Pollard, Frederick Douglass ("Fritz")

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POLLARD, Frederick Douglass ("Fritz")

(b. 27 January 1894 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 11 May 1986 in Silver Spring, Maryland), Hall of Fame football player and coach whose exploits in the collegiate and the professional game paved the way for other African-American athletes.

Pollard was the seventh of eight children from a middle-class African-American family. His father, John W. Pollard, was a barber and his mother, Amanda Hughes, a seam-stress. Pollard attended Lane Technical High, a virtually all-white school in Chicago. He was a three-sport star, helping his school win the Cook County football championship in 1911, the Cook County track title in 1912 (with an individual 220-yard hurdles title), and the state track and field championship in 1912 (with an individual 440-yard title). He made the All-County teams in football (as halfback), track and field, and baseball (playing shortstop). Pollard graduated from high school in 1912.

After a year of playing semiprofessional football, Pollard moved east in spring 1913 to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, but he failed to meet a foreign language requirement and did not enroll as a regular student until 1915. In the interim Pollard built a dubious reputation as a tramp athlete, attending Brown (as a special student), Dartmouth, Harvard, and Bates. In June 1914 he married Ada Laing of Providence. Their first child, Frederick Douglass ("Fritz") Pollard, Jr., who would compete in the track and field competition at the 1936 Olympics, was born the following year; they later had three daughters.

Pollard earned his foreign language credit at Springfield High School in Massachusetts in the spring of 1915 and entered Brown in the fall. He was ostracized by his teammates at first, but his outstanding performance on the football field won their acceptance. A left halfback, Pollard displayed a speedy and adept running style that made Brown a leading eastern contender. Brown's 5–4–1 season included a surprise 3–0 upset victory over Yale. Pollard devastated the Yale team, the Elis, with his punt returns, while the New Haven crowd chanted racist epithets at him. Like other African Americans who played football at mostly white colleges, he was singled out for particularly nasty assaults by opposing players. To defend himself after being tackled, Pollard would roll over on his back and thrash his legs in a bicycle pumping motion to thwart attacks. In 1915 he became the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl; Brown lost to Washington, 14–0.

The following year Pollard led Brown to an 8–1 record, the most successful season in the school's history. What particularly caught the attention of sports writers were the school's two easy victories over Yale (21–6) and Harvard (21–0). Pollard was selected in the halfback position by Walter Camp for his famed All-America team, only the second African American up to that time so honored (the first was William Lewis of Harvard, in 1892 and 1893). Pollard also won New England intercollegiate track and field titles in the hurdles during 1916 and 1917.

Pollard became academically ineligible to play football in 1917, and he dropped out of school in spring 1918 to become physical director in the Army's Young Men's Christian Association unit at Camp Meade, Maryland. From the fall of 1918 through 1920 he served as head football coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Pollard extended his football career by joining the emergent professional game, playing for the Akron Indians in 1919. The following year the Akron team, renamed the Pros, joined the newly formed American Professional Football Association, which became the National Football League (NFL) in 1922. Pollard's crucial runs helped his team win the league's first championship with a 6–0–3 record, and he was named to its first All-Star team. Pollard became the first African-American NFL coach—and the first in any major league sport—when he coached Akron in 1921, followed by stints with Milwaukee, Hammond, and Akron again. Because of a fear of public backlash, he was paired with a white coach at each of these franchises to disguise his responsibilities.

During 1924 Pollard played full-time for Gilberton in the Pennsylvania Anthracite League, but he returned to the NFL in 1925, playing on three different teams and coaching two of them. He retired after the 1926 season and went on to coach two African-American professional barnstorming teams, the Chicago Black Hawks (1928–1932) and the New York Bombers (1935–1937). Pollard was trying to advance achievement by African Americans in the sport and demonstrate that they were worthy of participating in the professional game, at a time when the NFL owners were keeping African Americans out of the league in a "gentleman's agreement" from 1934 to 1945.

Pollard entered the business world in 1922, founding an investment firm that served the African-American community. When his firm went bankrupt in 1931 he moved to New York, where he headed a coal company. Pollard founded the first African-American tabloid newspaper, the New York Independent News (1935–1942). He also entered the African-American entertainment world, as a casting agent for former Akron teammate Paul Robeson for the filmThe Emperor Jones (1933). Pollard continued to book African-American talent in nightclubs, and in 1942 he began producing Soundies, musical film shorts for playing on jukebox-like movie machines in bars. In 1943 Pollard assumed control of Suntan Studios, a talent agency and rehearsal hall located in the Bronx. Pollard and his first wife divorced in the early 1940s, and in 1947 he married Mary Ella Austin.

After World War II, Pollard continued as a booking agent for nightclubs, radio, and television. In 1956 he produced an obscure film, Rockin' the Blues, which over the years has become an invaluable documentation of notable rhythm-and-blues acts. Pollard achieved most of his financial success as a tax consultant, working in that field from the early 1950s until his retirement in 1975. After his death from pneumonia he was cremated, and his ashes interred in Brentwood, Maryland. In 1954 Pollard was inducted into the National Collegiate Hall of Fame, the first African American so enshrined.

Pollard came from that generation of African Americans who emerged as pioneers in breaking down color barriers. His struggle to win acceptance on the football field led him in his post-playing years to a lifetime commitment toward African-American advancement in other areas—notably in business, entertainment, and journalism. At every level of endeavor in which Pollard triumphed, he became a target of hatred and abuse, but he persevered with dignity and strength and, like Jackie Robinson, became an elder statesman and symbol of the African-American movement for full equality in American society.

Papers relating to Pollard's football career are in the Brown University Archives. His biography is John M. Carroll, Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement (1992). Also of value are Jay Barry, "Fritz," Brown Alumni Monthly (Oct. 1970): 30–33; and Carl Nesfield's two-part article, "Pride Against Prejudice: Fritz Pollard, Brown's All-American Pre–World War I Vintage," Black Sports (Nov. and Dec. 1971). An obituary is in the New York Times (31 May 1986).

Robert Pruter