By Eddie R. Cole Jr., Black College Wire
Feb. 28, 2005 – Fritz Pollard, who became the NFL’s first black head coach in 1921, was finally voted into the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in February after the selection committee decided Pollard’s name had “fallen through the cracks.” He long ago deserved the honor, according to members of the committee.
“Once you look at his numbers and impact on football, [you know that] he should have been entered, but better late than never. It was a no-brainer,” said David Climer, a sports columnist for the Tennessean in Nashville and member of the Pro Hall of Fame selection committee, which announced its choices Feb. 5.
Pollard became the first black head coach of an NFL football team when he was hired in 1921 as co-coach of the Akron Pros.
He was one of only two blacks playing professional football in 1919. Others had come before, but Pollard and Robert “Rube” Marshall were on teams that joined the newly formed National Football League in 1920. They are listed as the first blacks playing in the NFL.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the NFL had another black head coach, Art Shell, who became the first in the sport’s modern era.
Pollard’s descendants had long lobbied for Hall of Fame recognition.
“For 15 years, Fritz Pollard III has worked to vault his late grandfather’s name back into the spotlight, calling media outlets to pitch stories only to have many respond, ‘Fritz Pollard? What did he do?’” the Baltimore Sun reported in February.
“My response was, `Where do you want me to start?’ He was the first black to play in the Rose Bowl. The first black quarterback in the NFL. The first black coach in the NFL,” Pollard, 50, was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, other organizations honored Pollard. Two years ago, black coaches and managers started a mentoring group named after him.
Still, Pollard’s accomplishments were not well known to many of the journalists who nominate and elect Pro Hall of Fame members, according to Len Shapiro, a veteran sportswriter for the Washington Post and member of the judges’ senior selection committee.
One thing that helped, according to Shapiro, was a 1999 book by John M. Carroll, a professor of history at Lamar University in Texas, “Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement.” The book caught the attention of Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, another member of the senior committee.
The Hall of Fame has been honoring football greats since 1963. The job of the nine senior committee members is to nominate candidates from the sport’s earliest eras who had “fallen through the cracks,” Shapiro said. There was no question that Pollard had been overlooked.
“It had mostly to do with the early days of the Hall of Fame,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview from California. “I think in the beginning, they went for the player, coach or contributor that was better known. I don’t think it was a matter of race . . . but until the senior committee advanced (Pollard’s) name with (Bennie) Friedman’s, neither had been brought before the entire committee.”
Friedman, an early white player, is considered the NFL’s first great passer.
“We basically said these two people somehow, some way, slipped through the cracks,” Shapiro said. “We strongly urged the rest of our selectors vote him in.” Thirty-nine men make up the Board of Selectors.
Pollard, born Jan. 27, 1894, in Chicago, starred in basketball, track and field and football by the time he graduated from high school, according to the Minneapolis-based African American Registry.
After brief stints at Northwestern, Dartmouth and Harvard universities, he went on to play college football at Brown University from 1915 until he entered the pros in 1919.
In 1916, Pollard led the Brown Bears to the Rose Bowl against Washington State University, and made history by becoming the first black player ever to play in that bowl game. He also became just the second African American to earn All-American honors as a collegiate player.
After his collegiate career, he served as a football coach at historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
“He was a pioneer,” said Brown assistant head football coach Abbott Burrell, reached by telephone in Providence, R.I. “He led Brown to its only Rose Bowl. I also see him as an inspiration to anyone who wanted to get into coaching. He is a pioneer and inspiration.”
After being signed to the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League (which later became the NFL), Pollard led the team to the 1920 championship. He also played professional football for the Milwaukee Badgers, Gilberton Cadamounts, Hammond Pros and Providence Steamrollers.
Pollard made numerous contributions to the new league, said Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“Fritz was not only an outstanding athlete, but he was a drawing card, being a great collegiate athlete,” Horrigan said by telephone from the Hall of Fame. “On two levels, he meant a lot to professional football: being a great professional and college athlete. He was a player, coach and drawing card.”
Pollard left the NFL in 1926. In 1928, he formed, owned, and coached the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928. The Black Hawks were an entirely black professional team that played against white teams from the Chicago area. Pollard formed the Black Hawks to encourage football between the races.
Later, he coached New York’s Brown Bombers from 1935 to 1938 with the goal of displaying black talent. The NFL had stopped hiring black players: Between 1934 and 1946, blacks were not allowed to play. During the league’s 12-year segregation period, pro-level black players were forced to play each other on teams such as the Brown Bombers, while Pollard attempted to get talent signed to the NFL.
George Halas, the influential founder, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, played high school football against Pollard, according to Shapiro. However, Halas, considered by many to be one of the fathers of professional football, would not hire Pollard or schedule Pollard’s all-black teams.
Pollard also was involved in business ventures, according to his biographers. He founded the first black weekly tabloid, the New York Independent News, and New York’s first black investment first firm. Harlem’s Suntan movie studio was managed by Pollard, and he founded coal delivery companies in both Chicago and New York.
He continued breaking racial barriers as a theatrical agent by hiring black talent for white-owned New York night clubs. He also was a tax consultant, according to Brown University’s official athletic Web site (http://www.brownbears.com/). Pollard died in 1986 at age 92.
Damon Jones, a Tennessee State University sophomore and agribusiness major from Chicago, after being told of Pollard’s accomplishments, concluded that Pollard “broke barriers that opened the door for blacks, and he made outstanding contributions to not just my city but to the country. Now, today, we have blacks buying and owning professional teams.”
They, too, follow in Pollard’s footsteps. On Feb. 14, Arizona real estate businessman Reggie Fowler agreed to purchase the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, a team worth about $604 million, according to a survey by Forbes magazine. If approved, the purchase would add Fowler to the handful of black owners of major professional sports teams, which includes the NBA’s Bob Johnson, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and rapper Jay-Z, who last year became a minority investor in the group that owns the New Jersey Nets.
Eddie R. Cole Jr. is a student at Tennessee State University and sports editor of The Meter.