Fritz Pollard: A True NFL Trailblazer
The NFL has a chequered history with race and in particular black players. While it didn’t go as far as other sports in America by excluding black players from playing the NFL is not without its share of shame. There were no black players in the NFL between 1933 and 1946. Even after that reintegration of black players the into the league it took a long time for them establish any traction. There fewer than a handful of black players in the league, less than half a dozen when George Taliafero became the first black player to be drafted in 1949.
In the long history of the NFL almost all UK fans are going to be relatively new to it and especially parts of history. Even those watching Mick Luckhurst in the 1980s on the late-night highlights and games won’t have been exposed to much of the history of the sport, largely because the internet wasn’t a thing then. There are Icons that many people among the UK fan base may never have heard of who shaped large parts of the game we know it today. When I began researching around this I happened upon an individual I thought should be rough to light for UK fans who may not know much about him
The NFL Icon and subject of this particular piece was the NFL’s first black coach, one of its first black players, at one point its highest earner, Ivy League graduate and activist. In fact, so little attention was paid to this man’s achievements for so long that when Tom Flores, the first Hispanic Coach in NFL history was hired as head coach of the Raiders in 1979 it came as a huge surprise to people to find out he wasn’t the league’s first minority coach. There wouldn’t be another black coach until 1989 when the Raiders hired their legendary former offensive tackle Art Shell. The trail blazing honour went to Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard.
Born in Chicago in 1894 in the predominantly white area of Rodgers Park, Pollard felt the sting of racial tension early in his life, he and his family were regularly threatened as they went about their business. Eventually he was able to win over plenty of admirers with his athletic skills, being a three-time county track star, gifted baseball player and outstanding half-back on the gridiron. He received a scholarship to the Ivy League Brown University where despite being 5’9 and only 165lbs he became a standout for the football team accomplishing several firsts.
Pollard was an incredible athlete, and a trailblazing one at that. He was the first black football player at Brown University and played on the team that went the 1915 season Rose Bowl, in accomplishing this he became the first black player to play in the Rose Bowl. In the 1916 season he helped brown over power Ivy League powerhouses Harvard and Yale and lead the team to an 8-1 record, for his achievements he became the first black half-back, running back to you and me, to make the All-American list of NFL pioneer Walter Camp. (For another Interesting read look that guy up!)
…one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.
He became a player coach of Lincoln University’s football team in 1919 while pursuing a brief career in dentistry and headed up their military athletic division. However, he was underpaid, and the team underfunded, he paid for players footwear out of his own pocket and wound up signing for the Akron Pros in later 1919 to supplement his income. As a former college star, he would prove to be a great draw for crowds at the Pros and so it turned out to be.
When the American Professional Football Association (which would be renamed to the National Football League), was formed in 1920 Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first black players in NFL History. It’s not widely known which of the two was the actual first black player to play in the NFL and no sources state it definitively, its likely to be Bobby Marshall as his Rock Island Independents played the week before so usually both are credited together as they were the only black players in the league at the time.
In that 1920 season Pollard lead the Pros to an 8-0-3 record over the second place Decatur Staleys, now known as the Chicago Bears 10-1-2 (ties didn’t count back then) and the first ever APFA/NFL title. He led the Pros in rushing, receiving, punt return yardage and scoring leading to his nomination as a first-team All-Pro.
“It was evident in my first year at Akron back in 1919, that they didn’t want blacks in there getting that money. And here I was, playing and coaching and pulling down the highest salary in pro football.
He was made co-first team coach of the Akron Pros 1921 making him the first black head coach in the NFL. He still played for the Pros during the season and they finished the season 8-3-1 leaving them 3rd in the standings behind the Buffalo All-Americans and the Chicago Staleys. He continued to be one of the League’s biggest draws an in 1922 in the now renamed NFL, he was persuaded to move to the brand-new Milwaukee Badgers but they after a decent start, beset by injuries they lost their last three games and finished 11th out of 18 teams.
For 1923 he moved to the struggling Hammond Pros where several sources say he became the first black quarterback in NFL history, the listings are confusing around this. Pro Football Reference list him as BB, or blocking back, which was different to full back believe it or not but performed a similar role. However Pro Football Reference do not list a quarterback on the Pros roster, so while it can never be confirmed it can be strongly suspected that this is the case. The Pros managed to improve but not to the level of challenging for the league title and they fifteenth out of twenty teams in the league.
In 1924 and parts of 1923 he signed on for the none NFL affiliated Gilberton Cadamounts from the Pennsylvania area, playing in a local league. They were well known to pay large amounts to NFL talents and drew large crowds as a result. He joined former team mate and now Cadamounts coach Charlie Copley whom he knew from his time with the Badgers and the Pros.
In 1925 Pollard returned to the Akron Pros where they finished a creditable 5th, he is listed as having played for other teams that season as well. He would play for the renamed Akron Indians in 1926 but that season would be his last in the NFL after just 6 years and at the age of 32. Not because he wasn’t talented enough or able enough but because of what happened in the business side of the NFL in that off season. 1926 saw the league have 22 teams, but in the turnover of teams was becoming very high, teams would enter and fall out of the league within a couple seasons and it was preventing the league getting significant traction. To combat this the league decided to recall the franchises of 10 of the financially weaker teams reducing it to just 12 for the 1927 season, a whole host of players suddenly becoming available for fewer playing spots essentially led to the removal of all black players from the league in what was a trouble time in America. While there was no formal exclusion the effect of the reduction removed all black players from the league.
Pollard wasn’t done however, in 1928 he founded and coached the Chicago Blackhawks, a team comprised solely of black players based out of the Chicago area. They played white teams all over the Chicago Area but garnered most of their popularity playing teams on barnstorming tours of the west coast. They were very moderately successful but the economic situation around the great depression eventually did for the team in 1932. He would continue barnstorming with the Harlem Brown Bombers in 1936 but again the team struggled in the economic climate. The Brown Bombers were successful and posted a great run against the whites only teams of the Rival American Professional Football League posting some impressive results, some sources state a record of 5-2-1 in one season whilst some sources place them at 29-0 across their entire existence. The goal of Pollard and by extension both the Blackhawks and the Brown Bombers was to showcase the black talent to the NFL to maintain integration, and to undermine the NFL in its exclusion of black players. He extended this to showcase players from Black colleges in the south of the country which were also being ignored by the NFL.
I think it’s because I kept my sense of humour. 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.
One of the few indications of the quality of the Brown Bombers was their result against Army All-America. The All Americans were narrowly defeated by the 1934 champion New York Giants in an exhibition but were routed by the bombers 28-6. None of the NFL teams in New York, the Giants and at the time the Dodgers or in Chicago Bears and Cardinals, would play his teams, but this didn’t stop him from assembling an impressive team of black standouts and former NFL players.
Pollard would ultimately rail against the owner of the Giants Tim Mara and Bears owner George Halas as part of the reason for the exclusion of black players, supporting the NFL old boys club. Though neither of them has any specific sources implicating them directly in the exclusion of black players, he believed they were lapdogs for the Redskins owner George Preston Marshall who was openly and blatantly against the integration of black players in the NFL. As previously stated, there was no elicit ban on black players in the NFL but there was believed to be a Gentleman’s agreement not to sign any black players spearheaded by Marshall and presumably (not the presumption of this writer) agreed to by the other owners. Marshall was the last owner to hold out signing a black player when in 1962 the US Attorney General himself had to force him to sign a black player or lose his lease on his only 1-year old government funded stadium.
In 1933 Pollard moved to New York, and in 1935 arguably made his greatest contribution to America when in 1935 he launched the New York Independent News, Americas first black owned newspaper which ran until 1942 when the paper eventually folded. Pollard would go on to have numerous successful careers including as a tax accountant, a coal mine operator, a booking agent and a film studio manager and producer working with the likes of Billie Holiday. A man of great intelligence and adaptability, who was apparently successful at many of the things he turned his hand to.
His influence on football can still be felt to this day, the Fritz Pollard alliance, established in 2003 when the Rooney Rule was established is an advocacy group which “promotes candidate talent development for coaching, front office executives and scouting staff throughout the National Football League and advocating the hiring and promotion of minority candidates in NFL team staff hierarchy through public education and communication with team and league ownership and management.” They fight to ensure that the Rooney Rule is followed.
So tonight, as I join Fritz Pollard as the second African-American coach in the Hall of Fame, I feel like I’m representing those 10 men and all the African-American coaches who came before me and paved the way, and I thank them very, very much.
Tony Dungee Hall of Fame Speach
Pollard’s College football exploits were rewarded with his induction into the College Football Hall of fame in 1954. He would pass away at the age of 92 on 11th May 1986 having watched so many of those who fought to exclude him from football inducted into the NFL hall of fame ahead of him. Pollard himself was eventually inducted in the class of 2005 nearly 19 years after his death. He was a true pioneer of football whose effects can still be felt today.
I am not and do not claim to be a history writer, everything I have written I believe to be the case and have tried to use as many sources as possible to justify statements made in this article, as such I have listed the sources I have used below.