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Couch to Champ
June 17, 2020 2 min read
Decades before Jackie Robinson was to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall played in the NFL as the first African Americans to do so. Fritz played halfback at Brown University as the first black athlete on the team - all while playing baseball, track and majoring in chemistry.
Fritz served as a head coach on multiple teams while he played as well - serving as player/coach and becoming the first African American head coach in the league. Fritz and several other black athletes played in the league from 1920-1928, when common thought is that blacks were banned from the sport.
In reality, there were anywhere from 2-5 black Americans in the league at any time from 1920-1933, and then zero until 1946. What happened to force a color ban in 1933?
The AFL had pressed the NFL as a new league in 1927, forcing the NFL to deal with some competition. The barriers to entry into the league for new teams were nowhere near what they are now - a pretty small entry fee to the league, and this allowed for many small market teams, mostly in the midwest. This is where the majority of the black players found a team. In 1927, the NFL kicked out a lot of these clubs from smaller Midwestern towns and focused on big cities in the East and Midwest. It concentrated the pro football talent on the remaining teams, allowing the NFL clubs that survived to feature stronger talent across the board.
Unfortunately for African-Americans, the elimination of the small market teams that had supported them almost led to a color ban in 1927. Five black players played in the NFL in 1926, but all five played for teams that folded after that season. The only thing that prevented a color ban from coming down in 1927 was the fact that Duke Slater, a four-time all-pro lineman for the Rock Island Independents from 1923-1926, was picked up by the Chicago Cardinals after his team folded. Slater, who was in the prime of his career, was not only the greatest black player of his era but one of the top NFL linemen of any race in the 1920s, so the Cardinals quickly snapped him up when Rock Island went under.
With few prospects left in the NFL, Pollard created his own teams and played barnstormer games for a while. Eventually, he switched to the media world where he became a producer in film and music. Pollard even published the New York independent News from 1935-1942. This pioneer who struggled through racism to the point where he was literally banned from making his living passed on to the next life at the old age of 88 in 1986. Rest in peace, Fritz, you'll inspire generations!
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