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North Dakota's first two professional athletes eventually became teammates on the same major league club

North Dakotans teamed up when Roger Maris joined Ken Hunt on the New York Yankees in 1960. It happened again this year with Cordell Volson and Joe Burrow on the Cincinnati Bengals. But the first instance of North Dakota athletes sharing a team came over 100 years ago.

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Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.
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FARGO — Well over 100 people born and/or raised in North Dakota have played on major league-level professional sports teams. In almost all instances, those players never had any teammates at the professional level who were also from North Dakota.

The first instance I can recall of two major league athletes from North Dakota, playing on the same team, happened in 1960 when Fargo's Roger Maris joined Ken Hunt , from Grand Forks, on the New York Yankees baseball team. That happening reoccurred again this year when Balfour's Cordell Volson joined Joe Burrow, formerly from Fargo, on the Cincinnati Bengals football team. When I searched to find the first instance of North Dakota teammates, on the same major league sports team, I was surprised to learn that it happened over 100 years ago.

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“The kid is 7 years old and you’re telling me he already has a good throwing motion and you can evaluate it at this age? He says, ‘Yeah.’”

In 1921, Marshall Jones, born in Fargo, and Paul Sheeks, born in rural LaMoure County, became teammates on the powerful Akron (Ohio) Pros football team of the American Professional Football Association. In 1922, the APFA became the National Football League.

Not only were Jones and Sheeks were the first two athletes born in North Dakota to play professional football, but two other players from that Akron team would later have North Dakota ties. Bruno Haa s would play for and manage professional baseball teams in Fargo and Grand Forks, and Fritz Pollard ’s son, Fritz Pollard Jr., would become a track and football star at the University of North Dakota. Another key player on the Akron team was Paul Robeson, who would later become known as a popular singer and actor on Broadway and a star in motion pictures. He recorded and released 276 songs, most of which were spirituals. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” remains my favorite.

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Fritz Pollard, left, and Paul Robeson, seen here in March 1918, teamed up on the 1922 Akron Pros football team.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Akron won the APFA championship in 1920, finishing the season with eight wins, no losses, and three ties. Coach Elgie Tobin emphasized defense and the team outscored their opponents 157 to 7. Most of their scoring offense was provided by Pollard. Akron was the first — and one of only five APFA/NFL teams — to finish the season undefeated. The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the last team to go undefeated. The 2007 New England Patriots ended the regular season undefeated but lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

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Akron executives named Pollard and Tobin as co-coaches for the 1921 season and the team appeared to be as powerful as the previous year. Tobin would coach the team on defense and Pollard on offense, becoming the first African-American coach in organized professional football. Akron started out the season winning the first seven games and outscoring their opponents 141 to 0 and, in November, Robeson had to leave the team to begin law school at Columbia. In the last five games, the Pros won only one game and tied the score in one other game. The lone touchdown during those five games was on a completed pass to Sheeks.

Marshall Durell Jones was born on December 10, 1894 in Fargo to Albert and Blanche (Durell) Jones. In 1899, the Joneses’ moved to Lisbon, North Dakota, where Albert owned and managed a lumber and implement company and was heavily involved in real estate. Albert was also mayor of Lisbon and served in the state legislature. After completing the eighth grade, Marshall attended the Culver Military Academy in Indiana where he was an outstanding high school football player.

From 1914 to 1916, Jones spent his first two years of college at UND. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin after receiving a football scholarship to play there for his third year of college. At the conclusion of his junior year, the U.S. was involved in World War I and Jones enlisted on June 27, 1917. He was assigned to the 339th Machine Gun Battalion and sent overseas to Alsace, in eastern France, as a captain on August 3, 1918. Jones was discharged on June 13, 1919, and returned to Lisbon where he worked with his father selling real estate. While in Lisbon, Jones learned that the APFA would be conducting tryouts in the fall of 1920, so he traveled to Detroit hoping he would impress the management of the Detroit Heralds overseeing the tryouts.

Jones became the first person born in North Dakota to play professional football when he got into a game with the Heralds, but he was later released. He was then signed by the Hammond Pros but was released once again after appearing in only one game. For Akron in 1921, Jones appeared in seven games and was in the starting lineup for one game. Not able to sign on with any team in 1922, Jones returned to Lisbon to again sell real estate with his father. While there, he also became an active member of the National Guard.

By 1930, Jones had relocated to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he sold insurance and during the 1940s and 50s, he held various jobs in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Minneapolis. Jones died on January 21, 1960, and was buried in the military cemetery in Fort Snelling, near Minneapolis.

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Paul Preston "Pepper" Sheeks was inducted to the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Contributed / South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame

Paul Preston “Pepper” Sheeks , the second person born in North Dakota to play professional football, was born to Hugh and Rosa Sheeks, on October 18, 1889, near the town of Grand Rapids in LaMoure County. The family later moved to Wahpeton where Paul attended grade school and then relocated to Mitchell, South Dakota, where he graduated from high school in 1908. During his senior year, he captained the football team that he referred to as "the undisputed state champion."

After spending two years at Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, Sheeks transferred to the University of South Dakota, where he was the first student to letter in four sports there, participating in football, basketball, baseball and track. Following graduation, Sheeks was the sports high school coach at Le Mars, Iowa, for two years before becoming the head basketball and football coach at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana from 1915 to 1917. In football, his record was 14-2 and one tie, and in basketball, it was 19-2. Sheeks then spent two years in the Army during World War I.

After the war, Sheeks became a high school coach in Pottstown, Pa. for one year before taking a position as the recreation director of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron. It was in Akron that he came to the attention of Elgie Tobin and Fritz Pollard, co-coaches of the Akron Pros in the APFA.

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Sheeks was one of the key players for the Pros, playing in all twelve games in 1921 and nine out of the ten games that the team played in 1922. Sheeks then returned full-time to his position as recreation director for Firestone, overseeing 13 sports. In 1932, the National Professional Basketball League was formed and Firestone sponsored a team called the Akron Firestones. Sheeks was their coach and Akron won the league championship with a 10-1 record. The star player on the team was Harold “Cookie” Cunningham who, from 1946 to 1948, was the head basketball coach at UND. The league folded the following year as a result of financial constraints caused by the Great Depression.

In 1935, Sheeks played a role in the founding of the National Basketball League, which is considered to be a predecessor of the National Basketball Association. Once again, Firestone was the sponsor of the team in Akron and again Sheeks was named as the team’s coach. During his six years as coach of the Akron Firestones, his team finished with a remarkable record of 103-40, winning the league championships in 1939 and 1940. Paul Sheeks retired from Firestone in 1955 and died on September 17, 1968. In 2015, he was inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame .

More history columns from Curt Eriksmoen
In this week's installment of Curtis Eriksmoen's "Did You Know That?" column, readers learn about George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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