Although it seems unfathomable now, a century ago the very idea of professional football was laughable.
In the early 1900s, college football was king.
When a player graduated from college he had no more football to look forward to.
At best, the “pro” game was a hodgepodge of random teams scattered throughout the country, primarily in the midwest.
Even the stars of college football at the time, Red Grange, George Gipp, and Jim Thorpe were strongly discouraged from playing any semblance of pro ball after their college careers ended.
However, these pioneers and trailblazers ignored the naysayers and forged ahead.
By 1920, an organization that eventually became the NFL was founded.
There was another man present at the time who was a pioneer of professional football, but he didn’t receive the recognition he deserved until decades later.
Fritz Pollard was a dynamo college football player from Brown University.
On this 3rd day of #BlackHistoryMonth let’s remember the trailblazers of the NFL. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first two African American players in the NFL in 1920. While we enjoy the game tonight, let’s remember those who made an impact and truly led the way. pic.twitter.com/ULTTeuLTTZ
— Vangie Williams (@Vangie4Congress) February 3, 2019
Although he had speed to burn and was sharp as a tack, he was brushed aside and disregarded because he was African-American.
Unfortunately, that is one aspect of American life that has not changed in 100 years, racism.
Despite the numerous set-backs he experienced due to the color of his skin, Pollard shone like a beacon to other African-Americans throughout his life.
He became the embodiment of success and what can be achieved despite what others see on the outside.
In that way, he was the talisman of hope for the Black community.
This is the story of the life and career of Fritz Pollard.
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard was born on January 27, 1894 in Chicago.
He was the seventh of eight children born to a Native American mother and an African American father.
Pollard’s father had been a boxer who fought professionally during the Civil War.
While in high school at Albert G. Lane Manual Training High School (Lane Tech) in Chicago, Pollard was a multi-sport athlete.
Although he was slight at approximately 5’7, Pollard was quick, agile, and elusive.
He starred on the school’s football, baseball, and track teams during his scholastic career.
By the time he graduated from high school Pollard was a three-time county track champion.
As the NCAA was still in its infancy, Pollard played football collegiately for Northwestern, Harvard, and Dartmouth.
That is something that would not happen under the fiefdom of the modern NCAA.
Pollard eventually received a scholarship from the Rockefeller family to play football for Brown University.
Racism at Brown
When he first arrived at Brown, Pollard was not accepted by his teammates, who had not played with an African-American before.
“His teammates, basically, really wouldn’t talk to him or anything until they saw what he could do,” said Pollard’s grandson in a 2018 interview.
It did not take long for Pollard to show what he could do.
As soon as he got the ball, Pollard engaged in speed mode and flew down the field.
It wasn’t unheard of for him to tear off huge chunks of yardage (60-80 yards) each carry.
Because of his small stature, his baggy football pants would flap in the wind as he scampered downfield.
“Once they (Pollard’s teammates) saw his talent, he won them over,” Pollard’s grandson said. “And his personality also won them over. So from then on, they had his back no matter what.”
Having Pollard’s back was almost a full-time job on the field.
Opposing players would do anything they could to slow down or hurt Pollard during plays.
Tactics such as kicking, punching, or even eye-gouging when tackling Pollard were not unheard of.
“He learned how to protect himself by rolling over and kicking his feet like a cat if somebody tried to pile on and drag their feet on him to cut him,” Pollard III said.
His teammates could get pretty creative in their defense of Pollard.
“They would all wear baggy uniforms, so that way no one could tell in the game who he was,” Pollard III said. “And sometimes they even darkened their faces with shoe polish, so they couldn’t tell who he was.”
Pollard Plays in the Rose Bowl
Despite the overly racist tactics of opponents, Pollard and his mates dominated the competition.
In 1915, the team upset Yale and was eventually invited to play in the Rose Bowl.
When the team arrived in Pasadena, however, the hotel management where they were staying would not permit Pollard to sign in.
Fortunately, the hotel acquiesced when Pollard, his teammates, and coaches threatened to go back home if Pollard wasn’t allowed to stay.
At the hotel, Assistant Coach Bill Sprackling demanded to see the manager.
When the clerk refused, Sprackling pounded on the desk bell and shouted, “If there isn’t a room for Fritz Pollard, none of us wants one.” The manager appeared, and Pollard got a room.
Although he didn’t have a great game versus Washington State that day, Pollard became the first black player in Rose Bowl history.
He also became the first black running back to be named to the Walter Camp All-American team.
The following season, Pollard and the Brown football team had an 8-1 season that saw victories over the likes of Yale and Harvard.
In a testament to his athleticism, that same year Pollard qualified for the 1916 Olympic games in the low hurdles.
However, the games were cancelled due to the onset of WWI.
Pollard Finds His Way to the Pros
After leaving Brown, Pollard spent time in the Army near the end of WWI.
He then pursued a degree in dentistry but abandoned that idea to work as a director at an Army YMCA.
Shortly thereafter, Pollard latched on with Lincoln University (Oxford, Pennsylvania) and coached their football team for three years.
As the 2020 National Football League season gets into high gear it is good to remember, as one coach did today, Fritz Pollard, the first black NFL coach. The photo is Pollard and Paul Robeson in 1918. See the Fritz Pollard story on https://t.co/IwmJ10Z6V4: https://t.co/PKsP6EC7XG pic.twitter.com/isuQ4cnY4K
— Quintard Taylor (@QuintardTaylor) September 21, 2020
In 1919, Pollard signed a contract to play football with the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association (which would become the NFL three years later).
He was one of only six African-Americans to play pro football at the time.
Always recognize the pioneers 🙏 Fritz Pollard #NFL #BlackHistoryMonth https://t.co/yvVkLLdXQP pic.twitter.com/E1kIHo02P0
— RAMBOA™ (@RadioRamboa) February 19, 2020
“He rarely came out of the game,” Pollard’s grandson said in 2018. “He played quarterback, he was running back. He did punt returns, kickoff returns. He even did the punts and the kicks, where they used to do the dropkick for the field goal. There wasn’t a thing he didn’t touch in the game.”
While playing for Akron, Pollard was still coaching the Lincoln University team.
These competing interests caused him to miss Lincoln’s games against Hampton and Howard Universities in 1920.
Both games were coached by replacements and ended in losses.
This did not endear Pollard to Lincoln’s alumni and administration.
However, Pollard had his own gripes about Lincoln’s administration and let them know about it.
“Prior to the Hampton game, the team was compelled to go to Hampton by boat, sleeping on the decks and under portholes,” he told a reporter. “No cabins were provided, nor were they given a place to sleep after reaching Hampton. They lost the game through lack of rest.”
Pollard also complained about the lack of proper equipment for his Lincoln teams.
“I, myself, bought and paid $200 out of my pocket for football shoes for the team.”
Pollard is Well Paid, but Experiences More Racism
After the 1920 college season, Pollard left the Lincoln program.
He played full-time with Akron as a running back and quarterback.
Using his platform as one of the best players in the game, Pollard advocated for the inclusion of more African-American players in pro football.
However, he was met with anger and hate as he succeeded on the gridiron.
“It was evident in my first year at Akron back in 1919 that they didn’t want blacks in there getting that money,” Pollard said after retiring. “And here I was, playing and coaching and pulling down the highest salary in pro football.”
Fritz Pollard was one of the first black players in the NFL, leading the Akron Pros to the first ever APFA/NFL title in 1920.
In 1921, he became the first black coach in NFL history.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes minority hiring in the NFL, is named after him. #BHM pic.twitter.com/zDQIj36wqT
— Sports Photos (@sportsphotos) February 11, 2019
It’s true that Pollard was paid well.
He made $1,500 per game in 1920, which is about $20,000 in current dollars.
Outside parties weren’t the only ones who didn’t want Pollard or any man of color in pro football to make that kind of money.
Some fellow athletes also expressed their derision toward Pollard.
“And there was a group of players who just didn’t really like that fact that this Black man was not only in the league, but he was also an elite player in the league,” said Aaron Dodson of ESPN.
Pollard didn’t let this discourage him though, as he explained during a 1974 NFL Films interview.
“I’d look at ’em and grin. Didn’t get mad and wanna fight ’em. Just look at ’em and grin, and the next minute run 80 yards for a touchdown.”
This tactic seemed to work for even the most die-hard, and surprising, racist players.
“Jim Thorpe walked up to him and said, ‘Do you know who I am?,'” according to Pollard’s grandson. “And he (Pollard) goes, ‘Yes, I know who you are. I’ve heard about you’. And he (Thorpe) goes, ‘Well, I’ve heard about you, too’. And he called him the N-word. And my grandfather, not to miss a step, called him the N-word. And Thorpe just sort of stepped back and looked at him. He said he was going to kill my grandfather. He said, ‘Well, if you’re ready to kill me, you can find me down there in your end zone.’ And, opening play, my grandfather took the kickoff all the way back for a touchdown. And he’s waving for Jim Thorpe to come on. And after the game, Thorpe said he’s the best back he’s ever seen.”
It should be noted that Thorpe was an accomplished athlete who also happened to be Native American.
The Pros finished the ‘20 season with a 8-0-3 record and won the APFA title.
However, the Chicago Staleys, coached by George Halas, finished 10-1-2 and they also claimed the title.
In an effort to decide the true champion, Halas proposed a winner-take-all game between the two teams.
Over 12,000 people attended the game at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Ultimately, the game ended in a scoreless tie.
The title was chosen in favor of the Pros based on the strength of their win-loss percentage and the quality of their opponents.
This decision did not sit well with Halas and it began a feud with Pollard that simmered for years.
“Halas was the greatest foe of Black football players,” Pollard told a reporter in 1971, adding that Halas helped start “the ball rolling that eventually led to the barring of blacks from professional football in 1933.”
Pollard Continues to Break Down Barriers
Before the 1921 APFA season, Pollard was named the head coach of the Pros and he continued to play for the team as well.
First day of Black History Month! Since the superbowl is this Sunday I’d like to introduce Mr. Fritz Pollard. First black NFL coach. He started out playing for the Akron Pros in 1920 (when the NFL was still the APFL) & became their coach a year after they won their first title. pic.twitter.com/lzSjN9NmHa
— Maygen (@maygenlynsey) February 1, 2019
In 1922, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.
Since Pollard was still coaching the Pros, he was officially the first African-American to coach a team in the NFL.
After 1922, Pollard played and coached with a number of NFL teams.
These included playing time with the Milwaukee Badgers, the Hammond Pros, the Gilberton Cadamounts (a non-NFL team), the Union Club of Phoenixville, and the Providence Steam Rollers. Pollard co-coached the Badgers and Cadamounts and was the head coach of Hammond in 1923 and 1924.
The NFL Segregates in 1926
Just as African-American players and coaches were finding their way in the NFL, the league voted to ban these same players and coaches in 1926.
With the decision, Pollard and nine other African-American players were shown the door permanently by the end of the ‘26 season.
The Duke was Iowa’s first black All-American (1921), and with Fritz Pollard one of the first 2 black players in the NFL until they shameful instituted a color line. He later became a judge in Chicago, and a dorm on the Iowa campus is named in his honor pic.twitter.com/x5dPDE3EvP
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) August 11, 2019
For the next several years, Pollard started his own barnstorming teams off all-black players including the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928 and the Harlem Brown Bombers in the 1930s.
One of the players on those Bombers teams was Jackie Robinson’s brother, Mack.
Pollard tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge NFL teams to play games against his Bombers teams.
By the mid-30s, Pollard and others could see that the NFL had no intention of hiring or playing against anyone of color.
“In 1933, the league sort of enacted this ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that barred African American players from the league,” Dodson said. “And he (Pollard) took it upon himself to continue those opportunities for those Black players who had proven, like himself, that they were able to play in the National Football League at the highest level.”
The Bombers did play professional teams who were not affiliated with the NFL.
The team never lost a game and many times had to actively work to keep the score low.
“They were beating some of the pro teams so badly that they had to hold the score down, because they were afraid that they weren’t going to play them anymore,” Towns (Pollard’s grandson) said. “So it was a little bit more than an exhibition game. When you got white players at that point in time playing Black players, it meant something.”
Unfortunately, the Bombers folded with the onset of the Great Depression in 1938.
It wasn’t until after WWII that the NFL’s ban of African-Americans began to change.
Although many in the game, including Halas, exacerbated the situation.
“Probably the game didn’t have the appeal to black players at the time,” said Halas in the late 1940s when asked why there were no blacks in the NFL for more than two decades.
Pollard Becomes an Entrepreneur and Inspires Other African-Americans
By then, Pollard had moved on from the game of football.
After retiring as a player and coach when the Bombers folded, he turned to his business interests.
While still a player/coach for the Pros, Pollard founded a black-owned investment firm.
He later started his own newspaper (The New York Independent News) and talent agency and was a film and music producer.
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard made history in 1921 as NFL’s first black head coach. He was also the league’s first black QB and a serial entrepreneur, owning one of the first black-owned investment firms, a newspaper, movie studio and an independent black football team. #BHM pic.twitter.com/9kCtUnMsTj
— Daja E. Henry 🌸 (@dajaehenry) February 3, 2020
Some of the music acts who worked with Pollard included Connie Carroll, The Harptones, The Five Miller Sisters, Pearl Woods, Linda Hopkins, Elyce Roberts, The Hurricanes, and The Wanderers.
Pollard’s contributions to pro football went largely unnoticed for decades.
31 years ago on October 3, 1989
HOF OT Art Shell was named the head coach of the Los Angeles #Raiders. He became the NFL’s first black head coach since Fritz Pollard coached the Akron Pros in 1921. pic.twitter.com/Eu2pivI9EQ
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) October 3, 2020
It wasn’t until former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue pressed the powers-that-be to take note of Pollard’s legacy did the league take notice.
Tagliabue would hand out books that celebrated Pollard’s athletic achievements.
“Tagliabue told me that he kept a case of books. And he said he would pass those out to people who would come into his office, because he was just so amazed at my grandfather’s accomplishment,” Towns said.
Pollard died in 1986 at the age of 92.
He was inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 along with Dan Marino and Steve Young.
“He should have been in the founding class, there’s no doubt about it,” said his grandson at the time. “And most of the Hall of Famers say he should have been in the founding class.”
Pollard’s name lives on in the form of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA), which promotes equal NFL coaching and front office opportunities for minorities.
“All-American. First Black to play in the Rose Bowl. Outstanding, coming from Brown. So when we started the organization, that’s why we took the name that we took,” FPA Chairman John Wooten explained.
Although Pollard’s name has been re-established as one of the founding fathers of the pro game, many still worry that the younger generation doesn’t appreciate his significance.
“It’s really a shame that he’s someone that really remains kind of in the shadows,” said Dr. Charles Ross, director of African American studies at the University of Mississippi. “He’s someone that really deserves a lot more exposure, a lot more recognition, based upon the circumstances that he faced and what he was able to achieve.”
Marion D. Mahoney says
This article is the best I’ve read about Fritz Pollard, and for years I’ve been down the rabbit hole, so to speak, researching college football. My grandfather, Robert Martin Murphy, turned the W&J teams into a powerhouse beginning in 1913-1914 seasons when they beat Yale several times and were considered second only to Harvard. This propelled them to the Rose Bowl in 1922, where they shocked California by statistically out-playing the Golden Bears. Unheard of. W&J had the second Black player in a Rose Bowl, Charles West, though when you go through the play-by-play, his performance was less than stellar. And being put in the QB position specifically to block Brick Muller was alien to him. He was a runner! Let’s face it. QB was like any other position in the 20s. It did not achieve present star status until the 40s with the advent of the T-formation. Heisman never used them! He thought it a worthless position!
Ben Donahue says
Marion, Thank you so much for the comment! I appreciate it! It’s always been fascinating to me to learn about folks like Fritz Pollard and others and what they did to overcome barriers. Thanks for reading!