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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Exceptional American of the Day: Fritz Pollard, won the first NFL championship

Fritz Pollard led the Akron Pros to win the first NFL championship in 1920, winning the coveted Brunswick-Balke-Collender Cup. A 10-0 upset of the Canton Bulldogs, who were led by Jim Thorpe, paved the way for an undefeated season in which the Pros gave up only 7 points in 11 games. The next year, he returned as co-coach. Pollard had led Brown University of the Ivy League to its only bowl appearance, when it lost 14-0 to Washington State in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1916.

Did I mention Pollard was black? He broke the color line before there was a color line.

Born on January 27, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, Fredrick Douglass Pollard was one of the few black people in his neighborhood of Rogers Park. The area was predominately German-American, which is how he acquired the nickname Fritz. He attended Lane Tech where he excelled in football, baseball, and track. He also was an excellent student, as he earned a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to Brown. He majored in chemistry. A halfback, he was the first black man selected by sportswriter Walter Camp for his all-American team. Pollard was "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen," Camp wrote later.

Upon graduation in 1919, Pollard joined the Akron Pros, an independent professional football team. The owners of the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles met at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio, on August 20, 1920, and created the American Professional Football Conference to bring some order to the haphazard sport of professional football.

Within a few weeks, they formed a 14-team league, with a tire company -- Brunswick-Balke-Collender -- sponsoring a silver trophy to give the winner of that first season. Besides the Bulldogs, the Buffalo All-Americans, and the Decatur Staleys -- led by a wide receiver named George Halas -- vied for the title.

But Pollard and the Akron Pros proved too much for the league, defeating the Wheeling Stogies 43-0 in their opening game. The Pros finished 8-0-3 but because Buffalo and Decatur had tied Akron in their games, they argued that they were at least the co-champions. After Akron received the trophy at a banquet in the spring of 1921, the trophy disappeared and never was awarded again.

Pollard was one of two black players in the league that year, along with Bobby Marshall, an end and placekicker for the Rock Island Independents. Marshall, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the first black player in what is now the Big Ten, having played for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Besides football, Marshall played professional baseball, but he mainly was a lawyer.

Prejudice faced Pollard all his life.

"The white players were trying to hurt me," Pollard later recalled.

But he also was the league's highest paid player, not only because of his skill but because of the color of his skin. Making more money than Jim Thorpe had to be a thrill. That Pollard and Thorpe -- two of the three non-white players in the league -- were the top attractions in the league is very telling.

Yet the league later banned black players and it took the league 66 years to hire its second black head coach, Art Shell of the Oakland Raiders.

Pollard also coached Lincoln University, a black college, in Pennsylvania to championships in 1918 and 1920, but began missing games because of his pro career, including games against Hampton College and Howard University in 1920. He did not get along with Lincoln's administrators.

"Prior to the Hampton game, the team was compelled to go to Hampton by boat, sleeping on the decks and under portholes," he said. "No cabins were provided, nor were they given a place to sleep after reaching Hampton. They lost the game through lack of rest."

The school did not fully equip the team.

"I, myself, bought and paid $200 out of my pocket for football shoes for the team," he said.

Besides playing for the Pros and coaching Lincoln, Pollard also in 1920 played for the Union Club of Phoenixville, which was in Pennsylvania's "Coal League." That team, too, beat the Canton Bulldogs in 1920, 14-7.

In 1922, the league adopted the name the National Football League. Pollard bounced from team to team until he formed his own independent all-black team, the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928. By 1934, the NFL banned black players, which continued until 1946.

By this time, Pollard had also begun the first black securities company, F.D. Pollard and Company in Chicago, and the first black tabloid weekly, the New York Independent News. For a while, he managed the Suntan Movie Studio. He also was a tax consultant. He later owned a coal business, a Negro League baseball team, and even a movie actor.

Yet Pollard died on May 11, 1986, in Silver Spring, Maryland, at age 92 with no recognition from the league. It was not until 2005 when the league finally added him to its hall of fame in Canton -- where he defeated the Bulldogs twice in the same season with two different teams.

“To me, [voting Pollard into the Hall of Fame] is long overdue,” Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, said at the time. “He was a pioneer, and you can’t measure that in statistics. We know a lot about Jackie Robinson. Fritz Pollard did a lot of the same things in the game of football, but we don’t know as much about him.”

Given the full opportunity in 1920 to succeed, Fritz Pollard led the league. Denied the full opportunity later, he succeeded nonetheless in a variety of fields. From a New York Times report on the Yale-Brown game in 1916 -- in which he had 294 total yards: "At every stage of this dazzling performance sturdy arms clad in blue yawned for him, but Pollard trickily shot out of their reach. Tacklers charged him fiercely enough to knock the wind out of any ordinary individual, but Pollard had the asset which is the greatest to a football player — he refused to be hurt. It required a terrific shock to upset him. An ordinary tackle did nothing more than make him swerve slightly out of his course."

As he played is how he lived his life.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.