Ignacio Saturnino Molinet ’23
Almost a forgotten footnote in professional football history
In 1927, Ignacio Saturnino Molinet ’23 became the first Hispanic player ever to compete in an NFL game, a fact that remained a long-buried secret for 73 years ... until his football contract resurfaced in a trash bag of unwanted family memorabilia.
Born in Chaparra, Cuba, on November 30, 1904, Molinet grew up on his family’s sugar plantation. He enrolled at Peddie in 1918 and became a three-sport stalwart in football, basketball and baseball. Nicknamed “Molly” or “Big Molly,” he played for two of Peddie’s most revered Hall of Fame coaches, Earl C. MacArthur (football) and John D. Plant (basketball).
Molinet’s 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame was the ideal size for a tackle, and he used his mobility and strength to help Peddie football shut out Blair 28–0 in the 1922 fall classic. As captain of the basketball team, “Molly” fittingly capped off his career by netting the winning field goal in the closing seconds to capture the coveted state title for the fourth year in a row over St. Benedict’s. He was a workhorse on the baseball mound, and when he did not pitch, he roamed the outfield and crushed opposing pitching.
Molinet attended Cornell University, where he excelled in football and basketball. On November 25, 1926, he scored the only touchdown against the University of Pennsylvania in a game that ended in a 10–10 tie, as the Cornell Big Red went 6-1-1 that season. The game at Franklin Field attracted more than 80,000 fans and, at that time, was the largest crowd to witness a football game in the East.
“Molinet, the team’s leading ground gainer, made a wonderful catch of a long pass just before he scored the touchdown in the first quarter,” wrote The New York Times for the game recap. “The ball was heaved 40 yards but traveled in an arc high enough to give three Penn men time to get under it, but Molinet took it from them all by a great leap. In scoring the touchdown, the big Cuban added a little comedy to his driving power when he wrestled with himself on the ground in his hurry to cross seven yards remaining between himself and the goal after he had bucked his way through the line.”
Tragically, both of Molinet’s parents died following his junior year at Cornell. Molinet returned home to Cuba until the Frankford Yellow Jackets, a Philadelphia-based team, came calling and offered him a football contract with the burgeoning NFL. The contract was dated July 20, 1927, and paid $50 per game and up to $50 each week for practices attended. Records show that Molinet played nine games in his lone NFL season and scored a single touchdown with 125 yards of total offense. He retired and returned to Cornell to earn his degree, followed by a successful career as a mechanical engineer.
Up until 2000, fullback/punter Jesse Rodriguez, originally from Spain, was credited with being the first Hispanic player in the NFL when he made his debut in 1929 for the Buffalo Bisons. And for decades, historians had associated Molinet with French roots.
As fate came calling, Molinet’s granddaughter Heidi Cadwell traveled to Florida to visit her grandmother. Her aunts had cleaned the house and filled plastic bags with family records they believed were safe for disposal. Cadwell sifted through the piles and stashed away potentially interesting memorabilia to review when she returned home to New Hampshire. Besides photos of “Pops” on the plantation in Cuba, she unfolded a piece of paper, faded by time, confirming he played in the NFL before Rodriguez. Caldwell called the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and they accepted the donation with great interest.
Today, Ignacio Molinet’s contract is prominently displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an appropriate tribute to a man whose trailblazing run in professional football was almost forgotten.