If you think Marlin Briscoe, in 1968, as the first Black quarterback in the American Football League, think what it must have been like for Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard. In 1920, he was one of only two Black players in the inaugural season of the American Professional Football Association (It became the NFL in 1922). He went on to become the league’s first Black coach and Black quarterback.
Born in Chicago in 1894, Pollard felt the sting of racism as an African-American child growing up in the predominantly white neighborhood of Rogers Park, but he won admirers with his athletic accomplishments at Lane Tech High, where he was a three-time county track champion, a gifted baseball player and star on the football gridiron.
Pollard received a Rockefeller scholarship to attend Brown University in 1915, and he became a college football standout despite his modest 5’9″, 165-pound stature. He was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1915 season, and in 1916, he led Brown to back-to-back wins over Ivy League powerhouses Harvard and Yale en route to an 8-1 overall record. For his efforts, he was honored as the first African-American running back named to Walter Camp’s All-American team.
After leaving Brown, Pollard briefly pursued other interests before taking a job as the football coach at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania). In 1919 when he was recruited to play for the Akron Pros, who joined the fledgling APFA in 1920.
One of just two African-American players in the league, along with Bobby Marshall, Pollard led his team to an 8-0-3 record and the APFA’s first title. The following year, he again proved a dominant player while doubling as the first African-American coach in the league.
The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922, and continued to serve as one of the league’s primary gate attraction through 1926. In 1928, Pollard organized the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-African-American professional team. Seeking to demonstrate that Blacks and Whites could compete without incident on the field, Pollard arranged exhibition games with teams. During their three-year run from 1929-32, they were among the most popular draws in the sport.
A “gentlemen’s agreement” struck by NFL owners in 1933 prevented the signing of more Black players.
In 1954, Pollard was the first African-American elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame and into the Pro Football hall of Fame in 2005.
He died in 1986 at age 92.