They were black pioneers and American heroes, the Pollards. Long before he died last month at age 92, having lived his last four years at the home of his son in Silver Spring, Frederick Douglass (Fritz) Pollard could look back and know that he had followed well his father's exhortation. "My father told me," Pollard once recalled, "to hold my head high . . . and produce in whatever I did."
What he did was this: He became, in 1916, the first black all-America college football player as a darting, 5-foot-8, 155-pound halfback for Brown University; the first black to play in the Rose Bowl, and the only black to be a head coach in the National Football League. Walter Camp, who began the picking of all-Americas, called Pollard "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen," and sportswriter Grantland Rice put him into a dream backfield that included Jim Thorpe, Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski.
And Pollard, the son? He grew up with what it took to avoid getting lost in the large shadow of his father's fame and became a Little all-America halfback in college and the bronze medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "Hitler's Games" were also the Games of American blacks, 10 of whom earned 12 medals. Jesse Owens was one. Frederick Douglass (Fritz) Pollard Jr. was another.
The story of a history-making American family is in the scrapbooks at the Pollard home. Only after thumbing through stories of his father -- close friend and pro football teammate of Paul Robeson, the actor and singer and all-America at Rutgers -- does Pollard Jr. come to a page with a yellowed newspaper clipping with a stunning photograph of hurdlers. Pollard, now 71, retired from the State Department, points to the runner in the far right lane -- himself.
There he is, leading at the last hurdle in Berlin, but he's hitting that hurdle, getting thrown off stride. It negated a magnificent, blinding start. He had gone out exactly with the gun. He had to; he was an underdog. "Something told me to get going," he said. But the bronze was not an unwelcome honor, hitting the hurdle not something that would gnaw for a lifetime. "It was just a lack of experience," he said. Incredibly, he had run the hurdles in only five meets before the Olympics.
The snapshot captures the essence of the Pollards in American sports: out front at a time when few blacks had broken barriers of prejudice and lack of opportunity. When Fritz Sr. was a legend, playing in the early days of the NFL, the only other black players were Robeson, Duke Slater and Ink Williams. As a collegian in 1916, he had almost singlehandedly beaten Yale and Harvard on consecutive weekends. Many of the football powers then were in the Northeast, and that's why he went there from Chicago.
His father John had grown up in Virginia, fought with the Union Army, then settled in Missouri, where he opened a barber shop with seven chairs at the beginning of the trail for covered wagons heading west. Later, he moved to Chicago, where he opened a 10-chair shop and raised his eight children. One of the older boys, Leslie, also is in the football encyclopedias. He was a Dartmouth great, 1907-09. Fritz decided on Brown on the advice of a Chicago businessman who had gone there. "So, I packed my trunk, hopped a train and headed for Brown," Pollard once recalled. "I never bothered to send in an application or anything like that."
He arrived in February 1914, without enough high school credits, and began an early-football-times hegira. He went to Dartmouth briefly, but Dartmouth found out he had been over at Brown. He went to Harvard, and actually got to sit on the Crimson bench. Bates came to play at Cambridge, and its coach persuaded Pollard to come on up there. Pollard quickly found Maine "too cold." On his return, he fell in with wise men, who told him to get his high school credits and get back to Brown.
There, besides becoming a college football Hall of Famer, he honed his business sense. In later life, he would run an investment company in New York until the 1929 crash, own coal companies in Harlem and Chicago, publish a Harlem weekly, own the Suntan Movie Studios in Harlem, work as a booking agent for black talent (an introduction of his helped Robeson in his acting career) and as a tax consultant. At Brown, Pollard operated a clothes-pressing business on campus and became known as a dapper dresser at social events -- on borrowed wardrobes.
By 1919, he was on the Akron Pros, a charter member in 1920 of the American Professional Football Association, which became known as the NFL in 1922. He also played with the Hammond Pros, Milwaukee Badgers and Providence Steamroller, making up to $1,500 a game before he retired in 1926. He was coach of Hammond from 1923 to 1925, although as early as 1920 he did much of the coaching of the Akron team, though not getting official credit, putting in the system that took Brown to the Rose Bowl. The '20 Akron Pros had Pollard and Robeson. They shut out all 13 opponents.
In the pros, as in college, Pollard experienced racial taunts, separate hotels and restaurants, opponents trying to injure him. He got out of the NFL believing one of its founders, George Halas, was prejudiced against him, which Halas denied. Multitalented, Pollard moved into the business world.
When Pollard Jr. came out of a Chicago high school, as heralded an athlete as his father, he had to search hard for a college that would let him, as a black, play. "I'm going to find the smallest school and put it on the map," he recalled thinking. His fame had spread all the way to the University of North Dakota, and there he went, becoming first-team Collier's Little all-America and, in his coach's opinion, not only a great runner but the best open-field tackler he'd seen.
The elder Pollard "was very protective. He always played up my track and played down the football." But the younger Pollard loved football, too, and a clipping tells that he came back to Chicago while playing for North Dakota and ran 70 yards through the De Paul team. The accompanying photo shows him pulling into the end zone. "But we lost," he said.
Out in North Dakota, spring comes late. In Pollard's day, the track men kept the tops of boxcars in a nearby train yard clear of snow, and that's where he ran, getting ready for the Olympics, down the middle of the tops of boxcars, skipping from one to the next, in the bitter cold, wearing three sweat suits, his cap pulled down. It was part of the long trail the Pollards helped blaze.