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Sherman Howard, last of the players who reintegrated pro football in the 1940s, has died at 95

The Phillips high school alum went on to teach and coach at Harlan High School, where he also was athletic director.

Sherman Howard in 1968.
Sherman Howard in 1968.
Sun Times files

Sherman Howard of Richton Park, who died Dec. 5 at 95, was one of the oldest living African American NFL players and one of the oldest living former members of the Cleveland Browns.

He was the last of the men who reintegrated pro football in the 1940s, after the establishment of a color line in 1933, according to Jon Kendle, director of archives and football information for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

He went on to become a coach, athletic director and physical education teacher at Chicago’s Harlan High School.

But first Mr. Howard played college football for the University of Iowa and the University of Nevada.

The Wendell Phillips high school alumnus played professionally from 1949 to 1953, first for the old New York Yankees, where his teammates included future Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. Later, he moved to the Browns.

Coach Sherman Howard with players at Harlan High School circa the early 1970s.
Coach Sherman Howard with players at Harlan High School circa the early 1970s.
Provided photo

“When Sherman played football, the black and the white players could not stay in the same place,” said his wife, Jeanette. “The whites stayed in a hotel, and the blacks stayed with [African American] families.”

Among his coaches was Paul Brown, for whom the Cleveland Browns are named.

“Paul Brown said, ‘If you don’t accept my players, we won’t play,’ and that helped,” Jeanette Howard said. Her husband told her “they would be spit on and called n----- and all kinds of things.”

In 1948, when Nevada beat the University of Tulsa 65-14, “He was the first black player to ever play in a college football game between two predominantly white universities in the state of Oklahoma,” according to Nevada Today, a University of Nevada publication.

Mr. Howard died of heart problems at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields. He had a triple-bypass operation in 1993, and doctors told him then the surgery might hold him another 13 years or so. His wife thinks his fitness helped him survive far longer.

“He was a health fanatic,” she said. “Till the day he died, he was doing his exercises.”

He was born in New Orleans to Loretta Moore and John Howard, who worked long hours loading and unloading freight on the docks.

Growing up near Bronzeville, young Sherman would see Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson “always gave us inspirational speeches. You know, ‘Do the best you can, work hard, whatever you learn try to be the best at it,’ ” Mr. Howard recalled in a memoir his family said he recorded for the Browns. Olympian Jesse Owens offered him and other neighborhood kids tips on running track.

Young Sherman Howard with his mother Loretta in 1934.
Young Sherman Howard with his mother, Loretta, in 1934.
Provided photo

Back then, “Blacks weren’t allowed in Marshall Field’s,” he said in the memoir. “You never went west from White Sox park. . . . Going west, that was a very dangerous move ... We used to play softball in certain areas and they took us on a truck and they always told us, ‘Once you play the game, get back on the truck. Don’t go anywhere else in that neighborhood.’ ... I remember one boy had the experience of trying to go swimming in one

Sherman Howard in his days at Phillips High School.
Sherman Howard in his days at Phillips High School.
Provided photo

of the swimming pools out of our area, and they tried to drown him.”

At Phillips he was on the basketball, football and track teams and made the National Honor Society, his wife said.

During World War II, he served in the Army.

Sherman Howard served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Provided photo

Once he started playing professionally, his mentors included Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball.

“In 1949, my first year with the Yankees [football team], there were only about five or six blacks in pro football,” he said in the memoir. “Jackie would come around and give you encouragement and tell you what to expect and to not let the frustration get to you.”

In New York, his wife said, Mr. Howard belonged to a club where fellow member Paul Robeson, the performer and civil rights icon, encouraged him to one day return to Chicago to “give back to our community.”

Sherman Howard, in the second row, fourth from left, during his days with the Cleveland Browns.
Sherman Howard, in the second row, fourth from left, during his days with the Cleveland Browns.
Provided photo

After injuries slowed him, he did. He started Harlan’s football program, said his wife, who also taught physical education and met him there. “He had the football team,” she said. “I had the cheerleaders.”

“He cared about us as if we were his children,” said Chicago attorney Charles B. Sklarsky of Harlan’s Class of 1964, a senior partner with Jenner & Block. “Over the last couple of years, when he was too weak to leave home, several former students and I would visit him. He’s one of my heroes.”

His son Sherwin called him “the neighborhood dad.”

Mr. Howard is also survived by daughters Yvette Shepard and Vietta Robinson, one granddaughter and three grandsons.

Visitation is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Leak & Sons Funeral Home in Country Club Hills, with a wake at 10 a.m. Saturday at New Faith Baptist Church in Matteson followed by his funeral at 11 a.m.