Respect Coming Late For Chicago’s Fritz Pollard

By Don Pierson
Updated: August 4, 2005

Fritz PollardCHICAGO — Nearly 20 years after his death, Chicago’s Fritz Pollard finally made it into pro football’s Hall of Fame, not a minute too soon for daughters Leslie Keeling and Eleanor Towns.

Both in their 80s, they still live in the area, joyfully planning to attend induction ceremonies Sunday in Canton, Ohio.

“I just wish he was living. I’m happy it finally came through,” said Keeling of Evanston.

“He would be very cool and calm, but very happy. He might have said, ‘It’s about time,’” said Towns of Chicago.

Both daughters remain a bit puzzled about why their dad still hasn’t generated the kind of buzz normally reserved for honored native sons and pioneers.

“They have ignored a native, which I don’t appreciate, but you roll with the punches,” Towns said. “I do think they should do something.”

“They” presumably is the city, but at this point recognition from anybody would do. Towns recalls a Chicago TV station ignoring his 1986 death.

The first African-American coach in the NFL, Pollard also was the first African-American player in the Rose Bowl. The NFL teams for which he played and sometimes coached—the Akron Pros, Milwaukee Badgers, Hammond Pros and Providence Steam Roller—have no descendants.

It is customary for teams to buy ads in the Hall of Fame program congratulating their players.

The Miami Dolphins, who play the Bears in the Hall of Fame game Aug. 8, have an ad honoring Dan Marino.

The San Francisco 49ers have an ad honoring Steve Young. The New York Giants have an ad honoring Benny Friedman.

In Pollard’s case, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an association of NFL African-American coaches, scouts and executives, was approached.

Chairman John Wooten said he didn’t have the $3,500 for the ad in his budget.

Wooten, former Cleveland Browns player and Dallas Cowboys scout, contacted the Bears.

“I felt with Fritz coming from Chicago and having two daughters still living there, it would be a good time for everybody to hug each other,” Wooten said.

But the Bears already had purchased a program ad that will include pictures of all 26 of their Hall of Famers and a message of congratulations to the Class of 2005.

Wooten was under the impression the Bears refused to place their ad opposite a picture of Pollard, but Bears spokesman Scott Hagel and ad salesman John Moore of Live Publications deny that ever was discussed.

“If they want the ad next to Fritz Pollard, it’s OK by me,” Hagel said.

Pollard and another native Chicagoan, George Halas, were born a year apart and have a history dating to playing days when Pollard was at Lane Tech and Halas was at Crane Tech.

In 1920, when Halas was trying to get his Decatur Staleys off the ground, he invited Pollard and the Akron team to a game in Wrigley Field that drew 12,000, about twice what previous games against the Chicago Tigers and Chicago Cardinals drew.

But Halas never invited Pollard to play for the Bears, leading Pollard to say in a 1976 interview: “I didn’t like the idea he didn’t allow any blacks to play on his team.”

Wooten, still desiring that Pollard be singled out in the program, said he then approached Bears coach Lovie Smith and the five other African-American NFL head coaches—the Colts’ Tony Dungy, the Cardinals’ Dennis Green, the Jets’ Herman Edwards, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the Browns’ Romeo Crennel—to purchase an ad to honor Pollard.

“Lovie and Herman and some of the others told me, ‘John, you didn’t have to ask my permission. Just go ahead and do it,’” Wooten said.

Three years ago, the Fritz Pollard Alliance grew out of pressure from the late attorney Johnnie Cochran for NFL teams to hire more minorities.

More conciliatory than Cochran’s approach, Wooten’s idea for the Alliance and the NFL’s establishment of a committee for workplace diversity has resulted in a league rule requiring teams to interview minorities for head coaching positions.

“It’s working,” Wooten said. “When they made (Pittsburgh Steelers owner) Dan Rooney chairman, I said, ‘We won,’ because Dan will do what is right.”

The Pollard ad from the African-American coaches also will include pictures of former Oakland coach Art Shell and former Green Bay and Philadelphia coach Ray Rhodes and say: “You paved the path we trod.”

“I think everything worked out for the best,” Wooten said.

Pollard might agree.

“All he talked about was football,” Keeling said. “That’s all he lived for. You couldn’t talk about anything else around him.”

“Nothing else mattered,” Towns said. “That was his life. It came before his family.”

Pollard now will reside forever in the same Canton family with Halas.