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Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard – First Black Professional Football Player

The Pennsylvania “Coal League” was one of the most rugged professional football leagues of the 1920s. Players weren’t groomed to play the sport via passing academies, offseason circuit training and college football. Heck, the majority of them didn’t even see the inside of a high school classroom. Instead, these men came out of the coal mines of Pennsylvania to play football.

And none of them had ever played against a guy like Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard. He was a 5-foot-9, 165 pound, former All-American from an Ivy League school.

He also was African-American.

Pollard had been recruited to play for the Gilberton Cadamonts in 1923 and 1924. In his first game at Weston Field in Shenandoah, Pa. the Cadamonts huddled at midfield during halftime because they didn’t want to engage the fans. “They greeted me with a hail of rocks and bottles,” Pollard remembered.

But it wasn’t long before Pollard was able to win over even his toughest critics. Not that it was a first for Pollard, though, being first was kind of a theme for his life.

Yet, even the most ardent football fans have never heard the name.

You might have heard of Kenny Washington. Or at the very least, you’re familiar with Art Shell. Washington broke the NFL’s color barrier of the modern NFL. A year earlier his UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson accomplished the same feat with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Al Davis hired Shell to guide the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989, he became the first African-American coach of the modern era.

Of course, to many, the semantics of the word modern in “modern NFL” doesn’t really resonate. But it’s there for a reason. The reason is Fritz Pollard.

Pollard’s father was a champion boxer and barber from the Civil War era. His mother was 100 percent Native American (something he had in common with another legend of the 1920s, Jim Thorpe). Pollard grew up in Rogers Park, a community area on the north side of Chicago, Ill. It was a German-immigrant part of town. That’s where he got the nickname Fritz.

Pollard was small, even for the early days of football. But he played in high school at the behest of his brother. He was the first African-American selected to the Cook County All-Star team, which earned him the chance to attend Brown University of the Ivy League.

Now, teams like Brown, Yale and Harvard might not be college football powers today, but they were the USC, Alabama and Florida of their era. Not to mention, they were basically all white. So when Pollard ran all over a team like Yale, it attracted a lot of attention.

Pollard was the first African-American to be selected to the Walter Camp All-America team in 1915. That season, Brown went 5-3-1, but was chosen to play Washington State in the Rose Bowl after Syracuse bowed out. Of course, Pollard was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, but the trip was not without challenges.

Pollard was refused service by the porters of the Pullman train car which carried his teammates across country. The hotel the team was staying at in California even refused to give a room to Pollard. It wasn’t until an assistant coach threatened to remove the entire Brown team that the hotel acquiesced and let him stay.

And the game itself was kind of a disaster. The entire team was ill-equipped to play the game — literally. The team arrived in California without “weather” cleats and a rare rainstorm in January turned the Rose Bowl turf into a quagmire. Pollard and the entire Brown squad were ineffective. Even a last-ditch effort to wear shoes multiple sizes too big couldn’t save the day for Pollard. His biggest contribution might have been his theatrics as he begged his coach to put him back in.

The game might not have worked out in Pollard’s favor, but he was still one of the biggest names in football at that time.

However, it’s important to note major college football stars back then weren’t guaranteed a chance at professional football stardom. Heck, professional football at the time might have rivaled your current independent wrestling federation, watched by just a few diehards.

Pollard finished his playing career at Brown. He studied to be a dentist at the University of Pennsylvania and served in the army during World War I before he was recruited to play football professionally. He joined the Akron Pros in 1920 in the American Professional Football League (which would later become the National Football League). And as you can expect, Pollard was the target of taunts from fans and vicious hits from his opponents on the field.

“I wanted the honor of being the first black coach more than anything else.”

  — Fritz Pollard

Many players didn’t want Pollard on the field. He even briefly got into it with Thorpe himself, despite a similar background. Players would employ the “high-low” technique and found other sadistic ways to try to get him off the field. The antics never seemed to work, though.

“I’d look at them and grin,” Pollard told NFL Films. “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.”

It’s not bragging or boasting if you can back it up. Pollard often did. The Pros went 8-0-3 to win the league’s first title in 1920. But there was something bigger that loomed on the horizon for Pollard.

“I wanted the honor of being the first black coach more than anything else,” he said.

Pollard achieved his dream the following year when the Pros selected him to run the team. Pollard would coach four teams (some of them only occasionally): the Pros/Indians (1920 to 21, 1925 to 26), the Milwaukee Badgers (1922), the Hammond Pros (1923, 1925), and the Providence Steam Roller (1925). There also is his previously mentioned stint in the “Coal League” of Pennsylvania.

Pollard founded and coached the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928. They were an all African-American team from the Windy City, but often went barnstorming through the West Coast. His team became one of the most popular, especially once the Great Depression forced many teams of that era to fold.

His talent and charisma won out over everything else (that lasted his whole life, even after his playing career was over). He founded the first black tabloid in 1935, New York’s “Independent News.” He also founded the first black investment firm and would go on to be an agent who represented black entertainers. Pollard also had another impact on Hollywood.

According to Pollard, Walt Disney was at the 1916 Rose Bowl game and he became enamored with Pollard’s antics on the sidelines. Pollard was animated as he lobbied his coach to get back into the game. The image of Pollard’s theatrics stuck with Disney and in one cartoon, he modeled Mickey Mouse’s movements after Pollard.

Pollard died at age 92 in 1986, but lived more than one lifetime. Pollard received football’s oldest honor in 2005 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It might have taken a while for Pollard to reach the pinnacle. In contrast, Thorpe was inducted into the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Pollard’s legacy had always been a part of it.

And maybe it was fitting. The following year Warren Moon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, Moon has been recognized as the first African-American quarterback of the modern era to be in the Hall of Fame. He even acknowledged those who came before him.

“I remember all the guys before me who blazed a trail to give me the inspiration,” Moon said during his induction speech.

No doubt words meant for players and men like Pollard.

Original Works Cited by Adam Rank, writer

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