I had to search for something in the basement this weekend and came across a dusty CD on which was written “Hall of Fame Photos.” It wasn’t for what I was looking — which was a power cord for a keyboard that I never learned to play — but it sent me down memory lane.
So here is the story about how I came to sit with the family of Fritz Pollard, just a few feet away from the stage, at the 2005 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
When I joined the League front office in 2000, I was excited that Executive Director Jeff Orleans had initiated an annual black history month celebration and I was determined to expand it and deliver it to a wider audience. With the web, the second part wasn’t terribly difficult, but the research and reporting seemed to never end.
It took me four years to finally focus on Fritz Pollard, the man who might have won a Heisman Trophy when he was at Brown University (if the trophy then existed) and then became the first black player, first black quarterback and first black head coach in the NFL.
I had seen a photo of an aging Pollard receiving his College Football Hall of Fame plaque, so I wanted to dutifully report the year that he had been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The problem? He had never been inducted into the Canton shrine. Being football’s Jackie Robinson hadn’t been enough. Being, with Jim Thorpe, the biggest draw in the game hadn’t been enough. Being a trailblazing coach? Not enough.
That stuck in my crawl. My feature turned from a fluffy piece on Pollard to an indictment of the NFL and its Hall of Fame. I registered “FritzPollard.com” and commissioned my friend Dipen Shah to build, nearly pro-bono, a nice website with the photos and content I had gathered. I then emailed every NFL team, a ton of media and several Hall of Famers. I sent the website to the selection committee.
Then, in the middle of the season, I got a phone call from Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy. We chatted for a few minutes and he thanked me for putting a spotlight on Pollard and pledged to get involved in the effort. Then came an email from Kellen Winslow, the father, who told me that he was going to work his contacts. Brown Athletic Director Dave Roach shifted his interest to the Pollard cause as well and we discussed tactics a number of times.
Buoyed by that response, I decided to continue my awareness campaign with the selection committee. In fact, I had a friend on the committee whom I convinced to push for Pollard. So as the selection committee met in Miami before the Super Bowl, I got a call from my insider. “I hope you are watching ESPN News,” he told me. Of course, I was.
When the 2005 induction class was announced, Fritz Pollard was finally named. Sitting in an apartment in the middle of New Jersey, I had to fight back tears. For me, a wrong finally became a right.
Calls came in from all over, including one from Fritz Pollard III. Many thanked me and credited my efforts, yet all I had done was written a story, sent some emails, made some phone calls and put up a website.
Fritz Pollard had done all the hard work. As had John Carroll, who had written Pollard’s biography in 1998. I had just jumped on a moving train and helped it speed up a little.
Nonetheless, the folks at Brown invited me to join them at the ceremony, picking up the hotel and the tickets, and I had a memorable (and hot) weekend in Canton with current AD Michael Goldberger and his son Kevin.
Invited to the Canton Marriott for the Pollard post-induction party that evening, I was initially surprised at the turnout. That’s because I’d wandered into Steve Young’s party. The Pollard affair was in the basement.
That’s where I joined a crowd of about 100 folks — including Winslow, Art Shell, Paul Tagliabue, Paul Warfield and Brown’s own Steve Jordan — to share some drinks, some food and some justice.