Sports

The Black Man Who Invented Nebraska Football

George Flippin built the Cornhuskers program from the ground up. Then white people turned on him.

Black-and-white photo of an old-fashioned football team posing for the camera.
A photo of George Flippin and his team that appeared in the 1892 University of Nebraska yearbook. Flippin is in the second row, below and to the left of the man with the mustache. Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries

Before the opening weekend of the Big Ten football season, the conference sent a press release outlining the ways each school would support the league’s “United as One” social justice campaign. Many of those efforts involved stickers, logos, T-shirts, and other ways of distributing messages such as “End Racism” and “Equality.” But it was the University of Nebraska, alone among Big Ten teams, that made a nod to history, using a helmet sticker to pay tribute to the school’s first Black football player, George Flippin.

As it turns out, Flippin’s story resonates far beyond Nebraska, illuminating racial dynamics within college football and American culture more broadly. It also raises the thorny question of what we should remember when we look at the past. For Nebraska, the choice to honor Flippin was a gesture of unity in the midst of racial unrest. “In a lot of ways I think society should mirror locker rooms when you have good cultures built,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost remarked when asked about the tribute to Flippin. The reality of Flippin’s time at Nebraska, however, suggests that any celebration needs to be coupled with a reckoning.

Flippin was born in Ohio three years after the end of the Civil War, eventually moving to Kansas and then Nebraska. He arrived at the state university in 1891, a few months after the school organized its first football team. By the fall of that year, Flippin had been recruited to join the squad, and he saw his first live action against Iowa on Thanksgiving weekend. It was the fifth game in Nebraska’s history and the first against an out-of-state opponent.

Nebraska (or the “Old Gold Knights” as they were known that year) lost that day, but Flippin caught the eye of the victors. “For Nebraska,” the Iowa student newspaper declared, “Flippin, the colored left half back, undoubtedly did the best work.”

What that statement lacks in detail it makes up for in significance. At the very beginning of Nebraska’s football history, the player carrying the banner for the state was a Black man. While there were a handful of other Black athletes at predominantly white colleges at the time—George Jewett at Michigan, William Henry Lewis at Harvard—Flippin was the only one building a football tradition from the ground up.

Over the next three seasons, Flippin continued to lead the way. The Illinois student newspaper recognized him as Nebraska’s “star.” A Kansas newspaper declared that he “had no rival in the West.” And reports out of Colorado said that Flippin “gave Denver more trouble” than anyone on Nebraska’s team because of his “weight, strength, and good playing.”

At 5-foot-11 and nearly 200 pounds, Flippin had the build to excel in a violent game. The forward pass had not yet been legalized, and players at the time often bunched together near the ball, pushing, pulling, jostling, and slugging as they fought to push the line forward. Mass momentum plays like the flying wedge were also common. Flippin possessed the physicality to shake off would-be tacklers and move the line forward.

Many Nebraska fans embraced their star player and his bruising style of play. Consider this limerick in the Nebraska student newspaper, which described the perils that would await anyone who tried to tackle “Old Flip”:

There was once a young Freshman named Dyer

Who played football with nerves all afire

But he tackled Old Flip

And he fell on his lip

And now he’s playing hymns on a lyre

While Flippin did sometimes draw praise from Nebraska’s opponents, they didn’t typically react with the same levity. One commented on Flippin’s “peculiar and perhaps natural habit of butting his opponent with his head” while another castigated him as “an exceedingly brutal player.”

From Nebraska’s perspective, Flippin was simply giving out what he was getting. Game recaps told of Flippin being “kicked, slugged, and jumped on.” He was targeted, no doubt, because of his talent—but also, like numerous “racial pioneers” at predominantly white schools, because of his race.

Some teams used another method to counter Flippin’s greatness: They refused to play against him.

Missouri took this approach in 1892, forfeiting its matchup with Nebraska. The Nebraska student newspaper rushed to Flippin’s defense, framing Missouri’s boycott as a lingering effect of the Civil War. “Our team is truly representative, both of our principles and our members,” the editor declared. As for Missouri: “They believe what their [pro-Confederate] fathers believed. If they do what their fathers did, they will have to be whipped as their fathers were whipped.”

By embracing Flippin, Nebraska was claiming racial inclusion as part of its identity. But framing the Missouri-Nebraska divide in Civil War terms concealed the reality of American life in the late 19th century. It was not just Southern and border states like Missouri that were implementing Jim Crow laws. With the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States sanctioned this reassertion of white supremacy across the United States.

After a game in Denver, Flippin was denied entrance to an opera house. In Omaha, a hotel set up a private dining room for Flippin and his teammates rather than allowing him to eat in a public space. And in Lincoln—a community that praised itself for supporting a Black man’s exploits on the football field—Flippin sued a bathhouse for refusing to admit him on account of his race. That suit was unsuccessful.

Flippin understood the bind that Black people faced in America. “Whenever he demands the rights of citizenship he is accused of self-seeking,” he declared in a speech. The fact that Flippin sued a business that had discriminated against him makes his willingness to fight against racial discrimination very clear. But he also saw the limits of what he could hope to achieve. So Flippin continued to take the football field, representing a state and school that did not always support him.

A black-and-white photo of an old-fashioned team of football players posed for the camera.
A team photo that appeared in the 1895 yearbook. Flippin is third from the left in the second row. Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries

After the 1894 season, Flippin’s teammates voted 8–7 to have him serve as the captain of the next year’s team. A backlash ensued immediately. Newspaper reports claimed the result was an accident, the product of political maneuvers by rival fraternities. They declared, too, that several Nebraska players would decline to take the field if Flippin retained his title.

This opposition to Flippin’s captaincy was not universal. Eight teammates had voted for Flippin, after all, and the Omaha World-Herald published an editorial on his behalf, arguing that football should be a democratic game, open to all. “If he were white, the university and the whole west would be so proud of him that he would be dressed in purple and carried on a floral wreath,” the editor of a Kansas newspaper wrote.

Despite this support, the tide was turning against Flippin in Nebraska. His physical play had endeared him to fans in the past; now it became an excuse to deny him the captaincy. A Lincoln newspaper reported that students feared Flippin’s penchant for “brutality” would lead him to “inculcate that kind of playing if he is permitted to captain the team.” Nebraska’s head coach, Frank Crawford, further denigrated his best player. “It takes a man with brains to be a captain: all there is to Flippin is brute force,” he said before predicting that Flippin would be forced to relinquish the title of captain.

There was no public announcement that Flippin had been stripped of his captaincy. But by the time the 1895 season began, he’d moved on from Nebraska, even as the new narrative about him remained. “He takes into the game no brains or skill,” the Nebraska student newspaper remarked in 1897, before describing the former star as “a disgrace to the college game.”

By that time, Flippin was attending medical school in Chicago, playing football to cover his educational costs. After completing school and becoming a doctor, Flippin made his way back to Nebraska, serving the Stromsburg community, about 60 miles west of Lincoln, until he died in 1929.

Upon his death, Nebraska fans rewrote history, eliding the fact that Flippin had been disrespected, discriminated against, and run out of town. A World-Herald sportswriter memorialized Flippin as “the charging bull, into which was bred the tenacity of the bulldog, the ferocity of the tiger, the gameness of the man who knows no fear.” Left unsaid was the fact that Black athletes were no longer allowed to compete for Nebraska. In 1892, Nebraska students had marveled that Missouri would defend the idea of racial segregation in a “progressive age.” By the 1910s, they had joined Missouri’s side, drawing a color line that would remain in place until after World War II.

As the Cornhuskers honor George Flippin in 2020, it’s the full scope of his experience that must be remembered. We should celebrate that Flippin integrated the football team and helped launch the program. We should also dwell on the fact that he was rejected by the predominantly white school and state he represented—as were generations of Black athletes after him, including some today who have said that their full humanity is not always valued.

To truly remember George Flippin, then, is to confront the reality of what America was and continues to be. A helmet sticker can remind us of a name from the past. It can’t force us to right the wrongs of history, or to do the work we need to do to examine our actions in the present day.