Most Cardinals fans are unlikely aware of the long-ago career of Duke Slater, but they should be.
Slater was a dominant tackle during the beginning years of the NFL. He was the longest-tenured African-American player of the era prior to the NFL locking out black players in the 1930s until the late 1940s.
Slater played from 1922-1931 for the Milwaukee Badgers (1922), Rock Island Independents (1922-1925) and the Chicago Cardinals (1926-31). He was named All-NFL four times including twice with the Cardinals in 1926 and 1929.
He blocked for Hall of Famers Fritz Pollard, Jimmy Conzelman, Jim Thorpe and Ernie Nevers, who was with the Cardinals from 1929-1931. Slater played all 60 minutes in the 1929 Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears in which Nevers scored a still league-record 40 points on six touchdowns and four extra points.
The six touchdowns has been equaled three times by Dub Jones (1951), Gale Sayers (1965) and Alvin Kamara of the Saints in 2020.
Noted pro football historian and former vice president of the Hall of Fame Joe Horrigan said, "Duke Slater was not only an outstanding player, he was a trailblazer. One of just 13 black players in the NFL between 1920 and 1934 when pro football’s 'color barrier' went into effect, Slater defied the odds. While nine of the 13 black players played between just one and three seasons, Slater dominated opposing linemen for 10 seasons, earning league honors and newspaper headlines ordinarily reserved for big-name running backs like Ernie Nevers and Jim Thorpe."
Slater was elected to the Hall of Fame special Centennial Class last year along with nine other players, but the enshrinement ceremony was postponed because of COVID-19.
This year, the Hall will enshrine the Centennial Class on Saturday, Aug. 7 and the 2021 class the following day.
However, for a variety of reasons, the decision was made to hold a separate ceremony for the deceased members of both the Centennial Class and this year’s group, which includes only contributor Bill Nunn. “Hall of Fame Forever: Enshrinement Special” will take place Wednesday, the day before the NFL Draft, in Canton, Ohio (60 miles south of where the draft will be conducted in Cleveland) and beginning at 2:30 pm Arizona time.
The ceremony, in which each enshrinee’s bust will be unveiled, is being recorded to be shown on NFL Network after the conclusion of the draft Saturday and then rebroadcast on ESPN2 next Tuesday, May 4, at 5 pm Arizona time.
A unique part of the proceedings will occur after the enshrinement when family members of those enshrinees will place the busts in the Hall of Fame Gallery.
“It's going to be very emotional,” Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker told SiriusXM NFL Radio on the Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show. “We're going to have a little bit more time to talk to the family and get their thoughts, which in a regular enshrinement we never do.”
Explaining how it came about, Baker said, “Part of this was, we had between these two classes, including the Centennial Class and the Class of 2021, we've got 28 enshrinees. So part of the concern was, the posthumous enshrinees next to Peyton Manning and Troy Polamalu and Jimmy Johnson, and Bill Cowher, there's the potential for them to get lost. And we don't want them to be lost. Our job for every one of these Hall of Famers is to protect their legacy forever.
“A guy like a Duke Slater, or Bill Nunn, who was the first African-American contributor to ever go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And so we thought this was a wonderful way of taking care of all nine guys, making sure that they had their own hour and a half at a unique time. And we'll also do some stuff for them in August. But that also decompresses things in August. So we now can enshrine 19 guys, which is a little more tolerable than 28, and we'll do it over two days. Our job isn't just to keep their own legacy on that one day. Our job is to keep their legacy forever.”
It wasn’t lost on Baker that the ceremony occurs as 259 new players will be drafted by NFL teams.
Baker concluded, “Honoring the legacies of these newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in conjunction with the NFL Draft reminds us that the players of today stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Every player chosen on draft weekend can look to these nine men – legends who form a line reaching back to the NFL’s earliest years – and learn important lessons about commitment, courage and excellence to help him in his own journey.”
In addition to Slater, the other enshrinees being honored are:
Bobby Dillon (safety); Green Bay Packers 1952-1959
Winston Hill (tackle); New York Jets 1963-1976, Los Angeles Rams 1977
Alex Karras (defensive tackle); Detroit Lions 1958-1962, 1964-1970
Mac Speedie (end), Cleveland Browns 1946-1952
Ed Sprinkle (defensive end/linebacker/end), Chicago Bears 1944-1955
Bill Nunn (senior scout/assistant director of player personnel); Pittsburgh Steelers 1968-2014
Steve Sabol (administrator/president); NFL Films 1964-2012
George Young (general manager/administrator); Baltimore Colts 1968-1974, Miami Dolphins 1975-78, New York Giants 1979-1997, NFL 1998-2001