SI Vault
Daniel Coyle
December 15, 2003
In the 1930s, when black players were barred from the NFL, an enterprising former halfback joined with a numbers kingpin to create a powerful team in Harlem
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December 15, 2003

Invisible Men

In the 1930s, when black players were barred from the NFL, an enterprising former halfback joined with a numbers kingpin to create a powerful team in Harlem

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He was 38 years old, alone and nearly broke. His securities business in Chicago had gone belly-up, and angry creditors were baying for his hide. He was drinking too much; his marriage was in shambles. Even his hometown newspaper The American had turned on him, unable to resist mentioning that he "showed a burst of his old speed when he vanished from the Stockyard Court where he was to face a rubber check charge."

All of which would have been more tolerable if he hadn't tumbled from such princely heights. Wasn't he Frederick Douglass Pollard, All-America, the man who, like his renowned namesake, was living proof that strength of character could trump skin color? Wasn't he the one who a Pennsylvania sportswriter had said was "as easy to catch as a bolt of lightning, and as easily held"?

His life story could have been a fable: how the fourth son of a Civil War drummer had risen from practice-field outcast to become one of the most famous football players in the land. How, as a 5'7", 160-pound halfback for Brown University, he'd conquered mighty Yale and Harvard on consecutive Saturdays in 1916, gaining 561 yards of total offense, scoring three touchdowns and causing football's own Zeus, former Yale coach Walter Camp, to call him "one of the greatest runners I've ever seen." How he was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, then entered the professional ranks, quarterbacking the Akron Pros to the first NFL championship and helping to coach the team a year later. How he went on to found F.D. Pollard and Company, one of the nation's first black-run securities firms, and lived a Gatsbyesque life complete with chauffeur. How, despite that, he held little regard for money. (As the family saying went, Fritz never held a dollar long enough to warm it up.) What Pollard wanted, and what he'd achieved to an remarkable degree, was to be one of what he called "the top people."

His great skill, like that of the fictional Gatsby, was friendship. People who met Pollard invariably described him as if he were a work of art—"lovely" or "beautiful"—for that is what he meant to be. He worked at it, just as he worked on his cross-step, building a personality designed to turn potential enemies into fierce pals. "Melting," Pollard called the process: applying the heat of his smile, his graciousness and his impeccable manners to whatever ice the world set in his path.

But in Pollard's day there were obstacles that weren't susceptible to his charm, according to John M. Carroll's excellent biography, Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement. There were the rocks and shotgun pellets that shattered the windows of his Pennsylvania Coal League team's train car; the opposing pro players who attempted to blind him by rubbing his face in the lime sideline; and the Ohio fans who were so enraged by his presence that Pollard was forced to forgo pregame warmups, don his uniform in a nearby cigar shop and run onto the field just before kickoff—and that was at home games. But in each case Pollard simply kept going, not dwelling on the insults or the ironies (which began with the fact that he was a quarter white) but instead darting on to the next possibility, to the next sliver of daylight.

The Depression, however, stopped him cold. In the early '30s his securities business imploded. Pollard became unreliable; he took to drinking, began straying from his marriage. He would show up at his home past midnight, his three children listening as he wept and begged his wife for forgiveness, only to leave again a few days later. One time, after staying out all night, he showed up at his son Fritz's first football game at Chicago's Senn High School, circling the fieldside track in his Stutz Bearcat, then walking onto the field at halftime to instruct his mortified boy on the art of the open-field tackle. And when it all ended that December night—his wife shoving a pile of his wet shirts at him and slamming the front door in his face—Pollard decided to head East.

Once in Manhattan, he checked into a downtown hotel and spent a few days walking around, trying to scare up some work. He had plenty of contacts in the city, but everywhere he got the same response: Times are tough. Finally he decided to take a chance—after all, what was there left to lose? Pollard shined his shoes, combed his hair with glycerin and water, and headed toward the stone colonnades of the Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway, to pay a visit to one of the world's richest men.

Pollard had met John D. Rockefeller Jr. at Brown, where the billionaire (and onetime Brown football manager) had been so impressed by him that he helped young Fritz with school expenses. Pollard had attempted to see Rockefeller in 1918, presumably to get some postcollege financial support, and had been rebuffed. There was no reason to believe this visit would have a different outcome, but for Pollard a friend once was a friend forever. Rockefeller never spoke about whatever business he and Pollard transacted that winter day, but in the years that followed, Pollard would always carry a canceled check for his $29,000 repayment of a loan from Rockefeller, as proof of a friendship that had lasted.

Within a few days Pollard had checked out of his hotel and moved uptown to a spacious apartment in fashionable Sugar Hill, where his neighbors would soon include Duke Ellington. Looking out at the wide boulevards, breathing the north Harlem air, Pollard set himself to the task of starting a new life.

That winter, in February 1933, nine men sat in a jungle of potted ferns in the recesses of a Pittsburgh hotel, feeling trapped. The group included George Halas of the Chicago Bears, Tim Mara of the New York Giants and Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers. They were all businessmen, moderately rich, gamblers by nature and vocation, and at the time they were convinced that they'd made a terrible bet.

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