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Fritz Pollard

February 5, 2005

Without Pollard, Football Hall Is a Sham


TODAY in Jacksonville, Fla., a 39-member panel will go through the annual ritual of deciding who to induct into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

If Fritz Pollard isn't selected, there shouldn't be a Hall.

I rarely get involved in Hall of Fame debates. Comparing statistics, performances and records may be the bedrock of sports, but for me it's an avoidable exercise in futility.

Pollard goes beyond comparisons. His life in football was not about statistics, though they were exceptional, or breathtaking performances, though there were many. His life and career represented part of the evolution of a sport and a league that became a defining American institution.

Pollard was a star at virtually every level of his career. As a student at Brown University, he became the second African-American player to be selected to the all-American team, and he became the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl and in professional football. He was also the first African-American to play quarterback in the National Football League and the first to serve as an N.F.L. head coach.

He was present when the first brick was laid.

"He was really one of the founders of this league," said Dr. Steve Towns, who is one of Pollard's four grandchildren and who has waged a two-year campaign to put his grandfather on the Hall of Fame radar.

"He was just as important as George Halas and some of the other people," Towns said. "When you read the history, he was right there, a major part of everything that was going on. So why shouldn't he be in the Hall of Fame?"

Pollard became the first black head coach in the N.F.L. in the early 1920's when he took over the Akron Pros, and he coached two other N.F.L. teams as well.

With these credentials, you'd think that Pollard would be carried by chariot into the Hall. Instead, he is a finalist for the first time, one of 15 candidates being considered by the panel, and Towns said he was surprised that his grandfather had advanced even this far.

"I'm not optimistic about these kind of things," he said. "Being an African-American, growing up in Chicago, going through the white establishment, going through school, we always have to be 10 times better."

Pollard often was.

He played and lived in an era in which being great wasn't often good enough.

After the 1933 season, African-Americans disappeared from the National Football League for more than a decade. The founders of the league made a decision - in effect, a gentleman's agreement - to ban African-American players. From 1934 to 1946, African-Americans did not play in the N.F.L. During much of that blackout, Pollard became the moral thorn in the side of pro football. He waged a one-man campaign to force the N.F.L. to reopen its doors to African-Americans.

"In one way or another, he was always the kind of person who was sticking the needle in," Towns said. "But he wasn't doing it for himself; he was more interested in getting everybody involved in the game."

During the N.F.L.'s years of segregation, Pollard organized all-black teams in Chicago and New York with the dual aim of providing a living for African-American players and showcasing talent. One team was called the Blackhawks. His most famous team was the Brown Bombers, a Harlem-based team (named in honor of Joe Louis) that took on the best white teams.

Towns got most of his information about his grandfather from his uncle, Fritz Pollard Jr., one of Pollard's four children and a star in his own right. Fritz Pollard Jr. was a standout running back at North Dakota and was a bronze medalist in the 1936 Olympics, as a hurdler.

He learned that his grandfather's talents went far beyond football. Pollard owned coal companies, ran a weekly newspaper and even headed a movie studio in Harlem. And he was a character.

"I know you've heard the story about how - when my uncle missed a tackle in a game - my grandfather went out there at halftime and gave him tackling instructions," recalled Towns, who played high school football himself. "As I got further along in my career, I was plagued by injuries. My grandfather used to tell me how Pollards never got hurt."

The recurring theme in his grandfather's life was perseverance.

"What impressed most about my grandfather's life was his ability to just overcome all sorts of adversity without giving it a second thought," Towns said of Pollard, who was born in Chicago in 1894. "Chicago wasn't a bastion of civil rights back in the early 1900's, and the fact that he was able to accomplish all of these things is just amazing. The stuff he had to put up with, he didn't really complain about it."

The heroics of many Hall of Famers have faded from memory, but Pollard's spirit lives. Two years ago, a group of about 200 N.F.L. coaches and front-office personnel, most of them African-Americans, formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance. With Kellen Winslow, the Hall of Fame tight end, as the executive director, the alliance seeks to increase opportunities for minority candidates seeking coaching and front-office positions.

Pollard, who died in 1986, represented an evolution that continues tomorrow when Donovan McNabb will become the third African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

Fritz Pollard lived a complete football life: he was an all-American, a pioneer, an activist and an entrepreneur.

If he's not in the Hall of Fame, there shouldn't be one.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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