In the Long Run

It took years and his family's unwavering dedication but finally, a pioneering black NFL player is headed into the Hall of Fame.

February 16, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

Here's to memory lanes less traveled, images of a black-and-white era that colorfully come alive whenever Fritz Pollard III thinks back to the days of his pioneering grandfather.

Those were the days, the Germantown resident says, when Fritz Pollard Sr. was known for the company he kept: Sports and entertainment legend Paul Robeson? Pollard played with him. Multi-sport great Jim Thorpe? Pollard played against him. Jazz stars Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie? Pollard promoted them.

Pollard was a man who forged uncharted paths from the early- to mid-1900s, along the way creating similar opportunities for others - artists and athletes whose names live on in the mainstream long after the sun went down on his own place in history.

For 15 years, Fritz Pollard III has worked to vault his late grandfather's name back into the spotlight, calling media outlets to pitch stories only to have many respond, "Fritz Pollard? What did he do?"

"My response was, `Where do you want me to start?' He was the first black to play in the Rose Bowl. The first black quarterback in the NFL. The first black coach in the NFL," Pollard, 50, said.

His persistence finally has paid off: Pollard Sr. received a long-overdue election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame almost two weeks ago.

"I would have loved for him to have been elected before he passed, but I think he's looking down and smiling now," said Pollard, whose grandfather died of Alzheimer's disease May 11, 1986, at age 92. "I knew in talking with my grandfather, I knew that this was the only award he hadn't received."

The honor has generated newfound interest in the man who not only overcame racial barriers to excel in football but went on to manage a Harlem-based talent and rehearsal studio that helped integrate the entertainment industry.

His Suntan Studio booked black talent in white clubs in New York, providing a first-hand look at performers who greatly influenced America's music and theatrical landscape.

"There's a photo I once had with Billy Eckstine and Billie Holiday, and they're singing with my grandfather playing the piano. Unbelievable," said Pollard, his voice raised with excitement. "If you wanted black talent, he had it."

That a figure with as many "firsts" as Pollard could have faded into near obscurity says something about the times he lived in and the sport he played. His election to the Hall of Fame could serve to honor other black players of a nearly forgotten era of football, starting in 1920 when they were gradually integrated into professional football but then phased out and kept out for more than 10 years.

There were no black NFL players from 1933 to 1946. Pollard's career ended in 1926, but his outspoken dissatisfaction with this "gentleman's agreement" to keep blacks out of the National Football League prompted a public outcry against league officials.

His outspokenness also created enmity between Pollard and the NFL, even as the league ultimately reintegrated, denying him the enduring fame that Jackie Robinson gained for breaking baseball's color line.

His grandson hopes that will change now. Pollard's two surviving daughters, Leslie Keeling, 86, of Evanston, Ill., and Eleanor Towns, 83, of Chicago, say they were ecstatic when they heard their father was entering the Hall of Fame.

"We're all on top of the world," Towns said. "I figured it would happen at some point, but you really don't know until it's done."

The son of a former Union army soldier, Frederick Douglass Pollard was born in Rogers Park, a Chicago neighborhood, on Jan. 27, 1894. His nickname "Fritz" apparently came from German and Polish residents in the neighborhood.

As a freshman running back at Brown University, the 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound Pollard made an instant impact and ultimately led the Bears to the Rose Bowl in 1916, becoming the first African-American to play in the game.

In 1919, Pollard joined the semiprofessional Akron (Ohio) Pros football team. The following year, the team became a charter member in the newly formed American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League in 1922.

In 1920, Pollard was one of just two African-American players in the league. That season, he led Akron in rushing, receiving, scoring and returning punts as the Pros posted an 8-0-3 mark and captured the league's first championship.

In 1921, Pollard was named co-coach of Akron, becoming the league's first African-American coach.

He coached three other teams during his eight-year professional career, including the Hammond, Ind., Pros in 1923 - he served as head coach and quarterback, both firsts for an African-American.

All this despite enduring repeated acts of racial hostility that occasionally put him in danger on and off the field.

Pollard said his grandfather spoke of how opposing players would pile on him. Football cleats were long, spiked and sharp then, and some players would dive over Pollard, allowing their shoes to drag and cut him.

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