Hearts And Pro Football’s Hall Of Fame Finally Open For Fritz Pollard, Sports Pioneer And NFL Player

By Bob Dolgan
Updated: March 3, 2005

Fritz Pollard

CLEVELAND — Fritz Pollard, one of the early black players in the National Football League, had a way of protecting himself from opponents bent on illegal mayhem.

His brother taught him to roll over on his back and kick his feet like a cat after a play, fending off any tacklers who wanted to inflict further damage after a whistle.

Pollard put up with the usual racism of the day, even when he became the first black coach in the NFL.

The fans in the stands gave him the most abuse. “There was a lot of name-calling,” said his grandson, Fritz Pollard III, 50, from his home in Germantown, Md.

According to the grandson, Pollard’s white teammates tried to protect the speedy 5-7 running back, whose uniform hung loosely on his frame. They painted their faces black and wore outsized uniforms so the fans could not be sure about identifying Pollard. “They were worried somebody might shoot him,” his grandson said.

That was back in the 1920s. Things have changed. On Feb. 5, Pollard was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He died at age 92 in 1986.

Pollard’s relatives are excited about attending the induction ceremonies in Canton in August. “That was one honor he always wanted,” said his daughter, Eleanor Pollard Towns, 83, of Chicago. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything. We’ll be there with bells on.”

“He would have been elated,” said Fritz III. “He’d have a big smile on his face.”

Pollard will be inducted with the late Clevelander Benny Friedman, another NFL pioneer, and quarterbacks Steve Young and Dan Marino.

Although statistics from the early days of the NFL are scanty, Pollard has been described as an elusive runner and a drawing card.

He began with the Akron Pros in 1920, when the league was formed as the American Professional Football Association. It became the NFL two years later. The Pros won the title with an 8-0-3 record in 1920.

In 1921, the former Brown University star became the co-head coach of the Pros with Elgie Tobin as the team went 8-3-1. Pollard called the plays on the field. Pollard was co-coach for three other NFL teams – Milwaukee, Hammond and Providence – until retiring as a player after the 1926 season.

He coached an independent black team in Pennsylvania and organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, another black team, which became popular playing white teams until 1932.

Blacks were not welcome in the NFL during that era. One report says only 13 played in the NFL from 1920 to 1933. From 1934 to 1946, the NFL was all-white.

Pollard became a businessman after leaving football. He founded a black investment firm in New York; established a weekly tabloid newspaper, the New York Independent News, managed a movie studio in Harlem; was a theatrical agent, a tax consultant and had a coal delivery company.

“He was happy-go-lucky,” said Mrs. Towns. “He was not an angry person.”

“He was very bright and jovial,” said Fritz. “After he got Alzheimer’s disease, he still entertained the nurses. “He called everybody ‘Baby.’ He called me ‘Big Fellow.’ ” The grandson is 6-8.

Pollard was not only a fine player, his name is on a cause. Three years ago, former Cleveland Browns lineman John Wooten established “The Fritz Pollard Society,” which induced NFL teams to interview at least one black man for any league head coaching post. Romeo Crennel, the Browns’ new head coach, is one beneficiary of that policy.

When Art Shell became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1989, reporters asked him what it was like to be the first black coach in the NFL. “I’m not the first,” Shell replied. “Fritz Pollard was the first.” That is his legacy, along with running the football.