Pollard's legacy follows coaches to Super Bowl

Updated: February 2, 2007, 3:24 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

You'll hear and read a lot in the next 12 days about the social and historical significance of two black head coaches -- the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy -- reaching the Super Bowl.

AP PhotoFritz Pollard, shown in 1975, was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 2005.
Maybe you'll read about the charter bus driver hired to take the Colts from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium to the airport after the Jan. 13 AFC divisional playoff win against the Ravens. As Dungy boarded the first of the four buses, the driver, an African-American, reportedly told him, "I want you to know, Coach Dungy, we are proud of you."

You'll hear from people such as former NFL player and scout John Wooten, chairman of the influential Fritz Pollard Alliance, who has worked long and hard with the league to help create more opportunities for minority coaches and aspiring front office personnel. The 70-year-old Wooten will tell you that blacks everywhere, even those only casually interested in the NFL, were pulling for Smith and Dungy last Sunday. It was like the old days, he'll say, when Joe Louis used to fight not just for himself, but for all those of color.

"It's a race pride," Wooten says from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "People get mixed up. Race pride doesn't mean racism. Race pride means being proud of what you are and what you stand for."

What you won't hear or read -- at least, not from the NFL or the Bears organization -- is the awkward history between the league and team founder George S. Halas and Pollard himself, the first black man to play and coach in the NFL. More than 20 years after each man died, their legacies remain connected.

Who Was Fritz Pollard?
Fritz Pollard led Brown University to the 1915 Rose Bowl and in 1920, after military service, became the first black player (along with Bobby Marshall) in what became the NFL. In 1921, he became the co-coach of the Akron Pros.

Pollard played for four different NFL teams: the Pros/Indians (1920-21/1925-26), the Milwaukee Badgers (1922), the Hammond Pros (1923, 1925), and the Providence Steam Roller (1925).

His career was cut short, however, by the fact the NFL had no black players from 1934-46. According to the 1999 book "Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League" by Charles K. Ross, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall helped coax his fellow owners, including George Halas, into accepting a color barrier similar to that which existed in baseball. The ban was never publicly articulated, though Halas once said: "The game didn't have the appeal to black players at the time."

Pollard later became a successful businessman in New York, founding the first black investment firm (F.D. Pollard and Co.) and creating the first weekly black tabloid (N.Y. Independent News).

Pollard died in 1986 at the age of 92.

Remember the cement block-sized piece of hardware Smith hoisted after winning the NFC championship a few days ago at Solider Field? It was the Halas Trophy, and it was held tightly by, technically speaking, the first black head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl.

"That is ironical," says 85-year-old Eleanor Pollard Towns, one of two Pollard daughters who live in the Chicago area.

Ironical, she says, because Halas was no friend of Fritz Pollard or his causes. Ironical because Halas has always been linked to the 1934 unwritten edict by NFL owners that banned black players from the league until 1946, as newspaper reports at the time detailed. And ironical, say both Pollard Towns and Fritz Pollard III (Fritz Pollard's grandson), because they believe Halas used his considerable influence to derail Pollard's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"He certainly did a lot to keep my father from going any further than he did," Pollard Towns says. "I have heard my father talk about that down through the years."

"With George Halas, as great as he was," Pollard III says, "he did so much to try to keep African-Americans out of the league. Here, Lovie Smith leads his team to the Super Bowl. But it was a different age."

Different, but in some ways, still the same. Halas took over the Decatur Staleys of the American Professional Football Association in 1921, the same year Akron Pros player-coach Pollard made history as the APFA's first black head coach. A year later, the APFA officially became the NFL, and the Staleys became the Bears.

These were football pioneers, but it was Pollard -- a player so gifted that he was the first black man to play in the Rose Bowl and only the second black player to be selected to an All-American team -- who was eventually excluded from the NFL. He wasn't alone, of course. UCLA's Kenny Washington, whom Jackie Robinson would later call the greatest football player he'd ever seen, wasn't even selected in the 1940 NFL draft. The exclusionary "gentleman's agreement," if you can call something as disgraceful as discrimination "gentlemanly," would last another six years.

Halas didn't draft a black player until 1949, when the Bears selected Indiana's George Taliaferro in the 13th round (he never played for the Bears). In 1952, Eddie Macon became the first black player on the Bears' roster. And a year later, the Bears' Willie Thrower became the first black quarterback to appear in an NFL game.

AP PhotoGeorge Halas as he retired as coach of the Bears on May 27, 1968.
Halas is also credited with doing the then unthinkable in 1965: have a white player (Brian Piccolo) room with a black player (Gale Sayers) on the road.

But the Pollard family remains suspicious of Halas, and claims he worked for years to quash the Hall of Fame candidacy of Fritz Pollard. Halas was part of the 17-man charter class inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963. Pollard wasn't inducted into Canton until 2005 -- posthumously.

"One of the things that sort of got me, that bothered me so much was that my grandfather should have been in the founding class," says Pollard III, who attended the 2005 induction ceremony. "What I understood is that Halas was one of the ones trying to keep him out."

"Oh, yes, I had heard that down through the years," Pollard Towns says. "[Halas] did, he blocked it for a number of years."

There is no definitive proof this happened. But there also is no doubt that the relationship between Halas and Pollard was frosty, at best. In fact, at the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame cermony on Aug. 27, 2004, Pollard III says he met Wally Halas, a grandnephew of the Bears founder.

"What was it between your grandfather and [Halas]?" the grandnephew said.

"I don't know," said Pollard III. "They just didn't get along."

Fritz Pollard once told a Chicago reporter Halas was "prejudiced as hell." Halas responded that "He's a liar." Meanwhile, there was no official response to repeated requests seeking comment from either a Bears team official or Halas' daughter and majority owner Virginia McCaskey. (McCaskey was presented with the Halas Trophy after the recent NFC Championship.)

But Pollard III says the feud between Halas and Pollard wasn't apparent to him -- and likely Virginia McCaskey -- until years later.

"She is a sweet lady," says Pollard III. "She, like I, were sheltered. We didn't know what was going on. All that stuff was kept away from us. That wasn't any of her doing."

Pollard and Halas had much in common. They were separated by only a year in age and only a week in birth dates. They both were born and raised in Chicago. They were players, coaches and businessmen. And they adored football.

But now the Pollard family and the franchise that Papa Bear built share a groundbreaking legacy created by Smith and Dungy. For the Bears, it means the end of a 21-season absence from the Super Bowl. For the Pollards, and Wooten, and that bus driver, and many others, it perhaps means so much more.

"It's like a miracle. I can see dad now, shaking his head that it's finally happened. I can just see his face, see the smile on his face."
-- Eleanor Pollard Towns, Fritz Pollard's daughter
"I know that the whole city of Chicago is just bursting open -- black, white and indifferent, of course," Pollard Towns says. "Of course, our race is very proud that two of them -- I just can't believe it … this is uncanny -- are going to face each other. It's like a miracle. I can see dad now, shaking his head that it's finally happened. I can just see his face, see the smile on his face."

It's just a suggestion, but it might be nice if the NFL, or better yet, the Bears, invited Pollard Towns, older sister Leslie Keeling and Pollard III to Miami for Super Bowl XLI. After all, there is so much to talk about.

"Ooooh, I'd love it," says Pollard Towns of attending the game. "I would just love it. That would be terrific."

It would be better than that. It would be ironical.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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