When Steven Towns would see his grandfather, Fritz Pollard, the first black coach in the NFL, he often asked to hear about the abuse Pollard endured during his playing days as a swift, elusive running back at Brown University and later in the early era of professional football in the 1920s.
"He would always talk about how people would bite him, kick him, pile on after the whistle blew," Towns, a 58-year-old dentist from Indianapolis, recalled this week. "He said he tried to get on his back and get his legs up, kicking his heels in a bicycle motion to keep people away from him. He gave it back as good as he got."
Pollard, a Chicago native who spent the last few years of his life in a quiet Silver Spring neighborhood, will be inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today in Canton, Ohio, along with another great star from the same era, quarterback Benny Friedman, one of the early pioneers of the forward pass. They will go into the Hall with modern era quarterbacks Steve Young and Dan Marino, both selected in their first year of eligibility and both likely to be the focus of most of the media coverage this weekend.
Pollard, who died in 1986 at 92, and Friedman, who died in 1982 at 77, took a far more difficult road to Canton. Their exploits went virtually unnoticed with each passing year, save for a smattering of family supporters and historians of the game. The two were finally voted into the Hall in February on the recommendation of the Hall's Senior Committee, which can annually nominate two players from the pre-1981 era. The two senior candidates then must receive 80 percent of the votes from the 39-member board of selectors.
Neither Pollard nor Friedman had come up for a vote by the full board of selectors. The Hall's charter class of 17 was chosen in 1963, more than three decades after both players' careers had ended.
"I really think that most people did not realize what [Pollard] had done," Towns said. "He was one of those asterisks in the record books, and when I talk about it now, people still don't realize he was the first black coach. It's really kind of sad. I guess it's like some black major league players who don't even know who Jackie Robinson was. Ask them, and they'll look at you like you're crazy."
Frederick Douglass Pollard, named for the famous black abolitionist, first gained renown as a two-time all-American running back at Brown, where he was also the first black athlete to play in the Rose Bowl in 1916. After college, he served in the Army during World War I, and when he returned to civilian life, he joined the Akron Pros of the fledgling American Professional Football Association in 1919. Two years later, he played and coached the Akron team, and in 1922 the APFA was renamed the National Football League.
Pollard, 5 feet 9 and 165 pounds, played and occasionally coached for four NFL teams until 1926, then helped organize and coach a number of all-black teams that barnstormed around the country in an era when many NFL teams refused to sign black players. Pollard had played high school football in Chicago against George Halas, who later became a Hall of Fame coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, but never was allowed to try out for the Bears, according to Towns. Halas also refused to schedule Pollard's all-black teams.
Pollard "knew things had gone on in football that were unfair and despicable," Towns said. "He'd always say it was a sign of the times. But the whole conspiracy of getting African Americans out of the league always bothered him. In his mind, it was Halas, people like [former Redskins owner] George Preston Marshall. That's a story in itself."
Friedman took a different approach than Pollard. According to several Hall of Fame officials and family members, he actively campaigned to get himself into the Hall of Fame for many years, perhaps one of the reasons he was ignored for so long.
Friedman played high school football in Cleveland, was a two-time all-American at the University of Michigan, and when he turned pro in 1927 drew widespread media attention previously reserved for the likes of Jim Thorpe and Red Grange. He remains one of the most prominent Jewish athletes in sports history. His nephew, David Friedman, a Boston area physician, said his own father, Benny's younger brother, told him "when Benny played in some places in the Midwest, people came out to the games because they wanted to see if Jews really had horns, like they'd heard."
In his first four seasons, Friedman completed more than half his passes in an era when 35 percent was considered top-flight. Only 5-10 and 183 pounds, he took a savage beating at a time when there were no roughing the passer rules and also was considered a premier runner and kicker. His 20 touchdown passes in 1929 stood as an NFL record well into the early 1940s.
After the 1928 season, then-New York Giants owner Tim Mara purchased Friedman's pro team, the Detroit Wolverines, for $10,000, with the express purpose of getting Friedman for his franchise. He played for the Giants for three years, attracting huge crowds wherever he went, and spent his last three seasons with the old Brooklyn Dodgers before a knee injury ended his career following the 1934 season.
Friedman went on to coach New York's City College football team for two years at the request of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, earning $4,500 a season paid for by alumni donations. He served in World War II, then returned to become coach and athletic director at Brandeis University. Suffering from diabetes and with one leg already amputated, Friedman died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Leonard Shapiro is a selector for the Hall of Fame and a member of the Senior Committee.