off week to suit up for the Devils.

The days leading up to the game did not bode well for the Bombers. Lillard fell ill; the weather turned brutal. Things got worse when the Devils took the opening kickoff, drove easily to the Bombers' 21 and kicked a field goal, putting the Harlem team behind for the first time in its brief history.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8