We have made it all the way to the top of our Top 100 NFL personalities. Along the way, we have highlighted the career of some of the league’s top performers, innovators, leaders and larger than life characters in its history. Our number one entry in our countdown was all of those things. While there are far more household names of NFL history further down the list, those that know of Fritz Pollard’s contribution to the NFL understand why he is in the top spot.
It is easy to forget that the 100th anniversary of the NFL also means the league was born at an embarrassing time for race relations in America. At just 5’7″ and 165 pounds, you would think size would have been Pollard’s biggest hurdle to NFL success. In the early 1900’s that was hardly the case for a young African-American athlete.
Pollard was a stand out athlete in high school, however he was as smart as he was fast. This led to Pollard earning admission to the prestigious Brown University in 1915. At Brown, he broke many many color barriers, including being the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl. Pollard was just the second African-American to be named to the All-American Team.
At first, Pollard was not well received by teammates. By all accounts, Pollard was an incredibly positive figure, even in the face of blatant racism. A mixture of incredible personality and humbling talent quickly changed his teammate’s views on him. His teammates would go as far as protecting Pollard both on and off the field. Since Pollard’s small stature made his uniform appear baggy, he was easily identifiable in a pile-up and opposing players would take cheap shots at Pollard. To battle that his teammates began wearing baggy uniforms so he wasn’t as noticeable in a scrum. If hotels would refuse to allow Pollard to stay the team would threaten to unbook the other rooms, forcing hotel managers to allow him to stay.
After college Pollard served in the Army at the end of the first World War. He spent three seasons coaching college football, when in 1920 the NFL was born. That season playing with the Akron Pros he became the first African-American player in the NFL. After an undefeated season, he also became the first NFL champion. Impressed with his knowledge for the game the team made him the first African-American Head Coach in the NFL. In 1943 he was placed at quarterback, making him the first black quarterback in NFL history.
Pollard was a top draw for the NFL in its infancy. In that era, his mere presence on the field created a polarizing buzz for the games. Some wanted to watch Pollard for his immense talent, regardless of his skin color. Others would come to see Pollard pummelled. Never fueled by anger, Pollard simply wanted to be the best player that he could be.
Pollard certainly had to be the bigger man in many situations. One story of legend is that in their first meeting Jim Thorpe took exception to Pollard’s cavalier attitude towards a racist remark he had made and threatened to harm him on the field. In response, Pollard said, “You can find me down there in your end zone.” The opening play of the game Pollard returned the kick-off for a touchdown and acknowledged Thorpe again.
Pollard would spend a total of six seasons in the NFL. He played in several smaller markets, as one of the top drawls in the league he was offered relatively large contracts from different teams bidding for his service. Pollard also hoped by playing for different teams he could spread acceptance of black players in the NFL. By 1926 there was a total of nine African-American players playing in the NFL. At that time there were team owners that didn’t exactly see this as progress.
While college football was becoming a sensation it simply couldn’t match a salary to a player as opposed to using their degree to enter the working world. Knowing they needed every edge they could get to draw top college football stars into the professional ranks, owners feared that black players would detract top college prospects from joining teams in the NFL. In 1927 the owners, under pressure from some of the larger market team owners unofficially banned black players from the league. This was the ending to Pollard’s NFL career. It would be almost two decades later in 1946 when the L.A. Rams signed Willie Robinson that any African-American player would see NFL action.
Still wanting to be a part of the game Pollard would go on to found several barnstorming teams comprised of exclusively African-American players. The most notable of these teams was the Harlem Brown Bombers. With Pollard as coach, the team won all 29 of their exhibition contests against professional teams in the late 1930s. Interestingly enough, Mack Robinson the older brother Jackie Robinson played for the Brown Bombers. Sadly the Great Depression caused the team to fold and Pollard left the game of football for good.
Outside of football, Pollard was keen to capitalize on the change in pop-culture. He began a talent agency, where he used his charm and sports notoriety to help the advancement of many black entertainers. He is credited with publishing the first African-American themed tabloid paper.
While he had many successes in his life, one that eluded him was finally being honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When the hall opened in 1963 many were truly disappointed that some of the men responsible for holding African-Americans out of the game were honored, yet Pollard was not. When Pollard passed away in 1986 at the age of 92 many felt it a shame he was never inducted. Pollard finally received the honor posthumously in 2005.
One of the reasons we chose Fritz Pollard to be our top selection in our countdown is we wanted him to get the recognition that he deserves for his role in sports history. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball is still widely celebrated to this day. While most would fail to recall Pollard’s name if asked for the NFL’s first black athlete. While not as recognized as other pioneers in sports history, the organization that helps to promote minority coaching and front office hires across football named themselves in Pollard’s honor. Thankfully today the best players in the world do not have to worry about their heritage for admittance. A large part of that is due to brave pioneers like Fritz Pollard.