By Mutaurwa Munemo
The term trailblazer is one often bestowed though not always deserved. Far too often we anoint someone a trailblazer in a particular field, when in reality they are just a trendsetter. A trendsetter alters the world around them stylistically. A trailblazer alters its consciousness, forever changing the intellectual perspective of those within it. Time and again they face seemingly insurmountable odds and implacable foes, yet conquer both with a calm and focus unique to a special few. Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard epitomized the term at every stage of his life.
Born on January 27, 1894 as the seventh of eight children, Pollard spent his childhood in Rogers Park, Illinois, a predominantly white suburb of Chicago. His parents John William and Catherine Amanda Pollard both were unusually well educated for the day. They moved their family to Chicago from Missouri to afford their children educational opportunities generally unavailable to African-Americans at the turn of the century. “Fritz” and his siblings, in particular his elder brother Leslie took full advantage of these opportunities. The first of which was attending Lane Technical Preparatory High School, in Chicago. Illinois.
Known as “The School of Champions,” because of its acclaimed academic and athletic history, Lane Tech, afforded Pollard elite opportunities that he did not waste. Pollard was a three-sport star at Lane Tech, excelling in track, football, and baseball, while distinguishing himself in the classroom as well. After graduating from Lane Tech, Pollard earned a Rockefeller Scholarship he intended to use to follow his brother Leslie to Dartmouth College. It was during a train layover en route to Dartmouth that Pollard first visited Brown University. It was also during this time that Pollard met his first wife Aida Lang. In both cases one look was apparently all it took, and the legend of “Fritz” Pollard was born.
From 1915-1916, Pollard achieved legendary status at Brown, particularly on the “gridiron”. What must be understood is that college football occupied the position in America’s sports consciousness that professional football now holds. Baseball was still pre-Ruth and mired in rumors of gambling. Boxing was covered by a “dark cloud” named Jack Johnson. Pro football didn’t exist. College football was the sport of the day, and the Ivy League was its center. There had been other football powers like Fielding Yost’s “point a minute” Michigan teams, and the Carlisle Indian School teams led by the legendary Jim Thorpe. Despite that, the “Ivy’s”, were footballs foundation. They were it’s home, and were still the home of it’s major stars. Stars that until 1915 looked nothing like “Fritz” Pollard.
Football at that time was even more violent and chaotic than it is today. Much more “roughhousing” was tolerated during and after plays. Punches, knees, elbows, and stomps were commonplace. This allowed for Pollard to become the target of particularly vicious abuse due to his position as a halfback. During Pollard’s era the quarterback position had yet to be defined as we know it. Halfbacks were the primary handler of the ball either running or passing the ball to gain yards. Opponents made no secret of their resentment towards Pollard and used every play as an opportunity to express that antipathy. Fans were no different. Against Yale, Pollards presence on the field would engender continual choruses of the song “Bye, bye, blackbird,” every time they played. He faced the same at Princeton, and Harvard, where Pollard often had to “hide in the tunnel” until kickoff or risk a mob storming the field. In fact, the practices of “huddling around” the signal caller, and “hurrying’ to the line between plays stem from attempts by Pollard’s coaches and teammates to discourage snipe attempts.
Despite these obstacles, Pollard excelled. In 1915, he became the first African-American to start and play in a Rose Bowl. The following season Pollard led Brown to an 8-1 record including an unprecedented sweep of the nations two premier teams, Harvard and Yale. His performance during the 1916 season was so exceptional that he became the first African-American to be selected by Walter Camp for a backfield position on the All-America team. It was only the second time Camp had ever named an African-American to the team at all. It was in fact Camp who cemented Pollard’s status as a college football legend when he described him as “the most naturally gifted runner with ball that I have seen.”
Following the 1917 season Pollard left Brown in the spring of 1918 to become head football coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He held the position until 1920. With a wife and growing family Pollard supplemented his income in 1919 by joining the Akron Pros, a barnstorming team. In 1920 the Pros, joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later renamed the National Football League (NFL). During the 1920 season the Akron Pros went undefeated winning the league’s inaugural championship, and Pollard earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American selected to the All-NFL team. Pollard achieved this despite being one of only two African-Americans in the league. As testament to Pollard’s ability as a player and the respect he held from his team in 1921 he was named co-coach of Akron Pros. Blazing a trail as the first African-American coach in NFL history. A position not held again in the NFL until Art Shell’s hiring by the Raiders in 1989. During his tenure as coach of the Pros, Pollard also became the first African-American quarterback in league history.