Editor’s note: In honor of Black History Month, SoccerGods.com wanted to tell the legendary tales of American-American soccer heroes every true fan knows by heart. Unfortunately, we’ve run into a problem. There are no legendary tales to tell — or, no one seems to be telling them.
Maybe if we had icons like Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens, we’d talk more about the black experience in American soccer. As is, that experience is largely ignored. Maybe we need a certain type of folklore for those legends to take hold …
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We each have our own memories of how the game came to us. For me, the fascination with soccer took hold after hearing a story from my grandfather: The story of Robert “Nutmeg” Jenkins, the United States’ first black professional soccer player.
Photo: Lewis W. Hine/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
According to grandpa, Robert Edward Pope Jenkins was born outside Mobile, Ala., in 1920. It was back in a time when some small community soccer clubs existed, but in Bobby’s Soupwater neighborhood, where swells from the river often left mud caked on the Jenkins’ family door, talking about a game played with your feet would have gotten you laughed out of the barber shop.
At that time, Mobile’s largest employer was the new Yellowhammer Dirt Works, a factory that stored, sorted, and re-sold leftover dirt from the widening Mobile’s shipping channels. It was on an abandoned field outside the factory that a young Jenkins would first come face-to-face with his destiny.
Photo: AP Photo.
“I was six years old when I first kicked a ball,” Jenkins once recounted. “We’d taken all daddy’s old socks and wrapped them around a neck bone mamma’d already boiled. That’s why we called it ‘socker.'”
By the time he was 12, Jenkins was regularly bettering men twice his age, drawing attention from the little-known Negro Soccer League. In 1932, Jenkins became the league’s youngest player ever when he signed for the Tuskegee Black Confederates.
It didn’t take long for Jenkins to start crafting his legend. In his first game, with his team down a goal, Bobby was brought off the bench late and soon found himself standing above the ball, deep in his team’s own end, with full time quickly approaching.
“I remember Bobby got the ball and damned if that 12-year-old didn’t nutmeg six grown men to get to that keeper,” Jenkins’ older brother, Hezekiah, recalled. “He refused to shoot that ball until that`keeper buckled. Then he nutmegged him, too. That’s when my brother became ‘Nutmeg’ Jenkins.”
Over the next decade, Jenkins became the biggest star in the Negro leagues, supporting his mother and 11 siblings on the money he cobbled together through random paychecks, pickup games and barnstorming tours. From New York to Seattle, Atlantic City to Tijuana, Nutmeg’s star helped sell out fairgrounds across the continent. And by the time he was 24, scouts at the top level had started to take notice.
Photo: Bain News Service/Interim Archives/Getty Images
It was the Association Soccer Club of New York City United, a professional outfit that shared the Polo Grounds with baseball’s New York Giants, that first showed interest. Its sporting director, Randolph Abernathy, happened upon a Black Confederates game in Chattanooga, Tenn., after one of his car’s white walls fell flat near Andrew Johnson Field. As scores of black fans cheered on another Nutmeg hat trick, Abernathy hastily wrote a letter to his team’s office in New York. “Best player I’ve ever seen is playing on a field in Tennessee. Get ‘Nutmeg Jenkins’ to New York now.”
“[ASCNYCU club secretary] Daniel Sheppard sent me a bus ticket on Oct. 16, 1944,” Jenkins recalled. “I went straight to the old Polo Grounds to meet him, and he took me to meet Mr. Andrew [Thomas], whose daddy owned NYC. But … I never got to lace up my boots.”
The club’s sporting director had left one important detail out of his letter, never mentioning the color of Jenkins’ skin. When team president Andrew Thomas set eyes on Abernathy’s find, he turned without extending his hand. Abernathy was subsequently fired for sending a black man to try out for the club.
The disappointment sent Nutmeg into a spiral. He would return to the Black Confederates and spend the next 15 years barnstorming the Chitlin’ Circuit, but was never satisfied. When Jenkins heard that there were great opportunities for black folks in France, where the jazz and art scenes had led to a wider sense of acceptance, he decided to alter his dream’s course. Out of ideas at home, Jenkins took his family to Paris, where he became Europe’s face of American soccer.
By that time, Jenkins was already in the twilight of his career, but he insisted on playing as long as his legs could hold up. Nine years later, at the age of 48, Jenkins was set to being yet another season in the French league when he got an unexpected call. A new league in the U.S. was looking to bring world-class soccer to the States for the first time and wanted to bring Europe’s most famous American home.
“I’d heard from this team called the Atlanta Chiefs,” Jenkins explained. “[It was] pro ball, and I could still play. And at some point, I knew: I had to go home.”
Though his decision to join the North American Soccer League turned into a no-brainer, his season with Atlanta was not a smooth one. Nutmeg was used as more of a player-coach than a weapon, and going into the final game of the season, he hadn’t played a single minute. But at halftime of the Chiefs’ final game, star striker Peter McParland got sick after eating a banana thrown from the stands. Financial restrictions meant Atlanta had dressed just one man on its bench. Coming on at halftime, Jenkins became the first black professional in U.S. soccer history.
Had the story ended there, Jenkins’ legend would still be secure. But as with most subjects of lore, Nutmeg’s story goes beyond the believable. In the 88th minute, with his team down 2-1, Jenkins summoned the spirit of those Soupwater fields, taking the ball from the center line and weaving through the opposition’s bunkered-in defense. Four players, all lunging to take the ball off a bearded old man, saw the slick adidas rolled through their legs, likes old socks around a neck bone. In front of goal, facing a Detroit keeper whose name has faded into anonymity, Jenkins nutmegged one final player, scoring an equalizing goal in his only NASL appearance.
But records from 1968 are thin, and it seems Jenkins’ halftime substitution was never recorded. There’s no official mention of Nutmeg Jenkins in the North American Soccer League records, with some believing the omission a deliberate attempt to keep his name out of the history books.
For the thousands in attendance, though, the impression was indelible. To this day, Nutmeg’s style, determination and perseverance make him one of the most influential figures in the history of American soccer. Any player you ask — black or otherwise — knows about Robert “Nutmeg” Jenkins.
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My grandfather was one of the people at that Confederates game in Chattanooga all those years ago; or, at least, he says he was. Regardless, I’m thankful he’s done his part to keep the legend alive.
Without Nutmeg Jenkins, U.S. soccer might still be floundering. It’s hard to imagine living in a world where the legacy of the first black professional soccer player is lost. Thankfully, we have Black History Month as a time to remember our bygone heroes.