Marshall was born in Grafton, West Virginia on October 11, 1896 to Thomas Hildebrand Marshall and Blanche Preston Marshall. In 1932, while he was the owner of a chain of laundries in Washington, DC, founded by his father, he and three other partners were awarded an NFL franchise for Boston. This team became known as the Boston Braves, as they played on the same field as baseball's Boston Braves. Marshall's partners left the team after one season, leaving him in control. In 1936 he moved the team from Braves Field to Fenway Park, changing the team nickname to the Redskins. In 1937 he moved the team to Washington. He was romantically tied to silent screen actress Louise Brooks throughout the 20's and 30's, and she gave him the nickname "Wet Wash" due to his owning of the laundry chain. He was married to film actress-author Corinne Griffith from 1936 to 1958.
Although his team enjoyed great success, Marshall is known more for many of the frills which now mark the modern football game. During the early days of the NFL, college football was more popular. Marshall decided to incorporate elements of the college atmosphere into the pros. Innovations which he introduced include gala halftime shows, a marching band, and a fight song. The Redskins marching band is currently the only one officially sanctioned by any NFL team. The fight song, "Hail to the Redskins" is one of the most famous in the NFL. Marshall also suggested two major rules changes designed to open up the game and increase scoring which were subsequently adopted. One was to allow a forward pass to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, rather than at a minimum of five yards behind the line which was previously the rule. Another was the move of the goal posts from the end line to the goal line, where they were (and are) located in Canadian football, to encourage the kicking of field goals. This change remained in place for about four decades until NFL goal posts were returned to the end line in the mid-1970s as part of an effort to lessen the influence on the game of kicking specialists, many of whom were by that point foreign-born soccer players frequently derided by self-styled purists.
Marshall did many things to try and endear the team to the people of Washington. During the 1937 season, Marshall rented a train and brought 10,000 fans to New York to watch the team play the New York Giants. These actions paid off, and even today, Redskins fans are considered among the league's most loyal, and some of the most likely to travel in large numbers to away games. The Redskins also hold the NFL record of most consecutively sold out seasons.
In the 1950s, Marshall was the first NFL owner to embrace the new medium of television. He initiated the first network appearances for any NFL team, and built a huge television network to broadcast Redskins games across the South.
According to professor Charles Ross, "For 24 years Marshall was identified as the leading racist in the NFL". Though the league had previously had a sprinkling of black players, just one year after Marshall entered the NFL, blacks were excluded from all its teams. While the rest of the league began signing individual blacks in 1946 and actually drafting blacks in 1949, Marshall held out until 1962 before signing a black player. That only came when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall issued an ultimatum--unless Marshall signed a black player, the government would revoke the Redskins' 30-year lease on the year-old D.C. Stadium (now RFK Stadium), which had been paid for by government money. Marshall's chief response was to make Ernie Davis, Syracuse's all-American running back, his number one draft choice for 1962. Ernie Davis's response was: "I won't play for that S.O.B." He demanded a trade and got one, to Cleveland for All-Pro Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell was the first African American football player to play a game for the Redskins, and he played with the team for several years, initially at running back, but he made his biggest impact at wide receiver.
Ross asserts that Marshall propelled the NFL to institute a "color barrier" akin to that of its baseball brethren. As a result of Marshall's prodding, owners like the Pittsburgh Steelers' beloved Art Rooney, who had hired a black player on his first team, and who strongly professed his belief that black and white were equal to him, and the fabled Chicago Bears owner, George Halas, who also believed that blacks should be able to play, fell into line. Of course, no one openly admitted that a racial line existed, but it was apparent that it did. Indeed, years later, Halas remained defensive of the thinly veiled policy. "The game," claimed the legendary league founder and coach, "didn't have the appeal to black players at the time." Hence, from 1934 through the 1945 season, blacks, excluded from the NFL, were forced to settle for less than financially-rewarding exhibitions or semi-pro leagues.
Marshall suffered a debilitating stroke in 1963, soon after his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His legacy includes the George Preston Marshall Foundation which serves the interests of children in the Washington, DC area. His will reportedly stipulated that no funds could be given to any people of color. Some dispute this claim.
"We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
"Mr. Marshall was an outspoken foe of the status quo when most were content with it. His fertile imagination and vision brought vital improvements to the structure and presentation of the game. Pro football today does in many ways reflect his personality. It has his imagination, style, zest, dedication, openness, brashness, strength and courage. We all are beneficiaries of what his dynamic personality helped shape over more than three decades." - NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle
"Marshall was totally involved in all aspects of his team’s operation and endured his share of criticism for not integrating his team until being forced to do so in 1962." - Pro Football Hall of Fame, as part of Marshall's qualifications for induction.