In 2000, Heidi Cadwell traveled to Florida to spend time with her grandmother, who was in hospice care.
Cadwell’s aunts had been at her grandmother’s house to go through her files because she “saved everything.” They had piled all the family records they thought were safe to discard in plastic bags dumped in front of the house. Shortly after Cadwell arrived, she sifted through the bags, finding photos and documents. She stashed what looked interesting in her bag but didn’t look to see what they were until she got back home to New Hampshire.
“I see these pictures and I see Pops when he was growing up. I see Pops on their plantation in Cuba,” Cadwell told USA TODAY Sports. “And then I noticed he had an NFL contract.”
Pops was Cadwell’s grandfather, Ignacio Saturino Molinet. He was a native of Chaparra, a small village near the southeastern shores of the island, where sugar mills flourished at the turn of the century. The contract was dated July 20, 1927, and showed that Molinet would become a member of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, earning $1,720 for 20 games played.
Cadwell called Jason Aikens, the curator of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and asked whether the Hall would want to display the contract. Aikens originally declined, Cadwell said, citing the volume of old documents the Hall receives.
Cadwell understood. But then she asked whether it was common for players of Molinet’s era to come from the island.
“He said, ‘Wait, did you say Cuba?’ ” Cadwell recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘He’s Latino?’ And I said, ‘Yes, he is.’ After a few seconds, Jason just said, ‘Let me call you back.’ ”
It was thought at the time that Jesse Rodriguez, a punter and fullback born in Spain who played for the Buffalo Bisons in 1929, was the first player with Hispanic origins in NFL history. But Aikens contacted historian Mario Longoria, whose research helped confirm that it was in fact Molinet who had broken the barrier and was the first Latino to play in the NFL.
Molinet is one of the most important figures in NFL history, yet little attention is paid to his status as a trailblazer. Other sports trailblazers are so often celebrated as symbols of measured progress in American race relations. Yet Molinet is merely a footnote, following an unfortunate trend for many Latino pioneers who broke barriers in popular culture. His contract is displayed in the Hall of Fame, but he is nowhere near a household name. In fact, even among football media and historians, he remains unknown.
“He did not expound on his career,” Molinet’s daughter, Teresa Van De Carr, told USA TODAY Sports. “But by the time I was five years old, I knew how to tackle. All of us played football in the front yard. My father taught us how to play the game.
"He loved his football and we knew he played in college, but he just never talked about himself like that. The only time we heard about it was when they would mention his name during Cornell games.”
Molinet's mostly ignored NFL career may be due to several factors, some having to do with ethnicity, while others were not. Molinet didn’t play with the backdrop of the civil rights movement that consumed the national dialogue. Television and media consumption wasn’t as instantaneous as it was in other eras. And Molinet’s social status may have also indirectly led to his being overlooked.
Molinet’s family was very wealthy. His uncle Ernestino was Cuba’s minister of the secretary of the interior under former president and eventual dictator Gerardo Machado. And like many of the children of wealthy, land-owning Cuban families, Molinet was sent to study at elite American institutions. He graduated from the prestigious Peddie School in New Jersey and eventually starred in basketball and football for Cornell.
Molinet used that education to negotiate the particulars of his contract. In “Latinos in American Football: Pathbreakers on the Gridiron, 1927 to the Present,” which Longoria co-wrote with associate dean and history professor at Texas Tech Jorge Iber, the text of letters and telegrams sent between Molinet and Frankford show that Molinet negotiated an increase of $50 in travel expenses from Cuba to Philadelphia.
“When American football got to Mexico, and when American football got to Cuba, it was a game of the elites,” Iber told USA TODAY Sports. “In many ways, it mirrored the history of football here in the United States. Football begins in the Ivy Leagues, the Yales and the Harvards, Walter Camp and people like that. Those are folks who first embraced football, and they embraced it because it was necessary for America's industrializing.
“America was beginning its empire. America was beginning its expansion to the world. You need tough leaders to be able to run the military, the State Department and government, businesses and all this other stuff. Football was designed to make those men tough. But it was a game of the privileged.”
Molinet played nine games in his lone NFL season and scored a single touchdown to go with 125 yards of total offense. He retired and returned to Cornell to earn his degree and had a successful career as a mechanical engineer.
And that may be the primary reason Molinet is not celebrated: His time in the league was brief.
In the years that followed, Rodriguez and his brother Kelly Rodriguez (1930-31 for the Frankford Yellowjackets and Minneapolis Red Jackets) and Waldo Don Carlos (1931 for the Green Bay Packers) would be the next wave of Hispanic players to suit up. Two stars would come later: Joe Aguirre (1941-49 for Washington and the Los Angeles Dons) and future Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren (1944-1951 for the Philadelphia Eagles).
Yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that Latino football players began to be nationally recognized and celebrated and a large part of that was thanks to quarterback Joe Kapp.
“He is in a class all by himself,” Longoria told USA TODAY Sports. “Kapp always said, ‘Well, I am Mexican and if you like that, fine, but if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.’ He was always in your face. When he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the label ‘The Toughest Chicano’ — he never regretted who he was. He stood by his identity.”
Kapp played four years in the NFL for the Vikings and Patriots from 1967-70. He earned a reputation of being physical, confident and dependable. Though Raiders great and Hall of Famer Tom Flores is widely credited as being the first Latino to play quarterback in professional football history, that distinction actually goes to Kapp, who played for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders in 1959, one year before Flores joined the Raiders. Kapp played nine seasons in the CFL before he signed with the Vikings.
The Sports Illustrated article appeared in the July 20, 1970, issue. A zoomed-in photo of Kapp’s face, squinting through the sun, was the cover image. Written in the first-person, the story – titled “A Man of Machismo” – recounted memories spanning Kapp’s childhood to his playing days. Kapp explained how he tried to embody masculinity and toughness, though many of the constructs now read as stereotypical and outdated.
Kapp’s son, J.J. Kapp, helped his father write a memoir published in 2019 along with Robert G. Phelps and Ned Averbuck called “Joe Kapp, 'The Toughest Chicano': A Life of Leadership.” J.J. Kapp, who was a child when the Sports Illustrated article was published, recalled how significant it was for his father to bear the responsibility of being a trailblazer for Latinos in football.
“Being a bullfighter, a guerrero, I think that was part of his ethos,” J.J. Kapp told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the way he played was tied into his ethnicity and heritage. To have it be publicized, he was more than happy to live that and accept that. It was really important. It was a big deal for Latinos. You bring up Joe Kapp and they go crazy. They loved the guy because they could relate.”
Joe Kapp, battling dementia, has lost his short-term memory and was not available for an interview.
Another part of Kapp’s legacy is his status as a pioneer for players’ rights in the battle for autonomy and free agency. After the 1970 season, his only one with the team, the Boston Patriots directed Kapp to sign a standard player contract, even though he had previously signed a “Memorandum of Agreement” that ran through the 1972 season. On the advice of his attorney, Kapp refused.
Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle ruled that Kapp could not play unless he signed a standard player contract, citing what became known as the “Rozelle Rule.” It stipulated that teams losing free agents were required to be awarded compensation from the team that the player would be joining. Again, Kapp refused to sign the standard player contract.
The Patriots then banished him from returning to the team and Kapp, at 33 and in the prime of his career, was essentially blacklisted from the entire league.
In March 1972, Kapp sued the NFL and its 26 franchises, alleging the league was restricting his trade and violating antitrust law. In 1974, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Sweigert for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Kapp and called the NFL’s use of the Rozelle Rule “patently unreasonable and illegal.”
It was the first time the NFL’s rules were ever shown to have been in violation of antitrust law in any court.
Kapp's fight against the NFL helped set the precedent that would be the harbinger of the watershed case in which former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey and the NFL Players Association won an antitrust lawsuit in 1976 that effectively ended the Rozelle Rule and ushered in less restrictive movement of players.
Since the era in which Kapp played, Latino representation in the NFL has increased, though numbers continue to lag well below the national breakdown.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which publishes annual report cards on racial and gender hiring, only seven of the 1,682 players (0.4%) for which there were data in 2020 were Hispanic or Latino. That was down from eight of 1,657 (0.5%) in 2019 and down from 18 of 2,257 (0.8%) in 2016.
It comes despite steady growth of Hispanic fandom over the last decade. There was an all-time high of 30.2 million Hispanic NFL fans in the U.S. in 2019, up five percent from the previous year, according to the SSRS/Luker on Trends Sports Poll.
Despite the lag in representation, there are initiatives in place designed to boost those figures. One is the International Player Pathway program, designed to give foreign-born players a chance to compete for roster spots in training camps. One player who was set to enter the program was tight end Sammis Reyes.
From Santiago, Chile, Reyes came to this country alone at 14 on a basketball scholarship. His dream was to play in the NBA. He didn’t speak English, so he bought a Spanish-English dictionary and took notes.
Football coaches begged him to try the sport, but he remained committed to hoops. He went to Tulane and played basketball there, but when he didn’t play as many minutes as he had hoped, and after football coaches told him success stories of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, he started training for football.
Reyes applied for the International Player Pathway program and trained for 10 weeks at the IMG Academy in Florida with other players. His workout at Florida’s pro day on March 31 impressed Washington Football Team executive vice president of player personnel Marty Hurney so much that two weeks later, he signed Reyes.
If he plays a single snap in the NFL, it will be Reyes’ first in a competitive game. He would become the first Chilean-born player to ever do so in NFL history.
If that happens, he said he'll remember a day in 2009, when he didn’t have a phone, didn’t have a computer, had just $50 in his wallet. When he looked across the departures hall inside Aeropuerto Internacional Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez one last time and was unsure when he would see his parents again.
“My strength comes from my circumstance,” Reyes told USA TODAY Sports in Spanish. “That was the hardest thing I have gone through. There is no hit, there is no run concept or passing play – there’s nothing that’s going to be as hard as that moment. The benchmark for something that’s hard for me is so high. It’s very difficult to break me because I’ve been through so much."