Ed Driscoll

NFL Preseason Starts This Weekend

The 2005 NFL season–or at least its preseason–gets under way this weekend, with two preseason games to kick things off. On Sunday is the American Bowl, featuring Indianapolis versus Atlanta, playing in Japan’s Tokyo Dome. (Players hate the umpteen hour flights across the Pacific, along with the ensuing jetlag and disruption to their internal clocks, which is why Edgerrin James, the Colts’ superstar running back threatened not to play.)

And Monday is the Hall of Fame game, pitting Chicago against Miami, and the return of the Dolphins’ prodigal halfback, Ricky Williams.

The Hall of Fame is also where 1920s quarterback Benny Friedman will be inducted posthumously, along with two modern, and very much living counterparts at that same position, Dan Marino and Steve Young. AP notes that also joining them posthumously in enshrinement in Canton this weekend will be Fritz Pollard, the NFL’s first black head coach:

Frederick Douglass Pollard, named for the famous black abolitionist, stood 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, yet starred at Brown University before turning professional. The two-time All-American halfback became the first black player in the Rose Bowl in 1916.

The Chicago native served in World War I and in 1919 he joined the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League, which was renamed the American Professional Football Association the next year. He led Akron to the championship in 1920 and became the first black coach in NFL history when he played and served as co-coach in 1921.

The APFA was renamed the NFL in 1922.

Pollard was fast and powerful, and one of the main draws in the league’s infancy.

“He was a very rugged individual. … He was excellent in track. He was a pretty good basketball (player), he was good at baseball. He was just almost a natural athlete,” said John M. Carroll, a history professor at Lamar University and the author of the book “Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement.”

“Even though he was small, I think he had incredibly good talents of speed and also agility.”

He needed all of his athletic ability to survive in the league’s early days because of his race and size. To prevent pile-ons, Pollard would spin on his back and stick his knees and cleats in the air after he was tackled, said Fritz Pollard III, one of his grandsons who has lobbied for years for his induction into the Hall of Fame.

“In that era, just to play, you had to be tough,” the grandson said. “These guys, they had a regular job. This wasn’t their full-time job. They had a job and they would go out there and this was like a weekend thing to pick up extra money for something that they loved.”

Pollard played and at times coached for four NFL teams until 1926. After his NFL career, he organized all-black teams that played all over the country into the mid-1930s in an effort to get the NFL to sign more black players. It is believed there were no black players in the league from 1934-46.

Pollard, who died in 1986 at age 92, also was a successful businessman. He owned a Harlem music studio where artists such as Duke Ellington rehearsed. He also served as an entertainment agent and ran a tabloid newspaper.

“There wasn’t too many things he wasn’t involved in,” Carroll said. “He was usually pretty good at all of them.”

To commemorate his efforts in football, the Black Coaches Association has named its award given to the college or professional coach of the year after him, and the Fritz Pollard Alliance was established in 2003 to promote minority hiring in the NFL. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was the one honor that eluded him, said Pollard III, 50, who will present his grandfather for induction on Sunday.