Born on January 27, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, Fritz Pollard broke racial barriers while achieving distinction on the football gridiron. He was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, and later he became the first black coach and quarterback in the formative days of the NFL. Pollard also was a prominent businessman with a consulting firm and a newspaper, among his many ventures. He died in 1986, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Early Years and College
Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard was born on January 27, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois. He felt the sting of racism as an African-American child growing up in the predominantly white neighborhood of Rogers Park, but he won admirers with his athletic accomplishments at Lane Tech High, where he was a three-time county track champion, a gifted baseball player and star on the football gridiron.
Pollard received a Rockefeller scholarship to attend Brown University in 1915, and he became a college football standout despite his modest 5'9", 165-pound stature. He was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1915 season, and in 1916, he led Brown to back-to-back wins over Ivy League powerhouses Harvard and Yale en route to an 8-1 overall record. For his efforts, he was honored as the first African-American running back named to Walter Camp's All-American team.
Pro Football Pioneer
After leaving Brown, Pollard briefly pursued a degree in dentistry before joining the military and serving as a director of an Army YMCA. He was employed as the football coach at Lincoln University in 1919 when he was recruited to play for the Akron Pros, a professional football team in Ohio.
The Pros joined the American Professional Football Association in 1920. One of just two African-American players in the league, along with Bobby Marshall, Pollard led his team to an 8-0-3 record and the APFA's first title. The following year, he again proved a dominant player while doubling as the first African-American coach in the league.
The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922, and Pollard served as one of its primary gate attractions over the next few years. He played the 1922 season with the Milwaukee Badgers and the following year signed with the Hammond Pros, for whom he become the first black quarterback in NFL history. Pollard also spent parts of the 1923 and '24 seasons with the independent Gilberton Cadamounts in the Pennsylvania Coal League.
Pollard returned to the NFL in 1925 to play for Hammond Pros, the Providence Steam Roller and the Akron club, which had been renamed the Indians. He spent the 1926 season with the Indians before calling an end to his NFL career.
In 1928, Pollard organized the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-African-American professional team. Seeking to demonstrate that blacks and whites could compete without incident on the field, Pollard arranged exhibition games with teams throughout the city and brought the Black Hawks to warmer West Coast climates during the winter. During their three-year run from 1929-32, they were among the most popular draws in the sport.
A "gentlemen's agreement" struck by NFL owners in 1933 prevented the signing of more black players. In response, Pollard served as the coach of another high-profile African-American team, the Harlem-based Brown Bombers, from 1935-38.
Other Ventures and Legacy
Fritz was involved in several business enterprises during and after his professional football career. He founded the F.D. Pollard and Co. investment firm in 1922 to serve the African-American community, and in 1935 he founded the New York Independent News, the first black tabloid. Pollard also worked as a casting agent, studio manager and producer in the entertainment industry, as well as a tax consultant.
In 1954, Pollard was the first African-American elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame. He was elected to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1967, and in 1981 he received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Brown University. Pollard died on May 11, 1986, at age 92.
In 2005, the football pioneer received a long-overdue honor with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His name lives on through the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which was founded in 2003 to help promote the hiring of minorities in the NFL.
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