Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Papa Bear's part in NFL discrimination, and the legacy of Fritz Pollard

Pollard's legacy follows coaches to Super Bowl
By Gene Wojciechowski

You'll hear and read a lot in the next 12 days about the social and historical significance of two black head coaches -- the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy -- reaching the Super Bowl.

Maybe you'll read about the charter bus driver hired to take the Colts from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium to the airport after the Jan. 13 AFC divisional playoff win against the Ravens. As Dungy boarded the first of the four buses, the driver, an African-American, reportedly told him, "I want you to know, Coach Dungy, we are proud of you."

You'll hear from people such as former NFL player and scout John Wooten, chairman of the influential Fritz Pollard Alliance, who has worked long and hard with the league to help create more opportunities for minority coaches and aspiring front office personnel. The 70-year-old Wooten will tell you that blacks everywhere, even those only casually interested in the NFL, were pulling for Smith and Dungy last Sunday. It was like the old days, he'll say, when Joe Louis used to fight not just for himself, but for all those of color.

"It's a race pride," Wooten says from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "People get mixed up. Race pride doesn't mean racism. Race pride means being proud of what you are and what you stand for."

What you won't hear or read -- at least, not from the NFL or the Bears organization -- is the awkward history between the league and team founder George S. Halas and Pollard himself, the first black man to play and coach in the NFL. More than 20 years after each man died, their legacies remain connected.

Remember the cement block-sized piece of hardware Smith hoisted after winning the NFC championship a few days ago at Solider Field? It was the Halas Trophy, and it was held tightly by, technically speaking, the first black head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl.

"That is ironical," says 85-year-old Eleanor Pollard Towns, one of two Pollard daughters who live in the Chicago area.

Ironical, she says, because Halas was no friend of Fritz Pollard or his causes. Ironical because Halas has always been linked to the 1934 unwritten edict by NFL owners that banned black players from the league until 1946, as newspaper reports at the time detailed. And ironical, say both Pollard Towns and Fritz Pollard III (Fritz Pollard's grandson), because they believe Halas used his considerable influence to derail Pollard's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"He certainly did a lot to keep my father from going any further than he did," Pollard Towns says. "I have heard my father talk about that down through the years."

"With George Halas, as great as he was," Pollard III says, "he did so much to try to keep African-Americans out of the league. Here, Lovie Smith leads his team to the Super Bowl. But it was a different age."

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