Who Was the First Black Football Player in NFL?

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It took more than 20 years after the formation of the National Football League (NFL) to see a black football player take part in the competition. The 1920s were a period shrouded in racial segregation but blacks were allowed into the sport.

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It was during this time that Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard played in the American Professional Football Association (APFA) which was later renamed to the NFL. This made him the first black football player in the NFL. Here’s more about him.

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Fritz Pollard’s Career

Who Was the First Black Football Player in NFL?
Fritz Pollard was the first black football player. Image Source: Wikimedia licensed CC BY 2.0

Fritz Pollard was a multitalented athlete having played baseball, track and field and football. He eventually settled for football and turned out for Harvard and Dartmouth before he got a scholarship to play for Brown University.

This is where he began writing records. He was the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl competition in 1916. After he was through college, he joined the army and studied dentistry. 

Fritz Pollard’s Football Journey Begins

In 1919, Akron Pro signed Fritz Pollard but he actually joined them the following year after his military service. Pollard returned to the game like he never left. The opposition teams had a difficult time coping with him. He was thought to be one of the fiercest running backs in the league.

Akron Pro won the championship that year. In 1921, he was a player-coach for the team and became the first African American to coach in the NFL. He did this until 1926 when he and the other African American players were banished from the league and never went back.

He moved on and started coaching teams in Wisconsin, Indiana and Milwaukee. He made efforts to integrate more African American players. Pollard started a professional football team called Brown Bombers and also worked and organised exhibition matches as a way of promoting inclusivity in the league.

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In 1937, Fritz Pollard retired from professional football to pursue personal interests. After his ground-breaking career, Pollard was the first African American to be elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1954. 

Other prestigious honours he received include:

  • 2005: Inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame
  • 2003: Included in Brown’s 125th Anniversary All-Time Team
  • 1973: Inducted into the National Black Hall of Fame
  • 1971: Inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame
  • 1967: Inducted into the R.I. Heritage Hall of Fame

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The Impact of Fritz Pollard’s Career on NFL Today 

As a pioneer of black NFL players, Fritz Pollard endured a lot of racial discrimination to create possibilities for black players today. 

So bad was it that in a statement he shared later on, he said that the game never wanted black people to earn ‘white people’s money’. The fact that he was the highest-paid player in the league in 1919 did not sit well with them.

His efforts have obviously borne fruit today as the number of black people playing in the NFL has gone up significantly. As of 2022, 56.4% of the players in the league are African American all thanks to the revolution that he started. 

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