Fritz Pollard: A Forgotten Trailblazer
- NFL Media writer
- Published: Feb. 1, 2014 at 03:00 a.m.
- Updated: Feb. 20, 2014 at 01:42 p.m.
- 517 Likes | 28 Comments
The Pennsylvania “Coal League” was one of the most rugged professional football leagues of the 1920s. Players weren’t groomed to play the sport via passing academies, offseason circuit training and college football. Heck, the majority of them didn’t even see the inside of a high school classroom. Instead, these men came out of the coal mines of Pennsylvania to play football.
And none of them had ever played against a guy like Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard. He was a 5-foot-9, 165 pound, former All-American from an Ivy League school.
He also was African-American.
Pollard had been recruited to play for the Gilberton Cadamonts in 1923 and 1924. In his first game at Weston Field in Shenandoah, Pa. the Cadamonts huddled at midfield during halftime because they didn’t want to engage the fans. “They greeted me with a hail of rocks and bottles,” Pollard remembered.
But it wasn’t long before Pollard was able to win over even his toughest critics. Not that it was a first for Pollard, though, being first was kind of a theme for his life.
Yet, even the most ardent football fans have never heard the name.
You might have heard of Kenny Washington. Or at the very least, you’re familiar with Art Shell. Washington broke the NFL’s color barrier of the modern NFL. A year earlier his UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson accomplished the same feat with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Al Davis hired Shell to guide the Los AngelesRaiders in 1989, he became the first African-American coach of the modern era.
Of course, to many, the semantics of the word modern in “modern NFL” doesn’t really resonate. But it’s there for a reason. The reason is Fritz Pollard.
Pollard’s father was a champion boxer and barber from the Civil War era. His mother was 100 percent Native American (something he had in common with another legend of the 1920s, Jim Thorpe). Pollard grew up in Rogers Park, a community area on the north side of Chicago, Ill. It was a German-immigrant part of town. That’s where he got the nickname Fritz.
Pollard was small, even for the early days of football. But he played in high school at the behest of his brother. He was the first African-American selected to the Cook County All-Star team, which earned him the chance to attend Brown University of the Ivy League.
Now, teams like Brown, Yale and Harvard might not be college football powers today, but they were the USC, Alabama and Florida of their era. Not to mention, they were basically all white. So when Pollard ran all over a team like Yale, it attracted a lot of attention.
Pollard was the first African-American to be selected to the Walter Camp All-America team in 1915. That season, Brown went 5-3-1, but was chosen to play Washington State in the Rose Bowl after Syracuse bowed out. Of course, Pollard was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, but the trip was not without challenges.
Pollard was refused service by the porters of the Pullman train car which carried his teammates across country. The hotel the team was staying at in California even refused to give a room to Pollard. It wasn’t until an assistant coach threatened to remove the entire Brown team that the hotel acquiesced and let him stay.
|Fritz Pollard was one of the first African-American players to play professional football and also the first to become a head coach. Unfortunately, most fans have never heard his name.|
And the game itself was kind of a disaster. The entire team was ill-equipped to play the game — literally. The team arrived in California without “weather” cleats and a rare rainstorm in January turned the Rose Bowl turf into a quagmire. Pollard and the entire Brown squad were ineffective. Even a last-ditch effort to wear shoes multiple sizes too big couldn’t save the day for Pollard. His biggest contribution might have been his theatrics as he begged his coach to put him back in.
The game might not have worked out in Pollard’s favor, but he was still one of the biggest names in football at that time.
However, it’s important to note major college football stars back then weren’t guaranteed a chance at professional football stardom. Heck, professional football at the time might have rivaled your current independent wrestling federation, watched by just a few diehards.
Pollard finished his playing career at Brown. He studied to be a dentist at the University of Pennsylvania and served in the army during World War I before he was recruited to play football professionally. He joined the Akron Pros in 1920 in the American Professional Football League (which would later become the National Football League). And as you can expect, Pollard was the target of taunts from fans and vicious hits from his opponents on the field.
“I wanted the honor of being the first black coach more than anything else.”
Many players didn’t want Pollard on the field. He even briefly got into it with Thorpe himself, despite a similar background. Players would employ the “high-low” technique and found other sadistic ways to try to get him off the field. The antics never seemed to work, though.
“I’d look at them and grin,” Pollard told NFL Films. “I didn’t get mad at them and want to fight them. I would just look at them and grin, and in the next minute run for an 80-yard touchdown.”
It’s not bragging or boasting if you can back it up. Pollard often did. The Pros went 8-0-3 to win the league’s first title in 1920. But there was something bigger that loomed on the horizon for Pollard.
“I wanted the honor of being the first black coach more than anything else,” he said.
|Fritz Pollard was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. (Associated Press)|
Pollard achieved his dream the following year when the Pros selected him to run the team. Pollard would coach four teams (some of them only occasionally): the Pros/Indians (1920 to 21, 1925 to 26), the Milwaukee Badgers (1922), the Hammond Pros (1923, 1925), and the Providence Steam Roller (1925). There also is his previously mentioned stint in the “Coal League” of Pennsylvania.
Pollard founded and coached the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928. They were an all African-American team from the Windy City, but often went barnstorming through the West Coast. His team became one of the most popular, especially once the Great Depression forced many teams of that era to fold.
His talent and charisma won out over everything else (that lasted his whole life, even after his playing career was over). He founded the first black tabloid in 1935, New York’s “Independent News.” He also founded the first black investment firm and would go on to be an agent who represented black entertainers. Pollard also had another impact on Hollywood.
According to Pollard, Walt Disney was at the 1916 Rose Bowl game and he became enamored with Pollard’s antics on the sidelines. Pollard was animated as he lobbied his coach to get back into the game. The image of Pollard’s theatrics stuck with Disney and in one cartoon, he modeled Mickey Mouse’s movements after Pollard.
Pollard died at age 92 in 1986, but lived more than one lifetime. Pollard received football’s oldest honor in 2005 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It might have taken a while for Pollard to reach the pinnacle. In contrast, Thorpe was inducted into the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Pollard’s legacy had always been a part of it.
And maybe it was fitting. The following year Warren Moon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, Moon has been recognized as the first African-American quarterback of the modern era to be in the Hall of Fame. He even acknowledged those who came before him.
“I remember all the guys before me who blazed a trail to give me the inspiration,” Moon said during his induction speech.
No doubt words meant for players and men like Pollard.
By Samuel G. Freedman|Posted Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, at 1:58 PM
In 1967, 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL. Here’s how history was made.
Just before kickoff on a Saturday night in October 1967, in a football stadium so hostile to visitors it was nicknamed “The Hole,” James Harris of Grambling tossed some warm-up passes. The Tigers had come to Nashville to play Tennessee State, which also had a star quarterback in Eldridge Dickey. He was standing almost back-to-back with Harris at midfield, firing off his own practice throws. Two black scouts for the NFL, Tank Younger and Lloyd Wells, watched them and placed a bet on who would have a better game.
That same month in Tallahassee, the Florida Board of Regents assembled for a meeting at Florida A&M, the black university in the state capital. The regents, one part of an entirely white state government, held absolute control over FAMU, as it was known. While those regents treated the school’s Ivy League-educated president, George Gore, like a supplicant, they had been adroitly cultivated over the years by FAMU’s legendary football coach, Jake Gaither. He was working the room at this meeting.
In these two disparate events, 46 years ago, the road to the 2013 football season began. In the NFL this year, all eyes rest on two black quarterbacks, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. The defending Super Bowl champs, the Baltimore Ravens, are led by an African-American general manager, Ozzie Newsome. (Like another black GM, Jerry Reese of the New York Giants, Newsome has won two Super Bowl rings.)
The college season, meanwhile, has begun with Alabama seeking its third consecutive BCS championship, fielding a team with dozens of black players. The one team to beat Alabama last year—and considered among the top threats to its supremacy this year—is Texas A&M, which has a black head coach, Kevin Sumlin.
Before the changes set in motion in 1967, none of these scenarios would have seemed possible. The conventional wisdom in pro football was that no black player was intelligent enough to play quarterback. Black quarterbacks were routinely shifted to wide receiver or defensive back, the better to utilize their “natural athletic ability,” as the bigoted idiom put it. No black men coached for any NFL team, much less served as a team executive.
As for the colleges, despite the fact that segregated state universities like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana State had begrudgingly admitted black students under federal pressure, all of them had deliberately kept their football teams all-white. “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide,” went Bama’s fight song, and indeed triumph on the gridiron was eagerly interpreted in the South as proof of white supremacy. Not that the North was above reproach: Even there, only a couple of college teams had deigned to hire a black assistant coach.
What changed the course of football history—and, given football’s role as a kind of civic religion in America, the nation’s history—were two sequences of events that unspooled in 1967.
The showdown between Grambling and Tennessee State was more than the confrontation between two of black college football’s most powerful teams and most accomplished coaches, Eddie Robinson and John Merritt. It was also a personal showcase, and a means of comparison, between the nation’s best black quarterbacks, Dickey and Harris.
Heading into the game, Dickey was considered the more likely of the two to break the NFL’s quarterbacking color line. (The aptly named Willie Thrower played one game at quarterback for the Bears in 1953, and a few other African-Americans got a tiny number of snaps in pro football’s early days. But in 1967, there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL, and there hadn’t been one since 1955.) Under his leadership, Tennessee State had gone on a 24-game unbeaten streak. Entering his senior year, he had already put up extravagant numbers: 64 touchdowns, more than 4,700 yards passing, a 68 percent completion percentage. Lithe and sinewy at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he could throw the ball 60 yards with either hand, and punt or place-kick farther than anyone on the team. His IQ was in the high 130s. Always eager to promote his players, Merritt awarded Dickey the nickname “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Harris, in contrast, sublimated his downfield passing skills to Eddie Robinson’s wing-T offense. Grambling won games in the style of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, by executing a fairly limited playbook to invincible perfection. But outside of game days, Robinson had been preparing Harris for a pro-style passing offense, with the goal of making him the kind of classic drop-back passer who couldn’t be forced to change positions. The son of a minister and a nurse, Harris had all the necessary intelligence and judgment to play quarterback. And Grambling’s sports publicist, Collie J. Nicholson, had been running Harris through mock interviews to steel him for the hostility that would surely await the NFL’s breakthrough black quarterback.
In the game against Tennessee State, a team that could burn out a scoreboard, Robinson was finally persuaded by Harris and backfield coach Doug Porter to open up the offense. Harris responded by throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns, the final one winning the game with less than a minute remaining. Dickey, meanwhile, was intercepted five times.
Ultimately, Dickey did become a first-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders in 1968. He then met the fate of so many black quarterbacks before him. Despite outplaying another rookie, Ken Stabler, in the preseason, he was turned into a flanker. His pro career ended after three years. Like other black quarterbacks whose dreams were similarly dashed—Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos, Joe Gilliam Jr. of the Pittsburgh Steelers—Dickey fell into despondency and drug addiction.
Harris was drafted the year after Dickey, and not until the eighth round. That snub was surely the league’s response to the vow by both Harris and Robinson that this quarterback would only play quarterback. Harris was waived after just three years with his first team, the Buffalo Bills, but after catching on with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1970s, he posted a series of firsts: first black quarterback to regularly start, to be chosen team captain, to bring his team (twice) to the conference title game, to be selected for the Pro Bowl (where he was MVP), to lead the conference in passing efficiency.
In the short run, Harris’ career ended bitterly. The Rams drafted and traded for a series of white quarterback to displace him—Pat Haden, Joe Namath, Ron Jaworski, Vince Ferragamo—before finally dealing him away to the San Diego Chargers. But the door that Harris had opened stayed open. As he was being dumped by the Rams, another Grambling quarterback, Doug Williams, was being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and would later win a Super Bowl for Washington. From Williams to RG3, every black quarterback owes his opportunity to James Harris.
In the case of Jake Gaither and the Florida regents, the FAMU coach had a very clear agenda on that day in October 1967. During decades of hiding his private support for civil rights from public view—indeed, of buddying up to a series of segregationist governors—Gaither had been building up his political chips. In 1967, he cashed them in. He wanted permission for FAMU to play against a white college’s team, the kind of game that had never occurred in the South. He needed state approval for it. The regents granted Gaither’s request, but they left no written record of the decision. What would happen if FAMU beat Florida or Florida State or Miami? There could be race riots. The regents didn’t want their fingerprints on a disaster. Or, for that matter, on an idealistic blow against segregation.
It took Gaither two years to find a white team to take up his offer. Finally, in 1969, the young coach of Tampa University, Fran Curci, did. A transplanted northerner, an Italian Catholic who himself felt alien in the South, Curci had taken the Tampa job on the promise he could integrate its team. So playing FAMU contributed to his goals as well as his values.
The FAMU-Tampa game drew a capacity crowd of more than 40,000, equally divided between white and black. The contest went down to the final play. And when FAMU won, it proved several vital points. First, Gaither had answered the white skeptics who said he’d built up his record by playing second-rate black teams. (Tampa under Curci had beaten major-college teams.) Second, a tense game with a racially mixed crowd went off without incident.
So while many football fans think of the South’s transformative game as the 1970 rout of all-white Alabama by thoroughly integrated USC, they are a year too late. The FAMU-Tampa game helped convince white teams throughout the South to begin or expand their recruiting of black players. “I wanted to prove to myself that it could be done in Florida—the deepest state in the Deep South,” Gaither said later in his life, recalling the Tampa game. “And we did it.”
For all that Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson achieved, neither man ever received a job offer from an NFL team or a mostly white college. Robinson, a man not given to complaint, once remarked that the only time in his life he was introduced simply as an American was on a visit to Japan. Gaither, who stopped coaching in 1969 and died in 1993, has largely fallen out of sporting memory. Yet the influence of what Robinson and Gaither, Grambling and Florida A&M did in 1967 informs and infuses the football we are watching in 2013.
Five years ago, I wrote a five part series detailing the history of the black quarterback. With February being Black History Month and Super Bowl XLVII marking the 25th anniversary ofDoug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, I figured it was worth another trip down memory lane.The history of black quarterbacks in professional football is complicated. As recently as 2007, the New York Giants had never had a black quarterback throw even a single pass. On the other hand, as far back as 1921, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard not only quarterbacked the Akron Pros, but was also the first black head coach in NFL history. A year earlier, Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first two black players in professional football history and helped the Pros win the championship in the NFL’s inaugural season.1 The Pros ran the single-wing, and Pollard was the player lined up behind the center who received the snaps. At the time the forward passwas practically outlawed, so Pollard barely resembles the modern quarterback outside of the fact that he threw a few touchdown passes during his career.2
According to the great Sean Lahman, at least one African American played in the NFL in every year from 1920 to 1933, although Pollard was the only quarterback.3 Beginning in 1934, that there was an informal ban on black athletes largely championed by Washington Redskins owner George Marshall. It wasn’t until 1946 that black players were re-admitted to the world of professional football, when UCLA’s Kenny Washington4 and Woody Strode were signed by the Los Angeles Rams; in the AAFC,Bill Willis and Marion Motley were signed by Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns that same season.
After George Taliaferro played quarterback in the AAFC in 1949, he became the second black quarterback in NFL history when he joined the New York Yanks in 1950.5 Taliaferro was a jack-of-all trades: in both 1952 and 1953, he accumulated over 200 passing, rushing and receiving yards, and scored a touchdown via all three methods. But despite making three Pro Bowls, Taliaferro never led his team in passing, and was more a utility player than a quarterback.
The next African American quarterback in the NFL was unquestionably a thrower. Literally. Willie Thrower became the third black quarterback in league history in 1953 when he threw eight passes in one game for the Bears (and did not record a rushing attempt or a reception). Two years later, Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins was signed by the Green Bay Packers, marking another milestone. While Pollard (Brown), Taliaferro (Indiana) and Thrower (Michigan State) came from major schools, Brackins was the first in a small line of quarterbacks from historically black colleges, paving the way for quarterbacks like Doug Williams and Steve McNair.
Brackins and Thrower combined to throw just ten passes, and the NFL did not enlist another black quarterback for twelve seasons. That’s because players like Pete Hall, a quarterback at Marquette, switched to receiver when they made it to the NFL. Sandy Stephens led Minnesota to the Rose Bowl and was selected in the first round of the AFL draft and the second round of the NFL draft in 1962. But since both the New York Titans and Cleveland Browns wanted him to switch positions like Hall, Stephens instead moved to Canada to play quarterback in the CFL. In 1968, the Raiders drafted Tennessee State’s Eldridge Dickey in the first round, but used him as a utility player and returner. Thirteen rounds later, Denver drafted Marlin Briscoe, who became the first modern black player to start at quarterback in the NFL. Briscoe ranked sixth in the AFL in passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating, while leading the league in yards per completion as a rookie.
After the season, Denver informed Briscoe that they intended to go with Pete Liske as their quarterback in 1969 (with Steve Tensi as the backup); as a result, Briscoe asked for his release, and signed on with the Bills as a wide receiver. In 2002, Briscoe wrote an autobiographychronicling his struggles as a black quarterback in professional football.
In the fifth round of the 1969 draft, the Patriots drafted Onree Jackson. The Patriots player personnel director said “Jackson could be theWillie Mays of pro football” but he was released just months later; the only explanation provided was that Jackson “was behind the other three quarterbacks.” But another black quarterback from that draft had much more success. In the eighth round, James Harris was drafted by the Bills and was the team’s opening day starter. Harris played sparingly in ’70 and ’71, before being out of football in 1972. But he joined the Rams in 1973, and the next season became the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl. But there has been at least one black quarterback in the NFL in every season starting in 1968. In 1972, Joe Gilliam was drafted by the Steelers; Gilliam would play four seasons, with the majority of his work coming in 1974. That season, the year Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl, Gilliam arguably outplayed Terry Bradshaw in the regular season, but he was unable to wrest the job from the former number one overall pick.
J.J. Jones (New York Jets), Dave Mays (Cleveland), John Walton (Philadelphia), Parnell Dickinson (Tampa Bay) and Vince Evans(Chicago) all entered the NFL in the mid-to-late ’70s, serving as a bridge until the next breakthrough. By the end of the 1977 season, no black quarterback had been selected before the sixth round of the draft. That changed when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Doug Williams with the 17th pick in the first round of the 1978 draft.
After Williams, no black QBs entered the league for five years. During the 1983 season, Evans was the only black quarterback in the NFL (Williams was in the USFL at the time). Evans joined Williams in the USFL after the season, but in 1984, the landscape of what a black quarterback could do in the NFL changed forever.
Warren Moon joined the Canadian Football League in 1978, and promptly led his Edmonton Eskimos to the Grey Cup title in each of his first five seasons. In 1983, he set the single season passing record and won the Most Oustanding Player award. That prompted the Houston Oilers to sign the future 9-time Pro Bowler and NFL Hall of Famer. Moon still ranks in the top five in NFL history in passing yards despite not throwing a pass until he was nearly 28 years old.
Randall Cunningham was drafted in 1985, and would become a star using a different style. His historic 1990 season saw him throw 30 touchdown passes and rush for 942 yards; no other player with 30 passing touchdowns in a single season has rushed for even 500 yards. After Reggie Collier was drafted by the Cowboys in 1986, a string of black QBs entered the NFL during the strike: Mark Stevens, Walter Briggs, Larry Miller, Willie Gillus, Bernard Quarles, Tony Robinson and Willie Totten. Two years later, Rodney Peete was drafted by the Lions, and the following year, the Lions drafted Andre Ware with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Since 1990, there have been at least five black quarterback in the NFL every season.
In 2000, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback selected with the first pick. Then in 2006, Vince Young became the first black quarterback to win rookie of the year, and Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III have won the award since then. In addition to Newton and Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Josh Freeman all ranked in the top 12 in Net Yards pr Attempt in 2012, while West Virginia’s Geno Smith may be the first player selected in the 2013 draft. This sort of success is probably mind-blowing to players like Thrower and Stephens, making this one of the few real-life stories that does have a happy ending.
- At the time, the NFL went by the name the American Professional Football Association. It was not known as the NFL until 1922. [↩]
- In addition to his NFL exploits, Pollard also achieved a great deal of fame for leading Brown to back-to-back road wins over the powerhouse schools of the time, Yale and Harvard, in 1916. He would become the first African American to be named an All-Americanand the prior season, he lead Brown to the Rose Bowl. [↩]
- It wasn’t just African Americans that had full access during this era: Jim Thorpe coached and starred in a team composed entirely of Native Americans called the Oorang Indians in 1922 and 1923. [↩]
- Who occupied the same backfield with the Bruins as Jackie Robinson. [↩]
- For what it’s worth, Washington also played a little quarterback with the Rams. [↩]