By Michael LeCompte
Any sports fan and even most school children know who the first black player in baseball was. However, Fritz Pollard, the first black man to play professional football, has largely been forgotten.
Frederick Douglas Pollard was born in a German neighborhood of Chicago (hence the nickname Fritz) in 1894. The son of a black man and a Native-American woman, the Ivy-League educated Pollard would go on to become the first black player, then coach in the NFL, as well as the inspiration for a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Although he was only 5’9″ and 165 pounds Pollard played running back and led Brown to the 1916 Rose Bowl against Washington State.
It rained for several days prior to the game and the field was a muddy mess. Brown lacked adequate cleats for the conditions and Washington State’s line, which was an average of 13 pounds heavier per man than Brown’s dominated in the 14-0 Washington State win.
The Brown players later claimed that several of Washington State’s linemen were not students and that others had been on the team between 5 and 8 years because they were only enrolled during football season.
After a play late in the game where several Washington State players held Pollard face down in a mud puddle after tackling him the Brown coach pulled him from the game.
Pollard’s sideline protestations to be allowed back in the game supposedly attracted the attention of Walt Disney in the Rose Bowl crowd. According to Pollard’s own account “the sight of me jumping up and down from the bench had never left his mind. Years later he used the scene in a Mickey Mouse cartoon. It’s the one in which Mickey’s team plays these big lions and Mickey keeps popping up from the bench…”
In 1920 Pollard led the Akron Professionals to an 8-0-3 record and the first ever NFL championship. Due to his small stature and the racial aggression of the time he was often targeted by opposing teams. Pollard took the unnecessary roughness in stride, explaining that “he wouldn’t get mad at them and want to fight,” but rather that he would “just look at them and grin and in the next minute run for an 80 yard touchdown.”
In 1921 Pollard became the first black coach in the history of the NFL when he agreed to lead his Akron Professionals.
However, his professional success was short-lived when Pollard and the nine other African-Americans in the NFL by that time were forced out of the league following the 1926 season, due to a racist gentlemen’s agreement among the league’s owners.
There would not be another African-American in the NFL until 1946.
Fritz Pollard died in 1986 and was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, where he was described as having “the speed of Tony Dorsett, the elusiveness of Barry Sanders, and the tenacity of Walter Payton.”
Perhaps more importantly, though, as the first African-American in professional football Fritz Pollard made the careers of those three men and of countless others possible.