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Lane Tech High School football field

Fritz Pollard Field at Lane Stadium will have its official renaming during Lane Tech’s homecoming this fall semester.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? Fritz Pollard Field at Lane Tech High School Stadium

In September, students at Lane Technical High School will have their first homecoming game since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and on Oct. 1 there will be another long-awaited homecoming, when the CPS high school memorializes a distinguished graduate of 1912.

The school’s football field will be renamed for Frederick Douglass Pollard, who went by the name Fritz. Pollard, who was Black, played three sports at Lane: baseball, track and football. When he went on to Brown University in Rhode Island, football became his primary sport, and he became a trailblazer. Pollard was a founding player and coach in the NFL, and the first Black coach of a professional football team. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pollard is “an unsung hero,” said Michelle Weiner, the executive director of Lane Tech’s alumni association. “Fritz Pollard started playing professional football the year Jackie Robinson was born. We all know Jackie Robinson’s story” of integrating professional baseball in 1947, “but not many people know that Fritz Pollard integrated football in 1919.” 

Pollard didn’t play in the present-day Lane Tech stadium. When he was a Lane student, the campus was at Division and Sedgwick. The Lane stadium opened in 1941, almost 30 years after Pollard graduated, after he had retired from football. And to be clear: It’s not the stadium but the playing field itself that’s being renamed. That’s a matter of CPS policy.

Yet “it’s time Fritz Pollard was honored,” Weiner said. The effort to rename the stadium has been going in fits and starts since the 1990s, but picked up speed in the past few years. It was approved last spring by school authorities and was to have been made official at the Sept. 10 homecoming game. It was pushed back to Oct. 1 to keep from interfering with students’ first homecoming after the pandemic.

Raised in Rogers Park, Pollard was the seventh of eight children. Among his siblings were one of the first Black movie producers in America and the first Black woman to graduate from Northwestern University. There’s a plaque honoring the family in front of the Lunt Avenue house that the Pollards owned for 90 years, until 1976, and a push to rename the park next door for them.

Fritz Pollard is the only Black athlete in pictures of his track and football teams at Lane Tech. When he got to Brown, Pollard said more than half a century later in a newspaper interview, he showed up to join the team, but he was told there were no more uniforms. The coach found him and asked if he was the younger brother of Leslie Pollard, who played so well for Dartmouth that he was called “the Black Whirlwind.” When Fritz said yes and explained about the lack of a uniform, the coach ordered the team to give Pollard a uniform.

Playing for the Brown Bears, Pollard became the first Black athlete to play in the Rose Bowl, and the next season he led the Bears to an 8-0 season. National news wires carried a story describing Fritz Pollard as “the football star of the 1915 season,” saying he “is extremely fast and his head and foot work is something marvelous.”

Pollard left Brown to serve in World War I and afterward began coaching at Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. In 1919, he was recruited to play running back for the Akron Indians in a startup professional football league, the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the NFL. He was one of two Black players in the league.

As the coach of the renamed Akron Pros in 1920, Pollard was the first Black coach of a professional football team. He continued to play on the team while coaching. The Akron Pros were so good — league champions in 1920 — that George Halas, coach of the Decatur Staleys, proposed the two teams play each other in Chicago on Dec. 12.

The game ended in a tie, and Pollard recalled that Halas iced him out in the future. After “using” the winning Akron Pros to elevate his Staleys, according to Pollard, Halas the next year, after moving the team to Chicago, refused to let the team play Akron unless it dropped Pollard. And the following year, when Pollard was coaching the Milwaukee Badgers, he said Halas did the same thing.

Pollard came back to Chicago in 1928 and founded the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-Black team that lasted until 1932. He moved to New York, and in 1935 the founder of a new all-Black team, the Brown Bombers, recruited him to coach. Facing increasing difficulty in getting white teams to play against the Bombers, Pollard left after the 1937 season.

Pollard went into other businesses, including newspaper publishing, a talent agency and film and music publishing before he died in 1986 at age 92.

Naming the Lane football field after Pollard now is not only giving a man who broke through boundaries his due, but, said Weiner, a chance “to give students somebody to look up to, show them what it was like to be a champion in several ways.”

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.

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