Fritz Pollard: The forgotten man who took on George Halas and changed the NFL forever

Image by Zachary Rosenbaum – https://www.instagram.com/zacharyrosenbaumdesign/

Both pioneers in their own right, Fritz Pollard and George Halas are names that are synonymous with 1920’s football in Chicago. Despite both being born in Chicago and inductees of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the comparisons pretty much begin and end there.

This is the story of the rivalry between Fritz Pollard and George Halas which would begin in high school and see the two men on opposing teams to determine the first NFL championship. Their rivalry would eventually develop into an intense feud surrounded by accusations and denials of racism, bigotry and black-balling.

The key figures:

Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard:

Fritz Pollard was born January 27, 1894 in Chicago, Illinois. The seventh of eight children, Pollard’s mother was Native American and his father an African-American champion boxer who fought professionally during the Civil War.

Pollard grew up in Rogers Park and attended Lane Tech College Prep High School where he played football, baseball, and ran track. He would later become the first African-American to attend Brown University of the Ivy League, where he would major in chemistry and play football.

By the time he graduated from high school, he was a talented baseball player, running back and a three-time Cook County track champion.  He briefly played football for Northwestern, Harvard and Dartmouth before receiving a scholarship from the Rockefella family to attend Brown University in 1915.

It was here at Brown University in 1915, where Pollard would become the first African-American to be selected to the Walter Camp All-American team. In 1916, Pollard became the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl and would ultimately lead his team to victory.

The 5-foot-9, 165 pound halfback could do it all on the Gridiron. The “Human Torpedo”  was the ultimate Swiss army knife. Speaking in a 2018 article with Boston’s Wbur, Fritz Pollard’s grandson Mr Fritz Pollard III proudly reflected:

“He played quarterback, he was running back. He did punt returns and the kicks, where they used to do the dropkick for the field goal. There wasn’t a thing he didn’t touch in the game.”

Sadly, Fritz was often on the receiving end of disgraceful racial abuse from opponents…and his teammates. The only African-American on the field, Pollard became the target of intense verbal abuse and in a college game in 1915, he was subject to cheap-shots, punches, kicks and eye-gouging.

In the same Wbur article in 2018, another of Fritz Pollard’s grandsons, Dr Steven Towns shared some insight into the measures put in place to ensure Fritz Pollard’s safety against this shocking violence:

“There were times when he had to be escorted onto the field by the police”.

George Halas:

Born one year after Pollard (February 2, 1895) in Chicago, George Halas attended Crane High School. It was during their time in high school that Pollard and Halas would first cross paths and their competitive rivalry would begin.

After graduating from high school, Halas would go on to attend and play football for University of Illinois. After an unsuccessful career that would see him play just one game for the New York Yankees, his career was cut short by injury. Halas would eventually swap his glove for helmet, playing football for the Hammond Pros before finding his way to the Decatur Staleys in the spring of 1920.

Background:

In 1919, more than 25 race riots erupted across major cities in the United States. In Chicago alone (July 27 – August 3), 38 lives were lost, including 23 African-Americans and 15 white. 

After serving in World War I, Pollard signed with the Akron Pros in 1919 and at the time he was one of just two African-Americans in the league.

Reflecting on his time at Akron, Pollard said:

It was evident in my first year at Akron back in 1919 that they didn’t want blacks in there getting that money. And here I was, playing and coaching and pulling down the highest salary in pro football.”

“My father had taught me that I was too big to be humiliated by prejudiced whites. If I figured a hotel or restaurant didn’t want me, I stayed away. I didn’t go sniffing around hoping they’d accept me. I was never interested in socializing with whites. I was there to play football and make my money.”

1920 was a momentous year. Prohibition was introduced, women earned the right to vote and on August 3, an agreement was made to form a football league by four independent teams from Ohio; (Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, Dayton Triangles and the Akron Pros). A second meeting would be held on September 17 to introduce four more teams from Illinois; Chicago Cardinals, Chicago Tigers, Rock Island Independents and Halas’ Decatur Staleys. And with that, the “American Professional Football Conference” (APFC) was formed.

In the APFA’s inaugural season, Akron was a defensive beast. It allowed just seven points for the entire season and shut out their opponents in a staggering 10 of 11 games. According to www.profootballhof.com, Pollard was known as an “exciting elusive runner” and “the most featured running back in the fledgling league”. Pollard’s season in 1920 would see him lead The Pros in rushing, receiving, scoring and punt returns, and one of the highest paid players in the APFA. Such was Pollard’s impact that in the first 19 games in which he played for the Pros, they didn’t lose a game (15-0-4) and outscored their rivals an incredible 236 – 7.

Without a postseason structure in place, a tournament was quickly devised for the teams with the best records to determine the APFA final standings. An invitation from George Halas to Fritz Pollard’s Browns for a game at Chicago was agreed with the winner set to become 1920 APFA Champions.

The game:

A record crowd of more than 12,000 fans packed into Wrigley Field on December 12, 1920 for the historic match-up to determine which team would be declared APFA Champions.

During the game, the Staleys targeted Pollard and made several unsuccessful attempts to injure him. It would be Pollard however, who would have the last laugh by making the game-saving tackle. Like many games before it in 1920, the game ended with another scoreless tie.

Pleased with the attendance at Wrigley Field and perhaps unhappy with the result and seeing an opportunity to get one over on The Pros, Halas proposed a rematch to which the Akron team declined.

It wouldn’t be until a league meeting in Akron, April 30, 1921 that the championship of the 1920 season would finally be awarded to Akron. The Pros were awarded the “Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup”, the only year the trophy was given, and members of the team each received a gold fob with a miniature football shaped medallion.

Akron was awarded the first championship on the basis of it being undefeated for the season, however, the ensuing controversy only went to further ignite the simmering feud between Pollard and Halas.

The aftermath:

In 1921, Pollard became co-head coach of the Akron Pros (making him the first black head coach in the NFL), while still maintaining his position as running back. Despite having the responsibility of being coach, Pollard would have another dominant season leading the team in rushing, scoring, and punt returns.

In that same year, it was the changing of the guard at Decatur. In an agreement signed by A.E Staley and George Halas on October 6, 1921, the team would be signed over to George Halas and Ed “Dutch” Sternaman. The team would soon become known as the Chicago Staleys and under Halas’ leadership, they would be declared 1921 NFL Champions.

According to Pollard, after The Pros 1920 APFA championship win, Halas refused to schedule games against Pollard’s teams.

In 1976, Fritz Pollard reflected:

“George Halas used to get me every goddamn thing he could. Then after he used me and got power, he raised the prejudice barrier. If George Halas was still like he was then, he wouldn’t have allowed a black player in Chicago because he was prejudiced as hell.”

Dr Steven Towns, supported his grandfather’s assertions, alleging in 2018:

“George Halas said he’d never play a team with the ‘n-word’ on it again.”

Despite these shocking allegations, Fritz Pollard was not done writing history. In 1923, he became the first African-American quarterback in the NFL whilst playing for the Hammond Pros, and would continue in his quest for integration by organizing the first interracial all-star game featuring NFL players in 1922.

Pollard was equally as impressive away from the Gridiron. An astute businessman and entrepreneur, Pollard established the first African-American-owned U.S investment firm in 1922, and would launch his own talent agency and newspaper. During the period when team owners colluded to shut black players out of the league (1934 to 1946), Pollard retired and used one of his newspapers to call for positive action.

Speaking in 1971, Pollard was of the firm belief that George Halas and Tim Mara of the New York Giants were responsible for the black ban:

“He (Halas), along with the Mara family, started the ball rolling that eventually led to the barring of blacks. Halas was the greatest foe of Black football players.”

Pollard also maintained until his dying day that George Halas had prohibited him from pursuing a career in the NFL. Halas however, would vehemently deny this accusations:

“He’s (Pollard) a liar. At no time did the color of skin matter. All I cared about was the color of blood. If you had red blood, then I was for you.”

Halas’ also made the outrageous claim that the absence of African-American players during 1934 – 1936 was to due lack of interest:

“Probably the game didn’t have the appeal to black players at the time.”

Whilst Halas dismissed any notion that he was a racist, history will show that he did not have any black players before the ban, and would not draft a black player until 1949 when he recruited George Taliaferro from Indiana. It wouldn’t be until 1952 however, when the Bears would officially play their first black player in Eddie Macon.

Despite the Bears slow progress in assimilation, it is documented that by the 1960’s, Halas was known to inform segregated hotels that it was either the whole team staying or it would be none. A little too late it seems.

Ironically, both Pollard (posthumously 2005) and Halas (1963) would eventually be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pollard’s legacy:

Pollard went on to coach NFL teams in Indiana and Milwaukee,  until 1926 when the NFL ousted all black players and coaches in a shameful decision to segregate. Pollard created a black football team and challenged NFL teams to exhibition games but was denied this opportunity.

In 1928, Pollard organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks (1928-32), an all-African-American professional team where he was an extremely busy man as the team’s coach, owner quarterback and running back. The Black Hawks were a very popular team during this time as the Great Depression caused many teams to fold.

In 1936, it was Pollard’s son Frederick Pollard Jr.’s opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps and create history of his own. Alumnus of University of North Dakota, Fritz Jr was the school’s first black athlete competing in football, track and boxing.

Despite having run hurdles in just five meets, Fritz Jr, qualified for the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics winning bronze in the 110-meter hurdles. In a statement against racism and oppression led by Hitler and his Nazi regime, Fritz Jr. walked proudly amongst other black athletes that combined for 12 olympic medals.

Throughout his life Fritz Pollard felt that he had never received his due recognition for his contributions to American football. He spent much of his life defending his legacy and felt the sweeping of racism under the mat during his career diminished his impact on the game and only went to further George Halas’ legacy.

Pollard blazed a trail for many African-American football players in the NFL and indeed across the country. He became the first black head coach and quarterback in the NFL and he became an outspoken advocate for black players in the league. He is considered by many as the first agent of change for African-American players in the NFL.

Mr Pollard passed away in 1986, aged 92, in Silver Spring Maryland.

In response to a lack of diversity and under-representation of African-American NFL coaches, the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation was created. The Alliance is dedicated to educating the public about equal opportunity in sports and providing scholarships to aspiring sports industry professionals of color. The Alliance is a membership organization comprised of scouts, coaches, and front office personnel in the NFL as well as other sports professionals committed to equal opportunity in the industry

At long last, on February 4 2005, Fritz Pollard was finally inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. At Pollard’s enshrinement, Fritz Pollard III spoke proudly of his grandfather’s legacy:

“He was unarguably the greatest player ever and even coached at the same time. His inventive plays moved the game of football to what it is today. My grandfather became a footnote until today.”

Perhaps the most fitting way to wrap up this article is to take a quote from a 1974 ESPN NFL Films interview, when speaking about his troubles as an African-American in the 1920’s, Pollard said:

 “I’d look at ’em and grin. Didn’t get mad and wanna fight ‘em. Just look at ‘em and grin, and the next minute run 80 yards for a touchdown.”

Preach.

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