Fritz Pollard: A leader before his time

Celebrating Black History Month: Fritz Pollard

Fritz Pollard: A leader before his time
February 3, 2013, 3:00 pm
Share This Post
Kristen Harper

It’s game day at Yale University in the early 1900s, a tough field to play on for the Brown University Bears. But they head out of the tunnel with heads held high and helmets strapped on tight, ready to do battle. The crowd is brash and you can sense the hostility in the air. The air is frigid but the stands are filled with blonde-haired, blue-eyed students, holding posters bearing the names of their favorite players inked in black marker. As the Yale University Dans take the field, there is a sense of entitlement the Bears recognize all too quickly. As Brown star player Fritz Pollard meets his team at the 50-yard-line, the roar of the crowd takes over any thoughts going through his mind.

“They hated him. When they played, I believe when they played Yale, they use to sing ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ when he’d come out on the field,” Stephen Towns, Fritz Pollard's grandson, said.

Pollard, standing a meager 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, keeps his head high, knowing the sheer talent he possesses. He greets his teammates with a reassuring smile which lifts their spirits instantaneously. It is time for Pollard to do what he does best; perform.

“He said after a couple of 70-yard runs, all of that [taunting] would stop,” said Towns. “At Brown, he was an absolute superstar (laughs)…he was voted one of the top 50 football players in the first half of the century.”

 “With hearing about his exploits throughout the time you’re growing up, you kind of get use to it and you kind of take it for granted, but you really never knew what his true contribution was… what his place in history was,” Towns recounts.

Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard was born on Jan. 27, 1894 in Chicago. By the time he graduated high school he had become a superb athlete, excelling in three sports – baseball, football and a three-time Cook County track champion. As he moved into his collegiate career, he had brief stints at Northwestern, Harvard and Dartmouth, before receiving a well-deserved scholarship from the prestigious Rockefeller family to attend Brown University.

At the time Rhode Island’s Brown was a predominately Caucasian, private Ivy League university. It was during his tenure there that he led the Bears to the Rose Bowl against Washington State University on New Year’s Day of 1916. He was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, and only the second to be named an All-American in college football. After college, Pollard pursued a brief interest in dentistry but soon realized his true love was football.

In 1920, Pollard signed to play professionally with the Akron Pros in the American Professional Football Association (APFA) and that same year led them to a championship.    

“First African-American to actually play QB, he played QB a little bit in the league, took some snaps.”

Even while playing for the Pros, he was named head coach in 1921. Soon after, the APFA was renamed NFL (National Football League) making Pollard the first African-American head coach in NFL history.

“My grandfather’s teams had this wide open offense… and I actually think my grandfather probably invented the West Coast offense, which it was kind of taken away as things went along, but there’s a lot of passing, reverses, and wide splits and all that kind of stuff, and NFL players just weren’t used to seeing that,” said Towns with a look of pride in his expression.

Between Pollard’s great passing abilities and then-teammate Jim Thorpe’s all-around athleticism, the two were unstoppable and brought a lot of money into the league during the years leading up to the Great Depression.

“He and Jim Thorpe probably kept the league from folding (laughs)… literally, because that was the only time the teams made money, when they came to play. They were the two biggest stars in the league at that point in time,” as Towns said with a smile.

The period leading up to the Great Depression was not a time for the feeble-minded and Pollard was far from weak. Times were tough and were only about to get tougher, especially for African-Americans in the NFL. Pollard then went on to coach two NFL teams, the Milwaukee Badgers and Hammond Pros. However, at the conclusion of the 1926 season, Pollard and nine of the other African-Americans playing in the NFL at the time were removed from the league, never to return again.

“He was a real rabble-rouser… and had been through a lot and really didn’t take stuff off of people… and most people were not aware that the league, when the NFL was first founded, was not segregated. There were African-American players in the league for a number of years. I guess about 1934 several of the owners, [thought] that it was the depression and it wasn’t good for business to have black people working… and with all the other white people unemployed, and one of the things was football, and there were still black players in the league,” said Towns.

Pollard spent years urging the NFL to allow African-Americans to return to the game and finally after years of avoidance, the NFL lifted the ban on players of color in 1946 coincidentally after the conclusion of WWII. According to Towns, the segregation of the league existed from 1934-1946.     

“And that didn’t change I believe until 1946, when Woody Strode and Kenny Washington were drafted by the LA Rams,” said Towns.

Upon his retirement from football, he pursued a career in business, where his former player and friend, Paul Robeson, resurfaced into his life.

“Paul Robeson was a good, not only played for my grandfather, but was a good friend. My grandfather later went on to manage him on some of his… exploits as a singer and actor,” said Towns.

It seems Pollard became somewhat of a renaissance man, with his heavy involvement in entertainment and movies. 

 After Pollard’s passing in 1986, many questions began arising about who exactly this man was.

“He died in ’86, so after that, we started seeing people started talking about ‘who is this guy?’… started coming out, and they started saying ‘well gosh’, then they start looking, he was a Walter Camp All-American, 1916 played on 1st Rose Bowl team, 1954, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, I believe he was the first African-American to be in that, I’ve got his plaque here too,” said a proud Towns.

Nevertheless, through all the trials and tribulations of his career, Fritz received the highest honor a player could ever dream of. On August 7, 2005, Fritz Pollard was inducted into the Hall of Fame but some, including Towns, believed that Pollard’s long-awaited election into the Hall spontaneously happened after the passing of influential figures who disapproved of his election.

As one looks to move forward into the future, one can’t overlook the stories of the past.

“A lot of them are clueless about those types of things… a lot of them don’t know who Jackie Robinson is,” said Towns with a look of concern. “When we were forced to, when segregation was there, and I’m not saying segregation was good by any stretch of the imagination, but it forced you to learn about yourself, about your history and to be proud of yourself, and I think as integration took place, and our communities became more dissipated, all those things got diluted and weren’t taught, and they never were talked about.”

Fritz Pollard is only one of the many important but forgotten heroes in our history. His story is empowering to people of all ethnicities.

“Grandfather was a very interesting guy, he was an entrepreneur, a sports figure, and he was always kind of bigger than life,” simply put by Towns. 

Tune in to Comcast SportsNet tonight at 10:30 to hear the recounting tale of this African-American hero. Luke Stuckmeyer reports.