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The Black Knights of the NFL

Now that the biggest Sunday for football fans has come and gone, February 1st also marks the first day of Black History month.  Football, once a segregated sport, is now integrated with African American players from every walk of life.  The number of ethnic players in the NFL is also on the rise (e.g. Asians, Latinos and Pacific Americans). Considering the amount of players of color on the field past, present, and future, there still continues to be a disproportionate amount of minority players versus the number of minority general managers, owners, and head coaches.

This was written to salute the outstanding men and role models who have permeated barriers to stand up and out in the sport of American Football. First, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard.  Fritz Pollard was born in January 27, 1894 and he died on May 11, 1986.  Fritz was the first African American head coach in the National Football League.

Pictured: Fritz Pollard (Photo Credit: Alliance Foundation)

Pictured: Fritz Pollard (Photo Credit: Alliance Foundation)

Examining his life and his legacy, Fritz Pollard was not only an athlete, but he was a pioneer and prototype of what a “Black Knight” will be.   In 1915 he was awarded a Rockefeller Scholarship and he attended Brown University.  Fast and furious on the field, Fritz was 5’9” and he weighed 165 pounds.  Compared to the likes of Marshawn Lynch or DeMarco Murray, Fritz would be considered a “feather weight”.  By the end of his first season, Fritz led his team to the Rose Bowl and he was the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl.  The following year he was named “All-American”.

After college, Fritz pursued a degree in dentistry.  He worked as a director in the Army’s YMCA and he coached football at Lincoln University.  Of these three, his greatest love was football.  In 1919, he played for the Akron Pros.  In 1920 the Pros joined the newly founded American Professional Football Association.  In 1922 the APFA became what is now the NFL.  Additionally, Fritz and Bobby Marshall, were the first two African American players in the NFL.

In 1921, the Pros named Fritz co-coach for the team.  During his career Fritz played and sometimes coached four different NFL teams in Indiana and in Milwaukee until 1926 when the league ousted all black players and coaches as a means to enforce segregation. Fritz Pollard was posthumously inducted into the Football Hall of Fame on February 5 2005.

An article written by Cochran and Mehri (September, 2002) entitled “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities” stipulated that black coaches were denied the chance to compete for head coaching positions. This exposed unfair hiring procedures and by October 2002, the NFL devised a strategy to address this concern.  Each team had to interview at least one minority candidate prior to making a final selection. This became known as the “Rooney Rule”.  It was named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head of the NFL’s diversity committee at that time.

Arthur Lee Shell, Jr.  became the second African American head coach in the history of the NFL, and the first hired in the sport’s modern era.  Coach Shell is also credited as being the first to be employed under the “Rooney Rule”.   In 1989 Art was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame as an offensive tackle.

Pictured: Tony Dungy (Photo Credit:  Patrick Coffee;  PRNewser

Pictured: Tony Dungy (Photo Credit: Patrick Coffee; PRNewser

In 2007, Tony Dungy became the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.  Coach Dungy was the first head coach to defeat all 32 teams in the NFL.  At age 25 he was the youngest assistant coach. At age 28 he was the youngest coordinator.  When he retired, Coach Dungy became one of three men to ever win a Super Bowl ring as a head coach and as a player.  Dungy is a semifinalist for the Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015.

Pictured: Mike Tomlin (Photo Credit: Chase Stuart; footballperspective.com)

Pictured: Mike Tomlin (Photo Credit: Chase Stuart; footballperspective.com)

Mike Tomlin became the second African American head coach and youngest head coach to lead his teamto victory in a Super Bowl.  He became the tenth African American head coach to be hired by the NFL and the first African American head coach hired by the Steelers.

The new head coach for the Jets is Todd Bowles.  Coach Bowles is the second African-American head coach in the Jets’ history following Herm Edwards, who was the head coach for the Jets from 2001 to 2005. The hiring of Bowles gives the NFL five African-American head coaches; Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) Jim Caldwell (Detroit), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), and Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati).  All are considered “Black Knights of the NFL”.

References:

(* “Pollard Set Records as Black Football player, Coach.” The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, 2/27/72 Section E: 5. & Wikipedia.)

(*Tony Dungy’s Biography. Indiana Colts website).

(*Football Hall of Fame website)

(*The Shadow League.Com)

(*”Tomlin proof NFL’s Rooney Rule is working as intended”. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: 9/15/07)

(*www.steelers.com)

 

About the Author

School Psychologist and School Administrator by day. Wife and mother of two teens at night.

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