Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Canton celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Football League’s founding in grand fashion Thursday. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a pilgrimage to Canton in the afternoon. Centennial Plaza was dedicated during Thursday night’s primetime matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. And 11 Player Pylons were unveiled to the nation, reveling the names of every player to play in the NFL over the League’s first 100 seasons.
Eleven players, coaches and contributors enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame trace their careers back to when the NFL refereed to itself as the American Professional Football Association (1920-21). Those Hall of Famers are Joe Carr, Guy Chamberlin, Jimmy Conzelman, John “Paddy” Driscoll, Joe Guyon, George Halas, Wilbur “Pete” Henry, Earl “Curly” Lambeau, Fritz Pollard (whom New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick honored with a patch on his visor during Kickoff Weekend), Jim Thorpe and George Trafton.
These men are the pillars the NFL was built upon in its earliest years. Throughout the League’s 100-year history, more than 29,000 people have played, coached or administered the game at the professional level. The Pro Football Hall of Fame honors the legacies of each person who helped move this great game forward.
During the NFL’s first season in 1920, the League featured two African American players: Pollard, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2005, and Robert “Rube” Marshall. One year later, Pollard became the first African American NFL head coach — 26 years before Jackie Robinson stepped on a baseball field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pollard’s life not only make him a pro football pioneer, but a national hero whose story should continue to be told.
An All-American halfback from Brown University, Pollard possessed tremendous athletic skills. He led Brown to the Rose Bowl in 1915 and qualified for the 1916 Olympics in Berlin, competing in the low hurdles. Unfortunately, the games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. Following his service in the Army, the 5-9, 165-pound back turned pro, joining the Akron Pros in 1919.
In 1920, the Pros joined the newly founded APFA. That season, with Pollard leading the charge, the team went undefeated (8-0-3) and won the league's first championship. Newspaper accounts of the time said Pollard was fast and elusive, and he was the most feared running back in the league.
In 1921, Pollard earned the title of co-coach of the Pros, his name etched into the history books.
During his pro football career, Pollard played and sometimes coached for four NFL teams: the Pros/Indians (1920-21, 1925-26), Milwaukee Badgers (1922), Hammond Pros (1923, 1925), and Providence Steam Roller (1925). Fritz also spent time in 1923 and 1924 playing for the Gilberton Catamounts, a strong independent pro team in the Pennsylvania “Coal League.”
In 1928, Pollard organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-African American professional team based in the Windy City. Pollard's Black Hawks played against white teams around Chicago but enjoyed their greatest success by scheduling exhibition games against West Coast teams during the winter months. From 1929 until 1932, when the Depression caused the team to fold, the Black Hawks had become one of the more popular teams on the West Coast.
Pollard later would go on to enjoy a highly successful business career. He established the New York Independent News, the first weekly black tabloid. He founded the first African American investment firm: F.D. Pollard and Co. He managed the Suntan Movie Studio in Harlem and was a theater agent, booking African Americans in clubs across New York City. He founded two coal delivery companies in Chicago and New York and became a tax consultant.
The Class of 2005 enshrinee was a true renaissance man. And while he gave so much of himself to football, the values he learned by playing the game also helped him excel in life after he retired.