Frederick “Fritz” Pollard began his pro football career one year before the National Football League, first known as the American Professional Football Association, was formed in Canton, Ohio in 1920.
An All-America halfback who helped Brown win the Rose Bowl following the 1915 season, Pollard turned professional with the Akron Pros in 1919. When the team joined the newly formed pro league, he was one of just two African American players in the APFA. His elusive running and strong desire helped Akron become the league’s first champions. The Pros finished with an 8-0-3 record to claim the title that inaugural season.
Then, in 1921, Pollard earned another distinctive first when he was named co-coach of the Pros and hence became the first African American head coach in league history. He later coached the Hammond Pros in 1925 but there are other various accounts that suggest he may have indeed served as a coach with the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922 and Hammond in 1923.
His tenure as coach was brought back into the limelight in 1989 when Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell was named the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders.
“I’m not the first. Fritz Pollard was the first,” commented Shell, who became the first African American head coach of the NFL’s modern era.
Pollard’s trailblazing has finally received the proper respect it was due. On February 5, 2005, nearly 19 years after his death, Fritz Pollard was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Don Pierson, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune and long-time member of the Hall’s Board of Selectors expressed the importance of Pollard’s election, “I think it was the historical significance of being the first black player and the first black coach. I look at him as a player, a coach, and a contributor. I think he did all three.”
Pollard’s grandson, Steven Towns echoes Pierson’s sentiments. “He was just as important as George Halas and some of the other people,” commented Towns who will represent his grandfather on stage during the August 7th induction ceremony. “When you read the history, he was right there, a major part of everything that was going on.”
Accounts from the 1920s described Pollard as one of the most lethal players in the league. His versatility, speed, and ability to avoid oncoming tacklers made him one of the most dangerous halfbacks at that time. He also had the ability to throw the ball which kept his opponents off-balance. Reportedly, Pollard received $1,500 during the peak of his career. Only the legendary Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was making that kind of money at that time.
Pollard’s achievements came at great sacrifice. His desire to play professional football helped him overcome the personal humiliation of not being able to stay at his team’s hotel or frequent the same restaurants. Onthe playing field, he often had to protect himself from opponent’s lack of sportsmanship when players would take extra shots at him after he was tackled. Pollard persevered through the tribulations.
|Fritz's son, Fritz Pollard, Jr. (Front row, second from right) was a star athlete who competed with Jesse Owens (Front row, right ) in the 1936 Olympic Games. Pollard, Jr. won a bronze medal in the high hurdles. He was also a standout football player for the University of North Dakota. An injury in his final collegiate game ended his career. (Photo courtesy of Fritz Pollard's family )|
"I think it’s because I kept my sense of humor,” he once conveyed. “I just got along. I took it – and bounced back for more. And scoring touchdowns won a lot of the southern players over to my side."Amidst his days with teams that competed in the NFL, Pollard also lent his skill on the gridiron to an independent pro team. He coached and played for the Gilberton Cadamounts, a dominant team in the Pennsylvania “Coal League,” in 1923 and 1924. He returned to the NFL in 1925 and wrapped his playing career back in Akron in 1926.
In 1928, Pollard put together and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, a team comprised exclusively of African Americans. The team battled professional and semi-pro white teams in the Chicago area before embarking on a tour to play exhibition games on the west coast during the winter months. The Black Hawks gained their most success, and notoriety, during their west coast swings from 1929 to 1932.
His association with the pro game continued in the mid-1930s when he spent three seasons coaching a New York City black all-star team called the Brown Bombers in honor of heavyweight boxer Joe Louis.
Pollard's personal dedication and integrity allowed him to excel and achieve greatness on the football field despite battling social injustices against him because of the color of his skin.
Justice will now be served when Pollard is formally enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his role as a pioneer for the sport will be remembered forever.
Other features on the Class of 2005
Benny Friedman - "Headliner"
Dan Marino - "35 Miles"
Steve Young - "From the shadows"
Welcoming Committee: Steve Young
Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly welcomes Steve Young to Canton. Kelly and Young were part of two very memorable offensive shootouts during their careers.
Dan Marino conference call transcript
Transcript from Dan Marino's national conference call on July 21, 2005.