Third and Long: The History of African-Americans in Professional Football

Even with the extreme popularity of the NFL today, many are unaware of the racial history that so greatly influenced the sport of American football and its current composition. There was once a time when African-Americans were banned from playing professional football altogether. To put the history of African-Americans in football under a brighter light and to inform society of what truly built the foundation upon which football exists today, Derrick Heggans produced the documentary Third and Long for just that purpose.

A graduate of Duke University and George Washington University Law School, Heggans has a strong background within the NFL, having worked for NFL Properties, the marketing and licensing division of the league, in the legal & business affairs department as a staff attorney, primarily serving as business affairs counsel for corporate sponsorships, marketing, and special events. He has also worked in the Office of the Commissioner as Asst. Counsel for Broadcast Operations and Policy, primarily dealing with media rights and contracts. He currently works at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as managing director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

Third and Long delves deep into the history, struggles, and triumphs of African-Americans in professional football from 1946, after a 13-year ban of such athletes during the Great Depression, until 1989, when Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders became the first African-American NFL head coach within the modern era. The documentary examines major events during the time period such as World War II and the Civil Rights movement and their effect on the game of football, as well as the impact of historically black colleges and universities.

In an interview with Edge of Sports Radio on the Pro Player Insiders network, Heggans talked about some of the content within his documentary and how it has influenced the current state of the NFL and its players. He even confessed, “I was quite embarrassed as [a black male] who had worked in the legal department of the NFL for six years,” referring to his lack of knowledge prior to producing the documentary that there was a “ban on African-Americans in pro football during the Great Depression.” Heggans also explained that it wasn’t until 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, that pro football was officially integrated. Also mentioned were historic figures in African-American football such as Fritz Pollard and Bobby Mitchell. Pollard became one of the first black players in the NFL in 1920, as well as the first official African-American head coach in the NFL in 1921, both debuts coming with the Akron Pros. Bobby Mitchell was the first African-American to play for the Redskins, the last team to integrate black players. Heggans also revealed some interesting facts, such that if a team had an African-American player on their team in the early days, they would make sure to find another because a black player could not room with a white player during those times.

Third and Long premiered on CBS Sports Network last month over two episodes. Derrick Heggans proudly described his documentary as a “Story which is so important for us to tell…not just as an African-American story, but an American history story.” Without the history that is explained within the film, recent accomplishments such as Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears being the first African-American head coaches to appear in a Super Bowl (XLI), Dungy being the first to win one, may never have been possible.

You can check out the interview now on the ProPlayerInsiders YouTube Channel

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