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Black History Month: Fritz Pollard Smashed Barriers and Became the NFL's First African-American Head Coach


This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Fritz Pollard.

Fritz Pollard, the NFL's first African-American head coach, was a true pioneer of the sport. 

Along with becoming the league's first African-American head coach, he also was its first African-American quarterback (1923) and first African-American to play on a championship team (1920). 

A standout athlete at Brown University, Pollard also qualified for the 1916 Olympics in Berlin for the low hurdles, but the games were cancelled after the outbreak of World War I. 

At Brown, Pollard led the Bears to their first and only Rose Bowl appearance. He subsequently became the first black running back to ever be selected for the All-American team. Despite his accomplishments in football, he was hardly immune to the discrimination African-Americans faced—including before that 1916 Rose Bowl. From the SI Vault

They had reservations at a hotel in Pasadena, but upon their arrival, the desk clerk announced that the hotel had space for everyone except Pollard. This wasn't the first time the team had encountered such prejudice. On the train coming out, Pollard hadn't been allowed to sit with his teammates in the dining car. At the hotel, Assistant Coach Bill Sprackling demanded to see the manager. When the clerk refused, Sprackling pounded on the desk bell and shouted, "If there isn't a room for Fritz Pollard, none of us wants one." The manager appeared, and Pollard got a room.

Pollard then signed with the NFL's Akron Pros, whom he led to a championship in his rookie season. He became their player-coach the following season. 

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He wasn't just a star football player and coach. Pollard established the New York Independent News, the first weekly black tabloid. He founded the first African-American investment firm: F.D. Pollard and Co. He managed the Suntan Movie Studio in Harlem. He founded two coal delivery companies in Chicago and New York. He became a tax consultant. He was a theater agent, booking African-Americans in clubs across New York City. 

His legacy lives on with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an initiative that promotes the hiring of minority candidates across professional football. 

From the SI Vault:

"For Brown, The Wrong Shoe Was On The Foot In The '16 Rose Bowl Game," by Frank Bianco (Nov. 24, 1980)

More Black History Month Pioneers:
* Florence Griffith Joyner Smashed Records and Stereotypes
* Remembering Satchel Paige, Maybe The Best Pitcher To Ever Live
* Paul Robeson Was America's Quintessential Renaissance Man