MOUNT VERNON - “The Black Cyclone” will be presented by Mount Vernon Players, through a special relationship with the Archie and Donita Griffin Foundation this weekend in Columbus. The play is the story of Charles Follis, the largely forgotten sports legend. He is recognized by the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton as the first black professional football player in America.
It is a true story that is portrayed in this play, written by Ohio Playwright, Jim Stoner, and has been featured in an episode of “NFL Films Presents” on the NFL Network, and ESPN2 following its’ debut in 2013. Jim Stoner stated in a recent interview that he is “very excited to bring this inspiring story to Columbus as there is not a more fitting location than the Martin Luther King Center. “The Black Cyclone” has been successfully staged at Malabar Farm State Park and in Wooster, by the Wooster High Drama Club.
The Follis family moved to Ohio with little more than their faith in God. In the 1890’s, Ohio was speckled with small towns known as “sundown towns”, where blacks were not to be seen on the streets after dark, which limited their options for a home. Mr. Henry Follis found work in the Northern Ohio Industrial community of Wooster. There he raised a family of seven children with his wife Cate---and all the Follis boys were gifted athletes. The oldest of the children, Charles excelled among his almost exclusively white peers in baseball, and the game of American football had begun to gain popularity in many of the communities across Northern and Central Ohio. This game became popular in back yards and playgrounds, where Charles made a name for himself as a “star of the sandlot”. He was not only recognized for his athleticism, but for his humility, and respectful approach to mistreatment by white peers, and uncommon sportsmanship. By the time he was a junior in high school, Charles Follis had impressed his teammates enough that he was elected the first team captain of Wooster High School’s football team. He gained a fierce reputation as a force, being nicknamed the “The Black Cyclone”, as he ravaged offenses as a defenseman and rambled over defenses as a halfback. When he broke through in the open he was described as “a tornado, or cyclone tearing down the field!”
Despite his father’s concerns of gaining such notoriety in a white world, Charles' exploits began to be noticed all across Northern Ohio. A nearby community, Shelby, Ohio, and one of the “sundown towns” had been a force with their community athletic club football team, the Shelby Blues, for a number of years, and they were led by a particularly marketing savvy businessman named Frank Schiffer. Frank was always looking for ways to win games. When he heard word of the exploits of this dynamic, talented---yet humble--- black man, Schiffer had an idea that proved bigger than even he could have imagined. After Charles had graduated high school, Frank offered Charles a contract to play on his football team, in 1902. This has been identified as the first contract to pay a black man to play professional football in America.
While in Shelby, Charles befriended a teammate who was always impressed by Charles' perseverance and winning attitude. Charles Follis sadly died at the age of 30 in 1910, His friend, entrepreneur and social advocate used Charles as the template for the person he chose to break the race barrier on the national stage. In 1947, this pioneer for tolerance, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to his own Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jim Stoner, an actor, singer and writer, is a graduate of The Ohio State University. He and his wife Amy do a great deal of living history performances in Knox County, Ohio, and Amy is an elementary music teacher in the North Fork District. He is hopeful that this script gives Charles the notoriety he deserves, and shows what can be accomplished when one pursues what they love, and how differences should prove to be obstacles or success, acceptance and extraordinary accomplishment.
“The Black Cyclone” will be staged at The Martin Luther King Center at 867 Mount Vernon Avenue, Columbus, Ohio. Shows are scheduled for April 23, 24, and 25 at 7:30 pm, and a 2:30 matinee on Saturday the 25th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 740.504.9399 or at www.blackcyclone.org.