Pioneer Pollard receives respect
In 1921, he was professional football's first black head coach.
Eleanor Pollard Towns was a freshman at West Virginia State in 1940 when another student rushed up to her to talk about her father, Fritz Pollard, the first black head coach in NFL history.
She has never forgotten the experience.
"He told me how well he [Pollard] was liked in New York, and how he had helped so many young people," said Towns, 83, of Chicago. "I was impressed with that because a lot of people don't do that."
She gets another reason to be impressed when her father is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton on Sunday.
Pollard's induction will shine a light on the early history of the NFL, when Pollard was an elusive running back and coach in a league reluctant to employ black players.
"For me, I didn't know that much about him until I started reading and hearing some things and then doing the research on it," said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of six black head coaches in the league today. "In the pre-integration of the game, I think it's interesting that he not only played the game but coached it."
Standout at Brown
Frederick Douglass Pollard, named for the famous black abolitionist, stood 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, yet was a standout at Brown University before turning professional. The two-time All-American halfback became the first black player in the Rose Bowl in 1916.
The Chicago native served in World War I and in 1919 he joined the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League, which was renamed the American Professional Football Association the next year.
He led Akron to the championship in 1920 and became the first black coach in NFL history when he played and served as co-coach in 1921.
The APFA was renamed the NFL in 1922.
Pollard was fast and powerful, and one of the main draws in the league's infancy.
"He was a very rugged individual. He was excellent in track. He was a pretty good basketball [player], he was good at baseball. He was just almost a natural athlete," said John M. Carroll, a history professor at Lamar University and the author of the book "Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement."
He needed all of his athletic ability to survive in the league's early days because of his race and size. To prevent pile-ons, Pollard would spin on his back and stick his knees and cleats in the air after he was tackled, said Fritz Pollard III, one of his grandsons who has lobbied for years for his induction into the Hall of Fame.
"In that era, just to play, you had to be tough," the grandson said. "These guys, they had a regular job. This wasn't their full-time job. They had a job and they would go out there and this was like a weekend thing to pick up extra money for something that they loved."
Pollard played and at times coached for four NFL teams until 1926. After his NFL career, he organized all-black teams that played all over the country into the mid-1930s in an effort to get the NFL to sign more black players. It is believed there were no black players in the league from 1934-46.
Pollard, who died in 1986 at age 92, also was a successful businessman. He owned a Harlem music studio where artists such as Duke Ellington rehearsed. He also served as an entertainment agent and ran a tabloid newspaper.
"There wasn't too many things he wasn't involved in," Carroll said. "He was usually pretty good at all of them."
XThird in a series on this year's Hall of Fame inductees.