Throughout the month of February, NESN and Berkshire Bank are proud to celebrate Black History Month — honoring the many accomplishments and achievements of African-Americans in New England sports. To see all the great stories celebrated on NESN, visit NESN.com/BlackHistoryMonth.
In September 2020, during the New England Patriots’ season opener against the Miami Dolphins, Bill Belichick sported a small white patch on the crown of his blue visor.
It featured the name of one of the NFL’s earliest pioneers: Fritz Pollard.
Pollard was one of the NFL’s first two Black players, debuting in 1920 for the Akron Pros in what then was called the American Professional Football Association. He was All-Pro at running back and led his team to a league championship. One year later, he became a player/coach for Akron, making him the NFL’s first Black head coach.
Before beginning his professional career, Pollard was the first Black man to play football at Brown University, which he helped propel to a Rose Bowl appearance in 1915. He later went on to play for and/or coach several other NFL teams — including the Rhode Island-based Providence Steam Roller in 1925 — before the league segregated in the early 1930s, informally banning Black players.
During that period — which ended when Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 — Pollard spearheaded a pair of barnstorming, all-Black independent teams, the Chicago Black Hawks and the Harlem Brown Bombers, the latter of which folded in 1938.
“I did everything I could to open the doors and make it easier for (Black players),” Pollard said in a 1970 interview. “When I organized that Brown Bomber team, and there weren’t any Black boys in the pro leagues, I did that deliberately to show them that these teams could play against a whole Black team and not have any trouble or any prejudice, and could draw a good crowd.”
Pollard was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and was posthumously enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. He died in 1986, but his legacy lives on through the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which was founded in 2003 to champion Black NFL coaches, scouts and executives.
The FPA oversees the Rooney Rule, which has come under scrutiny of late, as the league’s number of Black head coaches has dwindled. It also recognizes coaches and teams for their commitment to diversity, honoring Belichick with its Game Ball award in 2019.
“What (Pollard) did,” Belichick said in 2020, “the courage that he showed as a player in the NFL and then later as a player/coach, and then later as — when he left the NFL and then after the NFL banned all black players in I think it was 1934, he continued to work with professional football teams, all-black teams and have them compete and they did very well. They just weren?t in the National Football League.
“So, really honored to have worn this (patch), and I appreciate the opportunity to recognize Fritz Pollard for all he’s done and what now continues as an award that’s given out and recognition that’s given out for people that have done things along the lines of what he represented and what he worked so hard for.”