Akron’s Been On the Fritz; Get On Board

By Tom Reed
Updated: January 20, 2006

OHIO—The image and legacy of the late football pioneer Fritz Pollard are everywhere nowadays.

His bust is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His fight for equality is reflected in the 2005 NFL Coach of the Year Award. His compelling story might be made into a Hollywood movie.

Twenty years after his death, everybody is celebrating the accomplishments of the African-American trailblazer. Everybody, that is, except Akron.

The city apparently still has no plans to recognize Pollard’s achievement or dedicate a statue or field in his honor a year after his feel-good nomination into the Hall of Fame. It’s puzzling. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.

He led the Akron Pros to the first championship of the American Professional Football Association — a forerunner to the NFL — in 1920. It was in Akron where Pollard became the NFL’s first black coach and quarterback in the era of Jim Crow.

Pollard put the city on the national sports map. The city put Pollard out of its collective conscious.

“(Honoring Pollard) is a wonderful idea,” said Mark Williamson, a spokesman for Mayor Don Plusquellic. “But there has been no movement on the wonderful idea.”

City officials no longer can hide behind the notion of Pollard as an obscure figure, a forgotten footnote in the game’s history. Maybe it was true a year ago. But his election to the Hall of Fame last Feb. 5 sparked regional and national interest in Pollard.

Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle reportedly is involved in a movie project chronicling the life of Pollard, who co-starred with Jim Thorpe during pro football’s early years.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes minority hiring in the NFL, continues to aid qualified candidates. The Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith was named the league’s coach of the year.

All of which makes Akron’s reluctance to ride the bandwagon of momentum more curious. We’re talking about a city that houses the National Inventors Hall of Fame. So much for rewarding ingenuity and perseverance.

Pollard coached and quarterbacked the Akron Pros, but couldn’t dress in their locker room. He championed integration in the NFL at a time when Akron had four Ku Klux Klan supporters on the school board. Pollard stood up to the all-white football establishment and organized games for black all-star teams during a shameless 13-year period (1934-46) when no African Americans appeared on NFL rosters.

Nowadays, it seems the only time high-profile athletes take a stand is when they’re called to testify on one.

Pollard was more than a football icon. He founded the first black investment firm. He started the first weekly black tabloid. He ran Suntan Movie Studio in Harlem. As a theatrical agent, he booked black talent into white New York clubs.

This is someone whom Akronites should be proud is associated with their city. The Chicago native had two stints here in the 1920s.

The Pollard memory is getting its long-awaited due in many precincts. It’s time for the city to be added to the list. While Pollard was elected to the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame in 1960, that’s hardly tribute enough for an athlete whose NFL debut in Akron came two decades before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

Why not name something for Pollard at the Lane Field sports complex adjacent to the Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts (Old South High)?

Hold a dedication ceremony. Invite the family. Commission a plaque honoring the Akron Pros. Nobody would be happier than Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Joe Horrigan, who remains mystified by the city’s lack of recognition.

There is time to make this right. Time for Akron’s power brokers to take action.

But don’t wait much longer. If a movie is indeed in the works, imagine a postscript that includes the following:

Fritz Pollard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 7, 2005. The City of Akron, where he began his pro career, still has not acknowledged his contributions.