When this story was published in February 2004, Fritz Pollard of Brown University had been passed over for the Pro Football Hall of Fame more than 40 times. In August 2005, he finally found a home in Canton.
When I started research for this story, I had assumed that Fritz Pollard was a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I knew he had been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame some 50 years before, and had made a bigger mark in the professional game as the first African-American quarterback and head coach in the NFL. I had considered Pollard association with the NFL to be the historical equivalent of Jackie Robinson in major league baseball.
Fifty-seven African-Americans are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not one of them was born when Pollard began his professional football career. By the time he became the first African-American to be a head coach in the NFL, two of the 57 had been born (Marion Motley in 1920; Bill Willis in 1921). By the time his NFL playing career ended, two more were born (Emlen Tunnell in 1925; Len Ford in 1926).
While he was trying to showcase black talent in New York in 1936 -- in an effort to get the NFL to sign African-American talent -- the greatest back of them all, Jim Brown, was born.
By the time Pollard passed away at the age of 92 in 1986, twenty-three African-Americans had been inducted in Canton's shrine -- including one (O.J. Simpson) who had been born after Kenny Washington and Woody Strode reintegrated the NFL in 1946 after 13 years without a black player.
But history has been less kind to Pollard. Surprisingly, he has not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he has become, at best, an afterthought of the selection committee. There are some reasons that Pollard has been overlooked, but there are more overpowering reasons that he shouldn't be overlooked.
Frederick Douglass Pollard was an original member of the NFL and in the early 1920s, the game was not nearly as well received as the college game. Much of the history was never recorded. Did Pollard rush for 1,000 yards in a season? We will never know, but make no mistake, he was the talk of the football world -- first for being the first black back to be named All-America while at Brown University and then for being the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl in 1916.
His first NFL team, the Akron Pros, did not lose in the first 19 games in which Pollard played (15-0-4), outscoring the opposition, 236 to 7. Entering the 1920 season, not much was expected from the Pros, but Pollard proved to be a serious difference-maker. In his first season, the breakaway back led the team in rushing, receiving, scoring and punt returns and the team was unbeaten (8-0-3). Bruce Copeland of the Rock Island Argus selected an all-pro team and Pollard was a first-team choice.
The next year he was installed as the Pros' head coach and the team won its first seven games (all shutouts), before injuries to the team's stars, including Pollard himself, caused the team to trail off, ending the season at 8-3-1. Pollard led that team in rushing, scoring and punt returns while also serving as the head coach.
The NFL Encyclopedia credits Pollard with coaching the Pros that season, but Pollard himself contended his coaching career was much deeper. What is known about the earliest days of the league is that bench coaching was not allowed. Therefore, players served in that capacity. Because he played in a sophisticated offense at Brown, he was often relied upon for his expertise.
Pollard's contention was that he was the coach at Akron beginning in 1919 and through 1921. He also claimed that he coached the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922 and the Hammond Pros from 1923 to 1925. The NFL Encyclopedia lists no coach of those teams. So gathering statistics is hit-and-miss at best.
But the story of Pollard is not found in statistics. If statisfics were the only criteria for becoming a Hall of Famer, take the case of Jackie Robinson himself. He was a .311 lifetime hitter with 1,518 hits, 137 home runs and 197 stolen bases. There is a website with a program that compares players throughout history statistically, and Robinson's career numbers are similar to modern players like Mike Greenwell, Jeff Cirillo, Carlos Baerga and Gregg Jefferies -- none of whom will be inducted in Cooperstown.
This is not to diminish Robinson's accomplishments. Not only was he a great player, he was a great leader, willing to endure personal sacrifices and face extraordinary scrutiny in the face of racism, pain and adversity. I would contend that Fritz Pollard played a similar role to professional football and that his exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame makes the Canton shrine incomplete.
It could be said that Pollard didn't break down a color barrier in the manner that Robinson did in 1947, but in a 1978 New York Times interview, he remembered facing the hatred of the crowds and the indignities of dressing and eating in isolation, away from his teammates. Pollard, who weighed about 150 pounds, was also forced to create a strategy to protect himself after plays -- a move that would prevent piling on after plays. When he was tackled, he'd quickly spin onto his back and stick his cleats and knees into the air above him.
"They had some prejudiced people there," he recalled. "I had to get dressed for games in [team owner] Frank Neid’s cigar factory. The fans booed me and called me all kinds of names. You couldn’t eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels."
It was said that the struggling league's highest-paid players in those first years were Pollard and legendary Jim Thorpe. Those two highly-recognizable, highly-skilled athletes serve as the cornerstones of the NFL to this day. Thorpe, quite deservingly so, was a member of the first class of inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
After paving a path for other young black players, Pollard watched the numbers of African-Americans in the NFL shrink to eventual extinction. In response Pollard formed a high-profile team, the Brown Bombers, in New York to showcase black talent to the fans and the NFL.
The NFL did not have black players from 1934 to 1946. After gaining creditably in the 1930s, the NFL was no longer willing to sign 'name' black players. The Great Depression also turned the hiring of blacks, when so many whites were without jobs, into what was viewed as a bad public relations move.
Pollard's Brown Bombers -- as detailed in a December 2003 Sports Illustrated story -- won much more often than not, beating well-financed all-star teams along the way. But the NFL continued its quiet ban of black players. One of those players snubbed by the NFL teams was Jerome 'Brud' Holland, an All-American from Cornell. In 1937 he became the first black All-American since Paul Robeson in 1918. He would repeat the feat in 1938, but he never get the opportunity to play professionally.
Some NFL insiders of that era claimed that there was a lack of interest among black players in playing in the NFL at that time. The claim was absurd, but it was this attitude that eventually caused Pollard to give up and move onto other projects.
Former Brown Bomber manager Herschel 'Rip' Day wrote in a 1942 letter to the Amsterdam News, "I still say that Fritz Pollard did more to advance the idea of the best-against-the-best-regardless-of-color than any single man in the business."
How long has the issue of Fritz Pollard's exclusion from the Hall been raised? About as long as the Hall has existed. Two days before Christmas in 1964, Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, "Can the committee continue to skip past such vaunted pioneers from the first-team periods as Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Joe Guyon, Keith Molesworth and Fritz Pollard, to name only a few?"
In 1978, syndicated columnist Jerry Izenberg wrote of Pollard, "It is a shame and a scandal that more young people do not even know his name. Those number add up to nothing in Canton, Ohio. He is not a member of the pro football hall of fame. That is an incredible oversight -- almost as incredible as the chain of events which form Pollard's own personal history."
Being named to the Hall was very important to Pollard, for he helped build the league with his legs, his brain and his reputation. He tried to fight injustice and felt that those in control held that against him and would never want him in the Hall.
I would argue to the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters -- the men who have been selected to author the history of the league -- that Fritz Pollard has a rightful place in Canton, Ohio.
The Senior Selection Committee was established to investigate significance, weigh merits and correct oversights. If they fully understand Fritz Pollard's pioneering place in the history of professional football, they will conclude that Pollard is without peer among those who stand outside the Hall.
A look at recent inductees suggests that the Hall and its Senior Committee may have passed by Pollard's era. The last 90 players to be inducted weren't born when Pollard became the first African-American to be an NFL head coach (and that doesn't include the 2004 class of Bob Brown, Carl Eller, John Elway and Barry Sanders).
Even the Senior Committee, in 32 years of existence, has only once nominated a player whose career dated back to the 1920s.
My hope is that the Senior Committee would go back to the 1920s -- if only once more -- to take a look at the case of Frederick Douglass Pollard. For Canton is missing an American hero.
— Brett Hoover