When it comes to Professional Black pioneer athletes, we think of Paul Robeson and Jesse Owens for track, Michael Jordan and Julius “Dr. J” Erving for basketball, Jim Brown and Walter Payton for football, and of course Jackie Robinson for baseball. But before these men, there was Fritz Pollard. Pollard was the first African American head coach in the National Football League (NFL).
Fritz Pollard was born in a suburban 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. Pollard attributed much of his success in life to his ancestors. 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.
A highly successful football and track athlete, Fritz Pollard was an All-American at Brown University and became the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl in 1915 against Washington State for the university as a freshman. During the 1916 season, Pollard scored 12 touchdowns, leading Brown to an 8-1 record. In the following spring, Pollard set a world record in track for Brown University in low hurdles and qualified for the Olympics. He was often described as an elusive and exciting runner, famous coach and sports writer Walter Camp said Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
In 1919, Pollard would go on to play professional football for the Akron (OH) Pros following army service in World War I. The Pros would join the newly founded league, American Profession Football Association (APFA), in 1920, which would later be renamed the NFL. He immediately earned a place in pro football history becoming one of two African-Americans to play in the NFL. In 1921, Pollard eventually earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American head coach in the NFL when the Akron Pros asked him to co-coach the team.
In 1928, Pollard organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-African American professional team based in the Windy City. Pollard’s Black Hawks played against white teams around Chicago, but enjoyed their greatest success by scheduling exhibition games against West Coast teams during the winter months.
Pollard died on May 11, 1986 at the age of 92. In honor of Pollard, On March 10, 2003, the Fritz Pollard Alliance was formed as an affinity group of NFL minority coaches, scouts and front office personnel. During the last couple of years the FPA has worked with the NFL to develop hiring guidelines for front office and scouting positions as well as talent development programs. The FPA advocates for policy changes in the NFL hiring practices and working in partnership with the NFL to create opportunities for minority candidates. His legacy has lived on and will continue through former Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, Former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis Colts Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, Chicago Bears Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin and current Colts head coach, Jim Caldwell. It is safe to say that he left a lasting impact, breaking the barrier professional African-American athletes in football.
* League champions. Prior to 1932, the NFL’s champion was determined by the best record during the regular season.
Full Name: Frederick Douglass Pollard
Birthdate: January 27, 1894
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
High School: Albert G. Lane Tech (Chicago, IL)
Died: May 11, 1986 at Silver Spring, Maryland
Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame: February 5, 2005
Enshrined into Pro Football Hall of Fame: August 7, 2005
Represented by: Steven Towns, Fritz’s grandson
Presenter: Fritz Pollard III, Fritz’s grandson
Pro Career: 8 Seasons
Drafted: Pollard played prior to the NFL Draft being implemented.
Uniform Number: #1 (also wore #11 briefly during his career)
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