FREDERICK DOUGLASS “FRITZ” POLLARD (1894 – 1986) enjoyed a number of firsts as the first black man to play in the Rose Bowl; one of the first black players in the NFL; the first black quarterback; as well as the first black coach before being named the first black football player to be elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame. But Fritz went on to become so much more than just an athlete.
Born the seventh of eight children to John William, a barber, and Catherine Amanda Hughs Pollard, a seamstress, in Rogers Park, Illinois, a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, Fritz was then known as Fred after being named after the famous abolitionist. Although his grandparents and great grandparents had been slaves, his parents and siblings were well-educated. Fritz graduated from Lane Technical High School in 1912, having become a talented baseball player, running back and three-time Cook County track champion.
He went on to play football briefly at Northwestern, Harvard and Dartmouth before earning a scholarship from the Rockefeller family to attend Brown University in 1915. That year, Fritz led the team to the Rose Bowl, becoming the first black man to ever play in the annual bowl game. The following year, he was selected for a halfback position on the All-America team, becoming the first black man to play a backfield position on an All-America team and the second to be chosen for the team.
In 1914, Fritz married Ada Laing, granddaughter of Daniel Laing Jr., one of the country’s first black doctors. The couple had three daughters and a son, Fritz Pollard Jr., who won a bronze medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in the 110 meter hurdles and was named an All-American football player at the University of North Dakota two years later.
By 1918, Fritz had become ineligible to play for Brown’s team because of neglecting his studies. He became head coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before joining the Akron Pros, which joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later becoming the National Football League (NFL), and went undefeated during Fritz’s first season and won the league’s first crown. According to reports, Fritz, nicknamed “Human Torpedo”, was “the most feared running back in the fledgling league”.
Fritz was named co-coach of the team in 1921, becoming the first black coach in NFL history. In 1928, he organized the all-black team in Chicago, the Chicago Black Hawks, and served as the team’s running back, quarterback, coach and owner. The team enjoyed much success and popularity, but ceased to exist following the Depression.
In 1922, Fritz created F.D. Pollard and Company, one of the first black-owned securities firms with childhood friend and U.S. Open Champion Charles “Chick” Evans. The business became an immediate success, but it didn’t last. The company collapsed during the Great Depression, and Fritz created a coal business in Harlem with a $29,000 loan from John D. Rockefeller. He also continued to coach the Brown Bombers, an independent pro team, which was formed following the NFL’s ban on black players resulting in none left in the league by 1934.
During this time, Fritz created the New York Independent News, New York City’s first black-owned tabloid, which he published from 1935 until 1942 after retiring from football in 1937. The paper led to Fritz’s next profession as a talent agent, where he managed performers such as Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie and Redd Foxx.
Fritz began creating soundies in 1942, which served as a forerunner to music videos shown in bars and hotels. He produced Rockin’ the Blues ten years later, which gave blacks “a chance to prove themselves and exhibit their talents”. But before long, though, Fritz had moved on to a new career as a tax consultant and developed a roster of wealthy clients until he retired in 1975.
Despite developing a number of successful ventures, as well as moving on to new ones before fully developing the previous ones, Fritz said, “I have often felt I let Brown University down by not continuing to build up the businesses and opportunities”. He died of pneumonia on May 11, 1986, at the age of 92 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.