Professional football player, coach, businessman
A highly successful football and track athlete, Fritz Pollard became the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl when he played for Brown University in 1916 and the first African American to coach in the National Football League (NFL) in 1922. During the early days of professional football, Pollard was an energetic promoter of integrated rosters, recruiting prominent black players to the NFL and organizing exhibition games to showcase their talents. He assembled and coached the all-black Chicago Black Hawks football team, which became one of the most popular teams from 1929 to 1932. After retiring from his successful coaching career, Pollard founded a number of businesses and established a weekly black tabloid. He then became a successful casting agent, producing videos and a film that featured African-American entertainers. Among his many honors, he was the first African American to be elected into the National College Football Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Brown University. Along with his own amazing athletic ability and accomplishments, Pollard was a courageous advocate for confronting racial barriers and creating opportunities for African Americans, both in the athletic and business world.
Frederick Douglass Pollard was born in an affluent neighborhood in Chicago on January 27, 1894, to John William, a barber, and Catherine Amanda Hughs Pollard, a seamstress. The seventh of eight children, he was affectionately called Fred, but later nicknamed "Fritz" by neighborhood residents, a name that stuck with him throughout life. He was, however, named after civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist whom his parents had heard speak the preceding year. Pollard attributed much of his success in life to his ancestors, who—through tremendous hard work, courage, and a pioneering spirit—thrived and prospered during the era of slavery. Even though his grandparents and great grandparents had been Virginia slaves, the family became free yeomen farmers after the Revolutionary War and through hard work overcame tremendous odds. The John William Pollard family was well-educated and had moved from Missouri to Chicago in order to give their eight children a better life and more opportunity. Fritz Pollard embraced these opportunities and proved that through hard work and the spirit of his ancestors, he could accomplish great things.
By the time Fritz graduated from Lane Technical High School in 1912, he had become a talented running back, baseball player, and a three-time county track champion. In June 1914 he married Ada Laing. The couple, who had three daughters and one son, separated in the early 1920s and was later divorced. Their son, Fritz Pollard Jr., was also an athlete, won a bronze medal in the 1936 Olympic Games and was named an All-American football player at the University of North Dakota in 1938.
Prior to receiving a Rockefeller scholarship to attend Brown University in 1915, Pollard played football briefly for Northwestern, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As a freshman at Brown University, the 5′ 9″, 165-pound halfback led his team to the Rose Bowl in 1915 against Washington State, gaining notoriety as the first African American to ever play in the Rose Bowl. During the 1916 football season, Pollard scored 12 touchdowns and led Brown to an 8-1 record. Not only that, in the spring of 1916 he set a world record for Brown University's track team in low hurdles and qualified for the Olympic Team. Additionally, Pollard played his best games against the two premier college football teams, Yale and Harvard, leading Brown to unprecedented victories in both games. He was selected by famed coach Walter Camp for a halfback position on the All-America team in 1916, becoming the first African American to play a backfield position on an All-America team, and only the second to be selected by Camp for the team.
A 1916 New York Times report posted on the Brown University Web site said of Pollard's performance in a game between Brown University and Yale, "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."
In 1918 Pollard dropped out of school after becoming ineligible to play for Brown's team because of academic neglect. He then became head coach of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania until 1920. In 1919 Pollard also joined the Akron Pros, which in 1920 joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later known as the National Football League (NFL). The Akron Pros went undefeated during Pollard's first season, winning the league's first crown. As one of just two African Americans in the new league, Pollard earned a place in football history. Accounts of Pollard's football talent on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Web site claim that he was "an exciting elusive runner" and "the most feared running back in the fledgling league."
In 1921 the Pros named Pollard co-coach of the team, earning him the distinction of the first African American to coach in NFL history. After becoming a coach for the NFL, Pollard was known to coach up to four different teams in a single season. He also continued playing in the 1923 and 1924 season for an independent pro team in Pennsylvania called the Coal League. Then in 1928 he organized a professional all-African American team in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Hawks. Playing against white teams around Chicago, the Black Hawks enjoyed great success and became a highly popular team until the Depression caused the team to fold in 1932.
In addition to his athletic endeavors, Pollard was involved in several business enterprises. He began an investment firm that served the African-American community in 1922, and after its bankruptcy in 1931 he ran a coal company in New York and also served as a casting agent during the production of the 1933 film The Emperor Jones. From 1935 to 1942 Pollard founded and operated the New York Independent News, the first African-American tabloid newspaper, then in 1943 he managed Suntan Studios in Harlem, auditioning African-American entertainers for scripts and modeling. He also began producing short music videos featuring black entertainers—called Soundies—for the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America. The company was sold after World War II. In 1947 Pollard married Mary Ella Austin.
At a Glance …
Born January 27, 1894, in Rogers Park, Illinois; married Ada Laing, 1914 (divorced, 1940); married Mary Ella Austin (1947); children: three daughters, one son. Education: Attended Brown University, 1915-18.
Career: Professional football player and coach; business entrepreneur; theater agent; tax consultant.
Selected Awards: Named to National College Football Hall of Fame, 1954; named to R.I. Heritage Hall of Fame, 1967; named to Brown Athletic Hall of Fame, 1971; named to National Black Hall of Fame, 1973; Brown University, honorary doctorate, 1981; named to Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2005.
Following the sale of the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America, Pollard became a booking agent for nightclubs, radio, and television, and eventually produced his own movie in 1956 entitled Rockin' the Blues. The film, similar to his music videos, featured new African American artists. During the 1950s-1975, when he retired, Pollard dedicated his time to being a successful tax consultant. He died of pneumonia on May 11, 1986, in Maryland at the age of 92. In 2005, he was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Carroll, John M., Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement, University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Sports Illustrated, December 15, 2003.
"Frederick Douglass Pollard," Biography Resource Center. www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 5, 2005).
Frederick Douglass Pollard, www.fritzpollard.com (July 6, 2005).
"Fritz Pollard," Pro Football Hall of Fame, www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=242 (April 16, 2005).
"Fritz Pollard and Early African American Professional Football Players," Brown University, www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2003-04/03-078f.html. (April 16, 2005).
"Fritz Pollard Was a Football Architect," The African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.com/ african_american_history/39/Fritz_Pollard_was_a_football_architect (April 5, 2005).
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