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Fritz Pollard: Football’s Unsung Trailblazer

Fritz Pollard: Football’s Unsung Trailblazer

By Edward McClelland

Fritz Pollard stepped off a train in Akron, Ohio, on a Sunday morning in October 1919, and caught a taxicab downtown to the United Cigar Store. He had been summoned by its owner, Frank Nied, who was also the fedora-wearing manager of the Akron Indians, the city’s professional football team.

“The Akron Indians…have landed the kingpin of them all: Pollard, the great all-American halfback from Brown…”

Two weeks earlier, the Indians had lost 9-6 to their intrastate rivals, the Massillon Tigers. That defeat set Nied looking to sign the best running back in the country for the upcoming rematch. Akron was a four-time champion of the Ohio League, the semi-pro association that was the seed of the National Football League. By the late teens, though, football was professionalizing, and expanding to other Midwestern states. To compete, a team couldn’t just field factory workers trying to earn extra money on Sunday. Pollard had led Brown University to the 1916 Rose Bowl. The following season, he earned a spot on Walter Camp’s All-America football team. But then he’d lost his academic eligibility, due to a love of partying and a distaste for scholarship. The Indians’ coach, Ralph “Fat” Waldsmith, found the washed-up collegian in Philadelphia, where he was studying dentistry, coaching the Lincoln University football team, and despairing of ever playing competitively again. When the Indians offered Pollard $200 for the game against Tigers, he caught an overnight train to Ohio, arriving just behind this notice in the Akron Beacon-Journal: “The Akron Indians…have landed the kingpin of them all: Pollard, the great all-American halfback from Brown has been signed to play with Akron for the remainder of the season.”

But the counterman at the cigar store must not have read the papers. He looked the newly-arrived football star up and down and asked, “What do you want, nigger?”

Pollard had been called that name before, as a high school football star in Chicago. At Brown, opposing fans taunted him as “Blackbird.” He’d learned not to let the slurs interfere with his game.

Fortunately, Nied spotted Pollard, and invited him upstairs to his office. The manager was a little disappointed by his new acquisition’s runtiness – Pollard was five-foot-eight, 155 pounds, while Nied had been expecting a six-footer – but told him to get ready for that afternoon’s game at Goodrich Field.

Pollard tried to check into a hotel, but was turned away because he was a Negro, and an unfamiliar one at that. So he dressed at the cigar store and ran across the street, the last player to arrive on the field.

“This is Pollard,” Nied told his team, in a flat tone that made it clear the new player would be welcomed. “He’s going to play.”

“Akron was worse than Georgia at that time, because it was full of Southerners who had gone up there to work during the war,” Pollard said in an interview years later. “We had a lot of Southerners on the team, and I think nine out of the eleven were Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, but they didn’t say anything and they accepted what I said because the manager told them if they didn’t like what I said, the hell with them, because I was developing a good team.”

The all-white Tigers weren’t so tolerant. “Dire threats have come from the Tiger camp of just what they are going to do the little colored chap,” the newspaper reported.

Akron lost the grudge match against Massillon, 13-6, but the Tigers’ threat to “get Pollard” failed: he scored the Indians’ only touchdown. As the only black player on his high school team in Chicago, and later at Brown, Pollard had learned to avoid the violence of opponents who resented his intrusion on a white man’s gridiron. A running back’s task is evasion – sidestepping and sprinting away from defenders trying to drag him down. Pollard was an early master of that art, with speed, a nimble crossover step, and the ability to cut away from tacklers, slipping out of their trajectory, leaving behind empty air and frustration. But as a black player, and a prominent one, he’d also been forced to develop an after-the-whistle game, to avoid cheap shots by racist tacklers. If they tried, Pollard had learned to roll over and pull his legs up, so the defense couldn’t wrench his ankles. If they tried, he delivered a kick to the nose, which was usually effective: in those leather-helmeted days, players weren’t protected by facemasks.

After the Massilon game, Pollard was invited to stay the same hotel that had turned him away that morning; he caught a train back to Philadelphia instead.

200px-Fritz_PollardStill, he fast became Akron’s headline attraction, drawing fans not only for the novelty of seeing an all-American from an Ivy League school, but a diminutive black man threading through ponderous defensive lines. When the Indians lost 14-0 to the Canton Bulldogs, who were led by Jim Thorpe, pro football’s biggest star, the Beacon-Journal sports page singled out Pollard’s punt returning: “the 145-pound [sic] lad performed as few gridders have ever been capable on a muddy field.”

Over the next three seasons, Pollard would become Akron’s highest-scoring player, and finally, its coach – the only African-American to coach a professional football team until Art Shell was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 1989. Pollard was not the first black athlete paid to play football, but he was the first to star in the confederation of Midwestern franchises that became the National Football League.

“Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the ’40s,” says Pollard’s grandson, Fritz Pollard III. “My grandfather started playing pro football in 1919. Pro football back then was not a televised sport. If it had been televised, the credit would have been there. Baseball, in ’47, was well publicized.”

Why was football, the basest of team sports, more progressive than the elegant game of baseball? It had a lot to do with the images of the sports in those eras, and the organization of the leagues. As the national pastime, baseball was expected to reflect the nation’s values, which called for the segregation of whites and blacks. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the bigoted Chicago judge who became baseball’s first commissioner in 1920, enforced the gentleman’s agreement barring blacks from the major leagues.

Pro football, on the other hand, was a distant second in popularity and prestige to the college game, especially contests among the Ivy League and the military academies. Those were gentlemen playing a roughneck’s sport. The pros were roughnecks playing a roughneck’s sport. The NFL was born in the broken-nose small towns of the industrial Midwest. In the Ohio League, such towns as Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Portsmouth butted heads for the championship. Even as pro football expanded, the new franchises were company teams, often stocked with factory workers hired as ringers, or college players competing under assumed names to earn some under-the-table money. The Staley Starch Co. of Decatur, Ill., hired a New York Yankees washout named George Halas to coach its team. In Green Bay, Wis., the Indian Packing Co. sponsored an eponymous team. There was no fixed schedule – clubs arranged games among themselves, and sometimes folded in midseason. There wasn’t even a league until 1920, when representatives of 11 teams met in the Hupmobile auto dealership of Canton Bulldogs owner John Hay, chipping in $100 each to join the American Professional Football Association. Its charter roster reads today like a Rust Belt travel itinerary: Akron Pros, Decatur Staleys, Buffalo All-Americans, Racine Cardinals, Rock Island Independents, Dayton Triangles, Rochester Jeffersons, Canton Bulldogs, Detroit Heralds, Cleveland Tigers, Chicago Tigers, Hammond Pros, Columbus Panhandles, Muncie Flyers.

In that environment, there was no one to prevent an owner from hiring a black player, if he thought it was worth the trouble.

In that environment, there was no one to prevent an owner from hiring a black player, if he thought it was worth the trouble. And with Pollard came trouble. Turned away from a hotel in Dayton, he was forced to sleep in a room by the railroad tracks, in the colored district. In retaliation for the racial snub, Pollard held up the game for an hour.

“When I got there, they said, ‘Well, we know what’s wrong with you; you couldn’t stop at a hotel, nigger this that and the other thing,’” Pollard said. “That’s the crowd hollering now. The crowd was hollering, so I went in and played. Those things happened the same way in Canton, in Cleveland. They just didn’t want me to stay there and our manager didn’t have the sense to tell them, or didn’t want to tell them in advance that they had a black man with them. So when we got there we ran into all that trouble. The team used to threaten to leave if we couldn’t stay there.”

Pollard’s teammates defended him on and off the field. Tackle Charles Copley and fullback Rip King – “a pair of big brutes,” Pollard recalled – stood over their slight halfback to ensure he wasn’t kicked or punched after tackles. In an Akron restaurant, the waiter refused to take Pollard’s order. Copley roughed him up until he changed his policy.

In 1920, the American Professional Football Association’s first full season, the Indians adopted a new name – the Pros, to reflect their new professional status – and a new field: League Park, at the corner of Beaver and Carroll streets. The Pros began the season with four straight shutouts. Pollard scored two touchdowns against the Wheeling Stogies and one against the Cincinnati Celts (both non-league games that would nonetheless count in the standings). Even when he didn’t score, as in a 37-0 rout of Columbus, he returned punts 20 and 30 yards, and intercepted a pass. On Halloween, the Pros returned to Canton for a rematch against Thorpe’s Bulldogs, who had not been beaten since 1917. Thorpe predicted Pollard wouldn’t show up.

“That nigger’s scared to come play,” he boasted crudely.

Pollard did show up – again an hour late.

“Hello, little black boy,” Thorpe greeted him.

“Hello, big black boy,” Pollard rejoined.

Thorpe was dumbfounded by the insult, but by the end of the game, Pollard had his respect. The Pros won, 10-0, on a field goal and an interception return. Pollard didn’t score, but executed two “sensational” punt returns. The Pros finished the season 8-0-3, and were declared the league’s first champions. Outscoring their opponents 151-7, they remain one of four unbeaten teams in league history. Pollard scored eight touchdowns, second to Buffalo’s Ockie Anderson. (In the final game of the season, with the championship on the line, the Pros and the All-Americans tied 0-0. Pollard fumbled in the final minutes, but Buffalo could only drive to the 12-yard line before time ran out.) He was earning $400 a game, and was such an Akron idol that the Beacon-Journal (which rarely mentioned Pollard’s race in game stories) ran a feature on the “Little Colored Grid Star,” describing his trick of drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty by stepping out of bounds just before he was tackled.

Pollard with the 1920 Akron Professionals [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Pollard (bottom right) with the 1920 Akron Professionals [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

“Colored people everywhere idolize the Akron star,” wrote sportswriter Jack Gibbons. “Fritz took part in a benefit game at Pittsburg [sic] last Saturday. The colored people there were so wild over having him in their midst that they attended a parade, met him at the railroad depot: he was the guest of honor at a large banquet and then given several degrees in some colored society.”

If Akron was an ideal place to put a black man at the forefront of a football team, Pollard was an ideal candidate for that role. All his life, he had lived in white society. He grew up in Rogers Park, a quasi-suburban neighborhood on the northern fringe of Chicago. His father, a Civil War veteran and successful barber, named him Frederick Douglass Pollard, after the abolitionist. But his German and Luxembourger playmates shortened that to Fritz, the proper nickname in their ancestral countries. At the Lake Michigan beaches, strangers asked Pollard and his brothers, “Nigger, what you doing here?” Pollard’s father taught his four sons “how to handle these situations without losing our heads and using our fists,” Fritz said; but he also taught them to box, in case whites provoked them to violence. In his first football game for Lane Tech, Fritz was being abused by a Hyde Park tackle named Butch Scanlon. So his big brother, Hughes, asked for the ball and flatted the Irish kid.

“From now on, you just learn to take care of yourself,” Hughes told Fritz. “I’m all through. I’m not going to play anymore.”

Pollard became one of Chicago’s most popular schoolboy athletes, all-Cook County in football, baseball, and track. But outside the city, opposing teams refused to compete against a black kid. When Lane Tech roadtripped to southern Illinois, his team gave Pollard the wrong train itinerary. He got off at a station 10 miles from the field, and walked to the game, arriving too late to play. Unable to tell him that southern Illinois didn’t welcome blacks, his teammates deliberately got him lost instead. At a scrimmage against St. John’s Military Academy in Wisconsin, Pollard’s coach kept him on the bench, telling him, “This is a practice game; I think we’d better save you.” Only afterward did a St. John’s player reveal, “Nigger, we did all that to keep you out of the game.”

Even in the enlightened Ivy League, Pollard could not escape bigotry. The first time he walked into the Brown locker room, a Southerner drawled, “Christ, a nigger.”

“That’s Fritz Pollard,” another player pointed out.

“I don’t care what he calls himself …”

“I don’t care what he calls himself,” the Southerner spat. “He’s still a nigger to me.”

At the end of that day’s practice, the coach told the team to hit the showers…except for Pollard, who was ordered to retrieve a stray football. When Pollard walked into the shower room, where he hoped to join his white teammates in their post-workout singing, he found out why. The voices stopped. The men filed out. Pollard showered alone.

“My brothers and my dad had taught me to handle all those things and I never lost my head about it,” he said. “I just figured it was another thing that came along.”

Pollard’s devotion to pro football cost him his head coaching job at Lincoln University. In 1921, with no more need to commute between Philadelphia and Akron, Pollard moved his family to Cleveland and was named head coach of the Pros. In truth, he had been playing that role since he’d joined the Akron team, teaching “the Brown system” to teammates who were still running primitive offensive schemes. His first move was to sign Paul Robeson, an old rival from Rutgers University who had a little talent as a football player, but would turn out to have a lot more as a singer and actor. A six-foot-two-inch, 225-pound offensive tackle and defensive end, Robeson was the only other black collegian ever named to Walter Camp’s All-America team, making the Pros not only the first NFL team with a black coach, but the first to start two black players. Led by Pollard, the Pros started the season with eight straight shutouts. In the second game, Pollard scored three touchdowns against Cincinnati, even though he didn’t play until the second half, joining the game after fans taunted, “Hey, Pollard, you make a good spectator!” In November, though, Robeson and Pollard were injured. The Pros suffered a three-game losing streak, including a 14-0 Thanksgiving loss to Canton that eliminated them from title contention. At 8-3-1, they finished third in the APFA, behind the All-Americans and the Staleys, who had moved to Chicago and would soon be renamed the Bears.

As a result of the late-season collapse, Pollard was fired. The team claimed he had “failed to keep in condition toward the lag end of the season” and “played indifferent football.” In 1922, he caught on as coach of the Milwaukee Badgers, a new franchise in the newly renamed National Football League, but was fired in the middle of their 2-4-3 season. That fall, Pollard put together an all-black team, “Fritz Pollard and His All-Stars,” which played an exhibition game against an all-white team in Chicago. Pollard’s team won, 6-0, when he threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Robeson. The next season, when Pollard took over as coach of the Hammond Pros, he brought along three of his All-Stars – Dick Hudson, Sol Butler, and Ink Williams – making Hammond the league’s most integrated squad. Like a lot of small market Midwestern cities, Hammond could barely field a team. They played only five games that year, all on the road. The owner’s wife washed the players’ uniforms. After the first game, Pollard’s contract was sold to Akron, and he led his old club to a 4-2-2 record, until Nied, who was also going broke, canceled the rest of the schedule.

The 1926 season was the last for both Pollard and pro football in Akron. Nied fired Pollard again after a 0-0 tie against Canton, stating he had “failed to play up to the form expected of him.” After a truncated 1-4-3 season witnessed by dwindling crowds, Akron’s NFL franchise folded.

The NFL was becoming a big business by then, with teams in New York and Los Angeles. There was no longer room for company teams backed by cigar stores and starch processors. The Canton Bulldogs and the Columbus Tigers were also dropped from the league. The Dayton Triangles, the last of the Ohio League teams, moved to Brooklyn in 1930. (The Green Bay Packers survived by transferring ownership to a non-profit, publicly held corporation.)

The NFL’s major league ambitions also left no room for black players, who had mainly been hired by tank town teams desperate for a draw. The New York Giants refused to play Canton at the Polo Grounds until Sol Butler withdrew as quarterback. In 1933, the Depression was cutting into the NFL’s gate receipts, and inciting white resentment against blacks who competed for good jobs. That winter, the league’s owners met at a Pittsburgh hotel, where they decided to join baseball in drawing a color line.

Bears coach George Halas was present at that meeting, and Pollard ever after blamed him for banning blacks from the NFL. It was a grudge, Pollard suggested, that went all the way back to their high school days in Chicago, when Lane Tech had bested Halas’s Crane Tech at baseball and football. Pollard was especially bitter because at the end of the 1920 season, Halas had proposed a game in Chicago between the undefeated Pros and his 10-1-1 Staleys. The Pros felt they had nothing to prove, but Pollard insisted they play.

FP pass pose“He used me to get recognized,” Pollard told the Los Angeles Times in 1976. “We had won the world championship and the Akron team didn’t want to go to Chicago. But I said, ‘I’m a Chicago boy. Let’s go!’ Then Halas refused to play Akron the next year unless Akron dropped me. And he refused to play Milwaukee the next year when I went up there. George Halas used me to get every goddamn thing he could, then after he used me and got power, he raised the prejudice barrier. If George Halas was still like he was then, he wouldn’t have allowed a black player in Chicago because he was prejudiced as hell.” (Halas told the same reporter that Pollard was “a liar. At no time did the color of skin matter. All I cared about was the color of your blood. If you had red blood, I was for you.” Asked why there were no blacks in pro football from 1933 to 1945, Papa Bear responded, “I don’t know. Probably the game didn’t have the appeal to black players at the time.”)

In response to the new color line, Pollard – by then living in New York City and operating a coal delivery business – organized a black all-star team, named the Brown Bombers after boxer Joe Louis. He was determined to prove that blacks belonged in pro football. For four years, the Bombers demolished amateur white teams, but NFL teams refused to face them, or sign their players. That was the end of Pollard’s involvement with football. Though his son, Fritz Jr., later found success in a sport that still welcomed black athletes, winning a bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1936 Olympics, Pollard went on to work as a sportswriter and a talent agent, using his name (and underworld connections) to book Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, and Redd Foxx into Manhattan nightclubs. In later years, he settled down to a prosperous career as a tax consultant, although he took one last stab at show business by producing an all-black musical, Rockin’ the Blues, which premiered at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Black players would not return to the NFL until 1946 – the year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. By then, Pollard’s accomplishments were forgotten. There are no films of his pro football games. The all-comers NFL of his era was a half-step above a sandlot league, with no history, and ragged record keeping. The only players whose names live on – Jim Thorpe and Red Grange – made reputations in their pre-professional days, as an Olympian and a college star, respectively. Pollard’s name was not resurrected until 1989 – three years after his death – when Art Shell became coach of the Raiders.

“Art Shell knew” about Pollard, said Fritz Pollard III. “They did an interview with him live. They said, ‘How do you feel to be the first black coach in the NFL? He said, ‘I’m not. Fritz Pollard was.’ That’s when the phones started ringing. They started calling, doing interviews. That’s when the attention came back.”

John Wooten joined the Cleveland Browns in 1959, as a blocking guard for Jim Brown. (The Browns had helped re-integrate pro football in 1946, by signing defensive tackle Bill Willis and running back Marion Motley, a future Hall of Famer.) Wooten knew that there had been black NFL players in the 1920s, and he knew the name Fritz Pollard, “but we certainly didn’t know about him the way we do now,” he said.

Wooten didn’t become aware of Pollard’s importance until after his playing days. Scouting for the Dallas Cowboys, he made a trip to Brown, where he saw Pollard’s name on a list of the school’s all-Americans. Inspired, Wooten became an activist for black empowerment in pro football. Black players now make up 66 percent of NFL rosters, but a 2002 report commissioned by attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” claimed that black coaches were held to higher standards than whites, making it difficult for them to find jobs. The report led to the Rooney Rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the chairman of the league’s diversity committee. The rule requires NFL teams to interview a minority for every head coach opening. It also led Wooten to found an organization dedicated to promoting black coaching candidates. He named it the Fritz Pollard Alliance.

“We wanted his name to be known, because we felt that he was an outstanding player,” Wooten said. “His numbers are right up there with George Halas, Jim Thorpe, all the way from Brown to the Rose Bowl. Then he wraps it up by becoming coach in Akron in 1921. But when they wrote the history of the NFL, they didn’t even list his name.”

Every December, the Fritz Pollard Alliance presents a list of qualified black applicants to the NFL office. Among the names that have appeared on its lists: Lovie Smith, who has coached the Chicago Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jim Caldwell, coach of the Detroit Lions; and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. (Super Bowl XLI, in which Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts defeated Smith’s Bears, was the first with two black coaches.) The Alliance also pushed the NFL to adopt a controversial new rule assessing a 15-yard penalty to any player who utters a racial slur on the field.

timeline-1921-fritz-pollard-pfhof

Pollard (far left) and teammates, 1921

Up until his death in 1986, Pollard felt burned by the fact that he was not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The hall “wasn’t legitimate, because it didn’t cover all pro football,” he told Fritz III. Due in part to the alliance’s revival of his name, Pollard has finally been included in the history of the NFL: in 2005, he was placed on the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee ballot. Fritz III obtained a list of members and called them to lobby for his grandfather. It was an easy sell.

“It just seemed like a no-brainer to me,” said Don Pierson, a retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter who sat on the committee. “Here’s the first black coach, a superstar at the time.”

Pierson figured Pollard had “slipped through the cracks” of NFL history. When the Hall opened in 1963, it needed big name inductees to promote itself, “and there weren’t people around to see him play.”

Fritz III attended the induction ceremony, along with his cousin, Steven Towns, who made the acceptance speech on their grandfather’s behalf.

“My grandfather and Jim Thorpe were the highest-paid players and the biggest draws in their day,” Towns said. “He was unarguably the greatest player ever, and even coached at the same time. His inventive plays moved the game of football to what it is today. Thorpe became the first commissioner of pro football and was inducted into the first football hall of fame. My grandfather became a footnote until today.

“Grandpa, the crowds are cheering. The seats behind me and in front of me are filled with your legacy. After today everyone will know the gifts you’ve given to football. From its earliest days from its crowd-thrilling game-winning plays to a string of firsts. The first Rose Bowl, College Football Hall of Fame, Walter Camp’s All-American team, coaching and quarterbacking, and at last but not least, pushing for African-American equality in pro leagues. You’ve more than earned your place in history in the history of football.”

Pollard was inducted along with Benny Friedman, another vintage player, and modern-day quarterbacks Dan Marino and Steve Young. He even got a full page in Sports Illustrated that week.

“Marino knew” about Pollard, Fritz III said. “So did Steve Young.”

Now everyone who goes to Canton knows that the first step toward making African-Americans full participants in a sport they now dominate was taken in Akron, at Frank Nied’s cigar store.

Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.

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