Football pioneer has roots in Finger Lakes region
Henry McDonald was born in Haiti in 1890 but when he was 5, his parents allowed an American coconut importer to adopt him and bring him to Canandaigua, believing he’d have better opportunities in America. He wouldn’t see his mother again until he was in his 60s, he told the Democrat and Chronicle.
McDonald spent his life in the Finger Lakes region, where he shined as an athlete at Canandaigua Academy and East High School.
Scott Pitoniak, a longtime sports columnist and author, called him a forgotten pioneer.
“The most die-hard Rochester sports fan, they would probably not know who the heck he is,” said Pitoniak.
McDonald earned the nickname ‘Motorcycle’ because of his speed. His prowess as a running back led him to be one of the first black men to play professional football in the years before the NFL began, when much of America was segregated.
During McDonald’s time, the game looked nothing like it does today.
“What you have to understand is back in those times baseball was king, (along with) boxing, horse racing, and college football, “Pitoniak said. “Pro football was a real poor stepchild.”
They played on sandlots with leather helmets. McDonald told reporters that he often passed a hat for donations from spectators at halftime.
“These guys didn’t have the equipment, didn’t have this or that, but they were clearly playing for a greater purpose which was a love of this game,” said Pitoniak.
Very few people had a greater love for the game than Leo Lyons, who owned and coached the Rochester Jeffersons, a pro team that competed against McDonald twice.
Lyons’ great-grandson, John Steffenhagen of Fairport, has his journals from the time. Lyons wrote about the racist comments he heard directed at McDonald.
“Leo had heard comments like ‘black boy’ and different comments he didn’t like, from his own teammates -- not from the Jeffersons, but the team he was playing on,” said Steffenhagen.
Lyons saw the same in the second game against McDonald.
“After the game, the team left to go the manager’s house for a party, however Henry was just sitting on the bench there getting ready to go home,” said Steffenhagen. “That’s when Leo went down to the bench and sat next to Henry and told him that he saw things he didn’t like and Leo offered him a spot on the Rochester Jeffersons team.”
Steffenhagen said Lyons and McDonald became friends and remained close for the rest of their lives. There are pictures of them together from as late as the '60s.
McDonald didn’t talk much about the racism he faced but in multiple interviews, he spoke of one racially charged incident as a professional athlete - a 1917 game where the Jeffersons went to Ohio to play the Canton Bulldogs.
McDonald told the Democrat and Chronicle that Pro Football Hall of Famer Greasy Neale knocked him out of bounds, cocked his fist, and said, “Black is black and white is white and where I come from they don’t mix.”
Steffenhagen says another another Hall of Famer intervened.
“Jim Thorpe, the famous olympian stepped in and said that we’re here to play football. There was never again an incident with racial overtones or anything,” said Steffenhagen.
McDonald told the Democrat and Chronicle that “Thorpe’s word was the law on that field.”
All these men made history. Thorpe, Neale and Lyons played and coached in the first seasons of the National Football League. McDonald was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of football’s African American pioneers decades after his death.
Black Sports Magazine, a short-lived periodical edited by Bryant Gumbel, assembled its first hall of fame class in 1973. The New York Times listed the 38 honorees, including Wilt Chamberlain, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali -- and Henry McDonald.
As for McDonald’s life, what happened next is unclear. He left the Jeffersons after the 1917 season. Some say he played Negro League baseball but his name doesn’t appear on any rosters from that time period. One article says he played semi-pro baseball.
What we do know about is that he used his earnings from football to buy a house in Geneva. Various reports say he worked in manufacturing, became an athletic trainer at Hobart College, and launched the football program at Geneva DeSales High School. Pitoniak says McDonald also umpired little league games for decades.
“There are fewer things that are better to get involved with that are going to put you in touch with more people than getting involved with youth sports to the point that they named the field after him,” said Pitoniak.
His name remains on the field to this day.
At the naming ceremony for the field in 1977, Geneva’s mayor Helen Manley told the Democrat and Chronicle that McDonald was a “respected and beloved community citizen.”
She said “there was a special empathy between him and young people of all ages. He truly loved them and it always showed.”