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Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio

MOUNT VERNON - One of the best kept secrets of the American sports world is soon to be seen on the stage of the Memorial Theater. The story of the first African-American professional football player was hardly known until Fredericktown resident Jim Stoner uncovered the details and wrote the script for the stage/film production depicting the story of Charles Follis.

Picture Ohio in 1902, still in the shadow of the Civil War, and civil rights for blacks were merely a volatile talking point. Small towns were fighting for identity and respect and enjoying prosperity for the first time. New ways to entertain oneself became popular---and many small towns began to field "Football Clubs" and compete with one another for bragging rights.

Follis Football players

Football club members disagree whether colored players should be allowed to play in The Black Cyclone, the Charles Follis story.  KnoxPages.com photo by Marty Trese

This story captures the strength of one family, how they fought to make a home in white America---against a backdrop of what has become the NFL. These events began near the end of the 18th century in Wooster, Ohio. As former slaves, the Follis family had moved to that area from Virginia looking for work. High school student Charles was an outstanding baseball player and when the new sport of football appeared he was so adept at the game that he soon became known as “The Black Cyclone.” Football was a rough sport with annual deaths ranging as high as 16, including the younger brother of Charles. Soon Charles was playing on a Wooster community team where he got the eye of a sports entrepreneur who offered him a contract for $10 a game to play on the newly-formed Shelby Blues team in nearby Shelby.

But the story does not end there. As the only black player, often abused and cursed by white players, he was befriended by Branch Rickey, a white player on the team. Rickey was impressed by the character and attitude of Charles, never fighting back. After Charles Follis’ early death from pneumonia, Rickey went into baseball, eventually becoming an owner of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers; he never forgot the example of Follis, and because of it, 40 years later in 1947 he achieved his dream of signing the first black professional baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

The account by Stoner, entitled “The Black Cyclone,” has been picked up by the NFL Football Hall of Fame, ESPN and Time Warner Cable. It is historically accurate in every detail. Produced by the Mount Vernon Players, and already having been staged in several Ohio venues including the Martin Luther King Performing Arts   Center in Columbus, Malabar Farm, and it will be on the Memorial Theater stage January 29 at 7 p.m. and 30 at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. featuring numerous Mount Vernon and Knox County residents in the cast.

Tickets will be available at the door.

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