Eleanor Pollard Towns was a freshman at West Virginia State in
1940 when another student rushed up to her to talk about her
father, Fritz Pollard, the first black head coach in NFL history.
She has never forgotten the experience.
"He told me how well he (Pollard) was liked in New York, and
how he had helped so many young people," said Towns, 83, of
Chicago. "I was impressed with that because a lot of people don't
She gets another reason to be impressed when her father is
inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on
Sunday. Pollard and Benny Friedman, a prolific quarterback in the
1920s, will go into the Hall posthumously. Modern-day passers Dan
Marino and Steve Young also will be inducted.
Pollard's induction will shine a light on the early history of
the NFL, when Pollard was an elusive running back and coach in a
league reluctant to employ black players.
"For me, I didn't know that much about him until I started
reading and hearing some things and then doing the research on
it," said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of six black
head coaches in the league today. "In the pre-integration of the
game, I think it's interesting that he not only played the game but
Frederick Douglass Pollard, named for the famous black
abolitionist, stood 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, yet starred at Brown
University before turning professional. The two-time All-American
halfback became the first black player in the Rose Bowl in 1916.
The Chicago native served in World War I and in 1919 he joined
the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League, which
was renamed the American Professional Football Association the next
year. He led Akron to the championship in 1920 and became the first
black coach in NFL history when he played and served as co-coach in
The APFA was renamed the NFL in 1922.
Pollard was fast and powerful, and one of the main draws in the
"He was a very rugged individual. ... He was excellent in
track. He was a pretty good basketball (player), he was good at
baseball. He was just almost a natural athlete," said John M.
Carroll, a history professor at Lamar University and the author of
the book "Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement."
"Even though he was small, I think he had incredibly good
talents of speed and also agility."
He needed all of his athletic ability to survive in the league's
early days because of his race and size. To prevent pile-ons,
Pollard would spin on his back and stick his knees and cleats in
the air after he was tackled, said Fritz Pollard III, one of his
grandsons who has lobbied for years for his induction into the Hall
"In that era, just to play, you had to be tough," the grandson
said. "These guys, they had a regular job. This wasn't their
full-time job. They had a job and they would go out there and this
was like a weekend thing to pick up extra money for something that
Pollard played and at times coached for four NFL teams until
1926. After his NFL career, he organized all-black teams that
played all over the country into the mid-1930s in an effort to get
the NFL to sign more black players. It is believed there were no
black players in the league from 1934-46.
Pollard, who died in 1986 at age 92, also was a successful
businessman. He owned a Harlem music studio where artists such as
Duke Ellington rehearsed. He also served as an entertainment agent
and ran a tabloid newspaper.
"There wasn't too many things he wasn't involved in," Carroll
said. "He was usually pretty good at all of them."
To commemorate his efforts in football, the Black Coaches
Association has named its award given to the college or
professional coach of the year after him, and the Fritz Pollard
Alliance was established in 2003 to promote minority hiring in the
NFL. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in
Induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was the one honor
that eluded him, said Pollard III, 50, who will present his
grandfather for induction on Sunday.
"I have great memories," he said. "He was very jovial and a
character, to say the least."