NFL – FORMER PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Fritz Pollard
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard (Jan 27, 1894 – May 11, 1986) was an African-American groundbreaker that forged a trail for others in the NFL.
He has a lot of firsts next to his name in the history books:
- First black football player to attend Brown University;
- First black running back named to the Walter Camp All-America team;
- First black player to play in the Rose Bowl;
- First black player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1954);
- One of the first black players in the NFL;
- First black NFL Head Coach;
- First black NFL Head Coach inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Canton, OH) (2005).
Before we dive into Fritz’s life, it is important to take a quick look at his parents’ backgrounds and decisions they made which had a major impact on his outcome in life:
According to John M. Carroll’s book “Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement”, Fritz’s father (John William Pollard – 1846-1932) was born into a family of Virginia slaves that were freed towards the end of the Revolutionary War. They settled in a free African-American community in northern Virginia as farmers where John was born in 1846.
After John’s father died in a lumbering accident, his mother sent him (then 8 yrs. old) and his siblings to the Kansas Territory to be raised & educated. The purpose was to keep the kids away from the racial unrest that was occurring in the south just before the Civil War and shield them from the very real possibility that they could be kidnapped & sold into bondage.
Later, John enlisted in one of the country’s first Union “Colored” Regiments during the Civil War. His group mustered into an Infantry and saw combat in the Arkansas campaign of 1864. John was a champion lightweight boxer in his regiment – skills he would pass to Fritz & his siblings to help defend themselves later in life.
After the war, John returned to Kansas and became determined to attend law school at Oberlin College. However, he contracted smallpox en route to Ohio which ended his college dreams.
When he recovered, John learned the barber trade and moved to the town of Mexico, Missouri to pursue work. While there, he met and married Fritz’s mother, Catherine “Amanda” Hughes (1856 – 1937), a girl from the Missouri frontier in town seeking a better education for herself. Her mother was of mixed African-American and Native-American blood and her father was Caucasian, “probably of French descent”.
The Pollards settled in Missouri for a time and had 3 of their 8 children there, (Fritz was the 7th) but decided to move because they did not like the idea of sending their kids to segregated public schools. They also feared the worsening race relations after the war and wanted to raise their children in a more “desirable environment” and ensure each had access to a “good education”.
So, in 1886, John and Catherine carefully chose the “Rogers Park” neighborhood on the very northern tip of Chicago to relocate with their children. Fritz was born there in 1894 and named for the famous abolitionist (Frederick Douglass). Initially, he was called Fred but then “Fritz” by their German neighbors. The nickname stuck.
Rogers Park was an all white German community. But it was quite progressive for the time, as the Pollards were the first African-American family to move in to the neighborhood and for a time were the only black family living in the area. As a form of comparison, the “majority of Chicago’s 20,000 black residents in 1894 lived in the South Side just below the loop.”
The Pollards were generally well accepted by the whites in town, but did run into racial harassment and were nervous about potential threats, particularly from visitors and when they left the general area. Apparently, Fritz’s mother always answered the door with a gun in her apron.
One of the major assets the Pollards had was their financial independency. Considered “reasonably affluent” African-Americans, they were not reliant on whites for work as many black people were at the time due to poor educational opportunities. Luckily, John was afforded the opportunity to purchase property and open his own barbershop which came became quite successful. He became widely recognized as one of the best barbers in Missouri.
John’s philosophy on how to deal with racism was to “avoid unnecessary confrontations with whites”. He advised his children on how to stand up for themselves and, if necessary fight to protect their dignity, but he emphasized the importance of tempering anger when faced with ethnic provocation. This likely was part of the Pollard “legacy” which dated back many generations and helped their family rise up in a society dominated by whites.
Fritz’s mother, Amanda, was considered to be a tall, beautiful, progressive woman with a business mind. For work, she was a “high-class seamstress” that catered to exclusive Chicago department stores and their chic clients. She also handled all her own business matters as well as the household’s, and like John, was very conscientious about how to deal with white society in an “acceptable” way that would not draw attention to themselves as African Americans.
These lessons, of how to deal with racism and hatred, would stay with Fritz during his lifetime and helped him later in life when he faced provocations of his own.
Most of Fritz’s siblings went to college and served as mentors to him in athletics, but his older brother Leslie Pollard probably had the greatest impact on Fritz’s decision to become a football player.
Leslie attended Dartmouth College and emerged as a first-rate football player and broke down barriers for other black players. Colleges like Princeton refused to play against him just because of the color of his skin. But, Dartmouth insisted and games went forward. Fritz was “determined” to follow in his footsteps and play “at one of the white colleges” out east which he did eventually.
But, first, Fritz attended Lane Tech high school near Chicago. In 1908, he was 1 of only 2 African Americans enrolled there. Race relations were tenuous at best, but by the age of 15, he was becoming a star in multiple sports: baseball, a three-time county track champion and football (his favorite sport).
At this time, Fritz became known for being on the small side (135 – 140 pounds), but able to hold his own against larger players on the football field. Before the 1910 season, he was described as “gritty and nerveless. He was born to be a football player, clean, and decidedly tricky.”
After graduation, Fritz received little, if any, attention to go to college and play football, despite his obvious talent. While scouts were knocking on white players’ doors to play at prominent colleges for similar athletic achievements, Fritz was ignored.
He made several attempts to find a good college and briefly played for Northwestern, Harvard and Dartmouth, but received a scholarship from the Rockefeller family and ended up attending Brown University in 1915. Once again, Fritz was 1 of only 2 blacks enrolled at the school. (Only 50 black students attended predominately white American universities during this year.)
From the start at Brown, Fritz endured racial slurs and put up with intense prejudice by both football competitors and spectators, simply because he was the first black football player to ever start there.
For instance, the first time Fritz walked into the Brown locker room, silence came over the area and a southern boy, John Butner, said in a low voice, “Christ, a n-g–r”. Another player recognized Fritz. But Butner said, “I don’t care what he calls himself, he’s still a n-g–r to me.” Fritz later recalled that those words “stung me like a bee”.
Even though he let the comment slide because he was prepared for such racial assaults through experience, Fritz’s feelings were hurt. He was also disappointed when he went to the training room to pick up his equipment and uniform, only to receive socks full of holes, shabby shoes and an oversized “threadbare” jersey. Then, when Fritz went out onto the field to practice for the first time, no one would play football with him on the team. He just stood there by himself tossing the football around in the air.
Fritz continued to be assaulted mentally & then physically both on and off the field early on at Brown. And, he continued to have run-ins with the southern kid Butner.
During a scrimmage day between teammates that had many witnesses in attendance (to see Fritz, the first black football player out of curiosity), Butner targeted him several times in front of the crowd. But, Fritz managed to evade him. After the third time, when Butner went flying off and missed Fritz altogether, the crowd laughed at Butner and he finally went up to the coach and told him Fritz should join the team.
And, Fritz was accepted more as time went on, especially after he scored more than 10 touchdowns in his first season. For example, Fritz once alleged that when the team tried to check into a Pasadena hotel for the Rose Bowl, the owner tried to bar Fritz from staying there because he was black. But, the coach stood up for him and told the owner that it was all of the team or none of them. They wound up staying and Fritz had his own room too.
Eventually, Fritz would be considered one of the top players in the country and the second African American to be named to a college All-American team. In 1916, he led his team to the first official Rose Bowl game.
That same year, Pollard scored all 3 touchdowns when Brown beat Yale (their only loss that season) and, he was instrumental in helping give Brown their first win over Harvard ever. During these times, defeating Harvard or Yale (the best football teams on the planet) was a huge victory.
Fritz also received accolades from several national newspapers and was selected to the Walter Camp All-America team. Sportswriter Walter Camp said of Pollard: “He is one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
After leaving Brown, Fritz briefly pursued a degree in dentistry at UPENN. But, he came back to football in 1919 when he was asked to turn pro and join the Akron Pros in the American Professional Football Association (APFA). He was 1 of only 2 African-American players in the league that season.
The Pros did not lose the first 19 games in which Fritz played, outscoring the opposition 236 to 7. He also led the team in rushing, receiving, scoring and punt returns and helped Akron win its first championship in 1920.
Fritz once described pro football in those days, as “pretty rough”. The players were not elite college boys he was used to, but tough older white men who just wanted to take out black players like Fritz. They used to hit him whenever they had a chance on the field and actually tried to hurt him for real especially since he was smaller than the average player at 5’9 and only about 160 lbs. Fritz got his revenge by just smiling at the players afterwards and “hurt” them by running faster and farther than everyone else and… winning.
Off the field, Fritz continued to experience racial prejudice, especially in Akron. He said he had to get dressed for the games separately than his teammates (in a cigar factory) and take a car over to the field before the game. He also said the fans booed him and “called me all kinds of names, because they had a lot of Southerners up there working. You couldn’t eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels. Hammond and Milwaukee were bad then too, but never as bad as Akron was.”
Following the 1921 season, Fritz assumed the role of player and coach, becoming the first black professional football coach. The team won its first 7 games (all shutouts) by using the system that had Fritz took his Brown team to the Rose Bowl in 1916. He also led that team in rushing, scoring and punt returns while also serving as the head coach.
He also coached the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922, the year APFA was renamed the National Football League (NFL), making Fritz the first African American coach in NFL history.
From 1923 to 1925 he coached the Hammond Pros and a team in Milwaukee until 1926 when the NFL decided to segregate the league. In turn, Fritz created his own black football team and challenged the NFL to exhibition games, but was turned away.
Fritz also coached college football at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and semipro teams in the coal leagues in that state.
For many years thereafter, Fritz tried in vain to get the NFL to integrate once again. From 1933 – 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. It wasn’t until after World War 2 did the NFL start to let African-American players come back.
Fritz retired from football in 1937 to pursue a career in business, remaining the only African American to have coached in the NFL until Art Shell in 1989. (Note: the 50+ year gap.)
After football, Fritz started the first black owned newspaper (the New York Independent News from 1935-1942), founded the first black investment firm, and became a Hollywood talent agent.
He died in 1986 at the age of 92 and was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 after being passed over more than 40 times for the honor.
Others have compared Pollard’s experience in the NFL to that of Jackie Robinson’s fight for justice in pro baseball. But why do we hold Robinson in such high esteem and yet so many do not even know Pollard’s name? And, why did it take so long for the NFL to recognize him?
It is my hope, similar to institutions and sports entities that have honored Fritz Pollard in their own way, that we remember his name and all the sacrifices he made to fight for African-American rights, particularly in football.
It goes without saying that Pollard was a “pioneer” and he should be revered for his tenacity. We can all learn a lot from his legacy and how he led his life.
I, for one, am grateful that someone like him came along to kick dirt in the face of the adversity and set the bar for other heroes in sports.
Perhaps it’s time Hollywood brings Fritz into the spotlight so that many others can know him, learn from him and remember him.
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