“You had to be tough as nails to play in that league. And that went double if you were black, because they really came after us.”
In 1919, when Fritz Pollard first began playing football in the NFL, sports was one of only a few opportunities for African Americans to advance their social and economic status. He may not have been the first black man to play professional football, but he certainly was one of the most influential of his time, emerging as a dominant force in the quest to keep the NFL integrated. Throughout his career, he continued to struggle to allow African Americans to retain their rights to play the game of football at the highest possible level. His pioneering efforts had a lasting impact that helped delay the eventual segregation of the NFL, and through Fritz Pollard’s unparalleled dedication and love of football, African Americans were able to define their place in the sport before they were ultimately forced out.
Pollard was born in 1894 into a middle class family outside Chicago. Like his three older brothers, Fritz emerged as a football star once he reached high school. It was as a student and athlete of his predominately white school that Pollard first learned how to deal with the discrimination and racial prejudice he received from his fellow students and athletic opponents. Although he excelled in baseball and track as well, he decided to focus on football in college, presuming that he would have more opportunities in the sport as an African American. After bouncing around from several colleges, he eventually ended up at Brown University where he joined the football team. At first, things weren’t easy. Pollard was ostracized by his white teammates and targeted on the practice field. However, he endured this blatant racism and ultimately emerged as the star of the Brown football squad.
After proving himself to be one of the most talented halfbacks in the country, Pollard went on to become the first African American to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl on January 1st, 1916. The following year, he elevated the Brown team even more, leading them to consecutive victories over heavily favored Harvard and Yale. His performances this year were so great, in fact, that he was named as a first team All-American, the second black player ever to receive this honor and the first to do so as a member of the back field. Due to these accomplishments, Pollard began to receive recognition from various civil rights groups and black organizations, traveling from city to city along the East Coast to accept awards and accolades. Unfortunately, he also began to neglect his studies, and the following season he was ruled academically ineligible to compete on the Brown football team.
Because of his ineligibility, Pollard entered military service for a few years before returning to football. When he did return, however, it was as a member of the Akron Pros professional football team in 1919. The next year the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later the National Football League. That year, Pollard assumed some of the coaching duties, and behind his powerful backfield play and the eastern formations he had brought from college, the Pros went on to win the APFA championship. Despite this success, Pollard still suffered as an African American in an all-white league. Indeed, when he first began playing, he was one of only two black players in professional football, and life was certainly not easy because of it. On the road, he was not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He sustained verbal and physical abuse from Akron’s fans, who he claimed were just as prejudiced as anyone from the South. He even had to dress for home games at a local cigar store and arrive at the stadium just before game time in order to protect his safety.
In 1921, Pollard was named co-coach of the Akron Pros, making him the first African American coach in NFL history. During this time, he emerged as one of the best players in professional football alongside Jim Thorpe, a football legend. He went on to play for several other teams in the league, often acting as both a coach and player while remaining one of the most dominant men on the field. During this time, more African Americans began to enter the league, many of whom were recruited by Pollard himself. Because of his efforts to help more blacks play professional football, Fritz was also able to organize an interracial all-star game in Chicago that showcased a team made up of the finest African American players in the league against an all white squad. His purpose was clear: to showcase the talent of black athletes and promote integrated competition in sports.
Later, as the head coach of the Hammond Pros in 1925, Pollard brought in three black players who, alongside his own play, made Hammond the most integrated team in the NFL. This year would mark the height of African American participation in the NFL before growing discrimination would cause the number of black football players to begin to fall, until there was only one African American player in 1927. Dismayed by these numbers, Pollard went on to found an all-star black professional team in 1928 called the Chicago Black Hawks. This team played games against all-white professional teams before folding due to Depression. They were able to prove that interracial play was possible without the ugly incidents that had marred NFL competition between whites and blacks.
Eventually, a ban on African American participation in the NFL was passed in 1934, and so in response Pollard formed and coached an all-black professional Harlem football team, the Brown Bombers. Like the Black Hawks, the Bombers played against all-white professional teams, usually dominating behind the strength of their all-star African American talent. With his team soundly defeating NFL team after NFL team, Pollard was able to prove that blacks were talented enough to play in professional leagues, thus challenging the NFL’s race ban and bringing the issue of segregation to the forefront of professional football. After resigning as head coach of the Bombers, Pollard continued to oppose the NFL ban and remain a prominent advocate for integration in football.
Sadly, the immense contributions of Fritz Pollard are often regarded as merely a footnote in the history of the NFL, but in reality they were so much more. As a player, he helped pave the way for his fellow African Americans to enter the sport, and as a coach he maintained integration by recruiting other black players to join his teams. Once he left the NFL, he continued his advocacy by organizing first the Chicago Black Hawks and then the Brown Bombers, two teams that proved African Americans had just as much a place in professional football as anyone else. Indeed, the Bombers enabled blacks to continue to play against professional teams after they had been excluded from the NFL due to the league’s race ban. Ultimately, Fritz Pollard was a man whose extensive contributions to the game of football helped promote integration and establish a place for African Americans to participate at the professional level.
Brooks, Scott, and Charles Kenyatta Ross. Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality on and off the Field. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.