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A pioneer largely forgotten: Ignacio Molinet was NFL's first Hispanic player

For several decades, it was a widely held belief that fullback/punter Jesse Rodriguez was the first Hispanic player in the NFL when he burst onto the scene in 1929, playing for the Buffalo Bisons.

Rodriguez, born in Spain, was an inspiring story. His father, Fabriciano, arrived at Ellis Island in 1911 on board the famed Lusitania with only $30 dollars in his pocket. Two of his sons, Jesse and Kelly, both young children at the time of the move, would go on to play in the NFL. And there was no contesting that Jesse Rodriguez had been the first person of Hispanic heritage to play in the NFL -- until 2000.

That was the year when Heidi Cadwell came forward to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with her grandfather's contract, dated a full two years before Rodriguez stepped foot on a professional gridiron.

For generations, historians had associated Ignacio Molinet with French heritage, because of his last name. Yet Molinet was Cuban, born in 1904 in Chaparra, a small town on the eastern part of the island.

In his early years, Molinet relocated to the United States, where both he and his older brother, Joaquin, attended Cornell. At the Ivy League school, Ignacio excelled at both basketball and football, lettering in both. When both his parents died following his junior year, he returned to his homeland in the Caribbean until the Frankford Yellow Jackets, a Philadelphia-area team, offered him a pro football contract with the budding NFL.

According to the Cornell Alumni Magazine, it's unclear why Molinet is consistently referred to as "Lou" by some football historians. For the Big Red faithful in college, he was "Molly," a shortening of his last name. To his family, he was "Iggy," an abbreviation of his first name.

Regardless of what he was called and why, Molinet's 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame made him a good candidate to be a pro fullback. In those early days of the NFL, the Yellow Jackets were a solid, successful franchise that, prior to Molinet's signing in 1927, had never endured a losing season and was coming off a championship year, during which Frankford went 14-1-1.

In a mid-October win over the Buffalo Bisons, Molinet would score his only touchdown, a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter that made it a 23-0 win over Jesse Rodriguez's future team. Statistically or even anecdotally, there isn't much more to Molinet's trailblazing career in the league; he would play in nine of the Yellow Jackets' 18 games that season, starting in just two and making a few touches that would go into the record books for posterity.

Molinet's lone season in the NFL also marked the first time Frankford fell below .500, and he did not return to the team for the 1928 season. The team folded after the 1931 season.

Molinet went back to Cornell, finished his degree and lived a life far away from football. So far away, in fact, that his five children would not hear any reference to his sporting past unless a Cornell play-by-play announcer mentioned him during a broadcast they happened to be listening to. At the time of his death, in 1977, even his family knew little of his sporting exploits beyond his college days. To them, he was the caring father and grandfather, a mechanical engineer who worked for an air-conditioning manufacturer for decades to support his kin.

"He would never call himself a pioneer, he was too humble," Cadwell recalled in an NFL films video. "If you told him he did something great, he'd chuckle."

Molinet's legacy, however, is notable to the growing fraternity of Latinos in college and pro football today. As historian Mario Longoria has noted, Molinet's signing opened the door for others who played similar positions in the coming decades. Despite the prominence of Latin American-born kickers and linemen in the modern era, the first incursions, perhaps facilitated by Molinet, tell the story of playmakers on offense, mainly fullbacks and halfbacks. Between 1927 and the early 1950s, nearly all Latinos who broke into the league played those positions.

One of them, Honduran-born Steve Van Buren, would become a six-time All-Pro and two-time NFL champion with the Philadelphia Eagles. His three consecutive rushing titles earned him a spot on the 1940s All-Decade team. His number is retired and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

In that same location in Canton, Ohio, Ignacio Molinet's contract is prominently displayed, a public tribute to a man whose trailblazing run in professional football had been quietly a secret for almost 75 years.


A Spanish language version of this story can be found on ESPNDeportes.com