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Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard helped sports, world change for better

Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard helped sports, world change for better

08/14/2020
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By Beau Troutman, Holland Sentinel

Editor’s note: This article, reprinted with permission, is part of a summer series The Holland Sentinel has been publishing that looks at the legacies of the most influential African-American athletes in history.

Frederick “Fritz” Pollard saw what the world was like in the 1890s and the 1980s.

He also saw how it changed between then.

In fact, he helped it change.

Pollard was one of the first two — along with Bobby Marshall — African-Americans in the National Football League in 1920. Pollard was posthumously inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2005, the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2015 and the Fritz Pollard Alliance — a group established to promote minority hiring in the NFL — was named in his honor.

Pollard was the first black player selected to the Walter Camp All-America team, the first to play in the Rose Bowl (1916) and the first to be inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame (1954).

“He’s one of the greatest runners I’ve ever seen,” legendary sportswriter Walter Camp said of Pollard.

Pollard attended Albert G. Lane Manual Training High School in Chicago, where he excelled in football, baseball and track. He attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, as a running back and led the team to the 1916 Rose Bowl.

During Pollard’s time at Brown, he also became the first Black player to play in the Yale Bowl. He had to enter through an alternate entrance to avoid the Yale fans.

Despite this, Pollard was able to overcome and play the game despite the racial epithets shouted at him from the crowd. Every time he took the field, the home crowd sang, “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

“I didn’t get mad at them and want to fight them. I would just look at them and grin, and in the next minute run for an 80-yard touchdown,” Pollard said.

Pollard’s mentality inspired some of his teammates.

“Pollard puts life in perspective on the gridiron the same way Jackie Robinson does on the diamond,” former Yale tight end Sebastian Little said. “He’s an incredible inspiration for not what he did, but the way in which he did it. First, as an undersized athlete, he was able to outwork his competition to get the outcome he wanted.

“But more importantly, as a person, he was able to persevere through the systematic and acute racism, and handle letdowns and trials with a sense of honor and grace. College football players of color everywhere owe Pollard an eternal debt that we can only begin to repay through our character, resiliency and pursuit of excellence on and off the field.”

Pollard coached Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) from 1918 to 1920 and was athletic director to the school’s World War I-era Students’ Army Training Corps. Pollard later accused the Lincoln administration for making his job harder, failing to give him support. After a loss during his tenure, Pollard said: “Prior to the Hampton game, the team was compelled to go to Hampton by boat, sleeping on the decks and under portholes. No cabins were provided, nor were they given a place to sleep after reaching Hampton. They lost the game through lack of rest.”

Pollard went on to play for the Akron Pros and led the team to the NFL championship in 1920. The next year, became a player-coach for Akron, and was co-head coach and starting running back. In 1923, he became the first Black player to play quarterback in the league.

He would also spend time with the Milwaukee Badgers, Hammond Pros, Gilberton Cadamounts (non-NFL team), Union Club of Phoenixville, Chicago Black Hawks and Providence Steam Roller.

In 1930, Pollard founded his own pro team, the Brown Bombers, in Harlem. He led the team until 1938, when the Great Depression struck and the team folded.

After the Bombers folded, Pollard went on to work in various industries: tax consulting, film and music production and newspaper publishing. Pollard’s New York Independent News is thought to be the first-black owned tabloid in New York City.

Pollard died of pneumonia on May 11, 1986, at the age of 92.

The world was a much different place by the time Pollard died. And after his life, one can’t help but think Pollard had something to do with that.

“Football isn’t a game — it is a religion,” Pollard said.

He certainly treated it as such.

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