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Forgotten pioneer

Fritz Pollard was the NFL's first black coach (and the QB on a champion team) but almost no one knows his name

At 85, Leslie Pollard still remembers when she could scarcely go without hearing about her late father Fritz, the former Brown star who led the Bears to the second Rose Bowl in 1916 and eventually became the first African-American to quarterback an NFL championship team and the first to coach an NFL team.

In fact, she could recall when the mere mention of her last name in public would prompt someone to note that she was indeed the pioneer's daughter -- and then the football stories would come in a steady stream that underscored her father's way of winning people over, both on and off the field.

That hasn't happened in a long, long time. It is perhaps why Leslie, who was 3 when her father stopped coaching, struggled to conjure up anecdotes about the man she said "had a hell of a personality.'' After a few attempts, she apologetically quit trying, then lamented that today's vast media could offer no assistance.

"It's strange," she said via telephone from her Evanston, Ill., home. "This generation doesn't know anything. Almost all of my younger life, there was mention of my father in his football days almost every time you picked up a newspaper. Now, people have never heard of him."

That might be about to change. Brown University and the Black Coaches Association will announce today that they will co-sponsor the annual Fritz Pollard Award for college coach of the year (all divisions). The BCA will select the coach and present the honor at its annual awards banquet. The first Fritz Pollard Award will be presented June 5 in Indianapolis.

"Fritz Pollard was a pioneer, a man who excelled not only because of his magnificent athletic gifts, but also because of his wits, intelligence, and ability to lead and inspire people," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association and a former University of Rhode Island coach.

Brown will arrange for a permanent trophy, to be inscribed each year with the recipient's name, and will fund an annual $10,000 prize for the winner. The school will also bring the Pollard Award winner to campus for an annual presentation before the university community.

It is the second time in as many years that Pollard's name has been invoked in an official capacity. Last March, the Fritz Pollard Alliance was formed by a group of coaches, scouts, and front-office personnel seeking to promote minority hiring in the NFL.

Many believe the latest honor may lead to a distinction that has eluded Pollard: induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"That is our next thing on the agenda, and this will help raise the profile," said Brown athletic director David Roach, who said the idea of the award came up as the school was looking to celebrate the 125th anniversary of its football program. "We want to form a group of current and former NFL players to see if we can get a campaign going."

That came as a ray of hope to the Pollard family, which has also worked toward his induction. They say Pollard, who died May 11, 1986, at age 92, regretted never making it into the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

"He deserves something like that after they didn't put him in the Hall of Fame," said Eleanor Towns, Pollard's other living daughter, who is three years younger than Leslie Pollard and lives in Chicago. "They've had different people who have been working on that for a long time. So far it's been unsuccessful."

And that's unfortunate, for Pollard's story not only epitomizes athletic achievement but illustrates how far the game has come since his era -- in large part because of players like him.

Tales of old

The son of a former Union army soldier, Frederick Douglas Pollard was born in Chicago in 1894. After graduating from high school, he attended Northwestern, Dartmouth (where his brother, Leslie, played), and Harvard before enrolling at Brown in 1915.

"He loved Brown," said grandson Fritz Pollard III, who also attended the school. "When he came up to Rhode Island to receive an award in the state's Hall of Fame, he took me to Brown. I was about 11 then."

Fritz Pollard III signed a letter-of-intent at 14 to attend the school, and he also played football there. Pollard III left Brown after being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams but blew out his knee in training camp.

Fritz Pollard Jr. enrolled at Brown before transferring to the University of North Dakota to follow his high school track coach and subsequently won a bronze medal in the hurdles at the 1936 Olympics. He died last year.

Pollard III can recall football stories about his grandfather, such as the time Jim Thorpe, a noted rival, lost a $1,000 bet with Pollard that Pollard would not get a first down over the first four series when the players' teams met.

Pollard III said his grandfather spoke vividly about the racial hostility he experienced on the field, and how he would respond.

"He said that what a lot of players would do, since they had those long spikes, they would dive over the pile and would let their feet drag and try to cut you with their cleats," he said.

"He said the way he was taught by their older brothers was that when you knew they were coming, you would roll over on your back and kick your feet like you're a cat and if they come to try to dive over the pile, you would just tear their legs to shreds."

As a freshman halfback, Pollard led Brown to wins over Harvard and then Yale, one of the most memorable two weeks in the program's history. His production in those wins is still talked about in Brown circles today: 531 yards of total offense and six touchdowns.

Pollard was the first black All-American running back and became the first to play in the 1916 Rose Bowl, when Brown lost to Washington State, 14-0.

After Brown, he played for the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League in 1919. The next year, the league was renamed the American Professional Football Association. He led Akron to the championship in 1920 and became player-coach in 1921. The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922.

He played and coached at Akron until 1926, then went on to play with other teams as well as coach teams in Hammond, Ind., and Milwaukee.

Pollard finished his career before the NFL banned blacks from 1933-45 -- something that was done, according to newspaper reports at the time, to "save them from harm."

Pollard blasted the league for its stance, arguing that he had excelled against white players his entire career. He returned to professional football in 1935 as coach and owner of the Brown Bombers, a professional team that played in Harlem.

Lack of publicity

After the Depression-era economy ended the Bombers' run in 1938, Pollard went on to other ventures. In addition to owning a tax-consulting firm, he ran a talent agency and produced the first black motion picture.

"He was a man who never showed any display of temper," said Towns. "My mother would sometimes get angry with him, and he would just say, `Now, Ada, now Ada.' He was not a family man. He loved his family, but he would always go someplace, and that was not good. And, of course, the women were always after him."

Towns was an infant when her father coached, so she has had to rely on stories from others about her father's playing days. Sometimes, she said, they would come from unusual places.

"I remember a while ago I went to an ophthalmologist, and I was running late and I had an appointment with a man from Sports Illustrated who was doing an article on him," she said. "I told that to the ophthalmologist, and he said as a young man he worked at a nursing home and that Jim Thorpe was in the nursing home.

"He said that Jim Thorpe talked about him constantly. All he ever heard was `Fritz Pollard.' Jim Thorpe hated my father. There wasn't any love lost between them, but I never heard my father say anything about him."

Leslie Pollard said that when her father died, there were few media reports, and she attributes that in part to his bitter feud with former Chicago Bears owner George Halas over the exclusion of blacks in the NFL. "I called the TV stations and they didn't even mention it," she said, "but this is George Halas country."

Pollard III, who owns a home-security company in Germantown, Md., said even many in NFL circles are unaware of his grandfather.

"The Brown Bombers, they were a team before Jackie Robinson," he said. "They give Jackie Robinson so much on breaking the color barrier in sports when my grandfather did it way before that, and there were others who followed."

Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said there has been talk of Pollard being a viable candidate for induction "almost since the day the Hall of Fame opened.

"The problem with players, coaches, and administrators of that era is that it's difficult to document statistically their performances, and unfortunately the teams Pollard played for were not that successful.

"He gains considerable support for his pioneering role not only as a player but a coach. That's what keeps his candidacy alive. He is one of few from that era to garner enough support to be considered as a serious candidate."

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