NFL pioneer Fritz Pollard's life story more relevant than ever

"Fritz Pollard: A Forgotten Man", directed and produced by NFL Network senior producer Anthony Smith, will be screened virtually at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 18. The documentary will be followed immediately (6 p.m. ET) by a town hall discussion -- hosted by the NAACP, in collaboration with the NFL -- featuring current and former football players and coaches, which will focus on the role of sports leagues and athletes in dismantling structural inequalities. RSVP at naacp.org.

In May of last year, I was wrapping up another busy day at the office. My short documentary on the late, great Nipsey Hussle was in its early stages, and most of my time was consumed with producing content for our celebration of the NFL's 100th season. My dance card was full ... or so I thought.

That's when I was presented with an opportunity that I could not turn down: A chance to tell the story of one of the first black players and first black head coach in NFL history, Fritz Pollard.

Growing up on military bases around the world, my parents made sure my brother, sister and I were taught about black history, including some people and events that were not so well known. Charles Drew and Garrett A. Morgan? Check. Bessie Coleman and Madam C.J. Walker? Check. The massacres in Rosewood and Tulsa? Check. Yet, Fritz Pollard was a name that escaped our lessons. I didn't learn about him until I began working for the NFL in 2005. Upon his posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame that same year, I found myself going down a rabbit hole to find out who this forgotten man was.

A star player at the league's inception in 1920? A head coach of white players at a time when a black person could be lynched for even looking at a white person the wrong way? I felt like I was reading a series of typos. How could this be real? I read every article about him I could find, eager to understand how Fritz was able to make history. It was as if I were studying for an exam that was never going to come.

Well, 14 years later, that test came.

When the head of our department, Dallas Hitchcock, presented the Fritz project as part of our content around the NFL's centennial, I said "yes" before he even finished the pitch. Although my enthusiasm for the undertaking was high, I immediately recognized the challenges of telling Fritz's story, the most prominent being creating a film that would resonate with younger audiences despite having limited footage of his playing career.

Early on when we were considering how to tell this story, we decided we wanted a former player to serve in the documentary as the guide on the journey to discover who Fritz Pollard was, with that player traveling around the country to various locations pivotal to Fritz's life, learning about Fritz along the way. The former player who quickly rose to the top of the list for this assignment was our NFL Network colleague, Nate Burleson.

Nate's contribution to this project cannot be overstated. His infectious personality, natural inquisitiveness and appreciation of history all made him ideal for this role. And his talent as an interviewer allowed many interviewees to open up about the issue of race -- a subject that is as difficult to talk about as any. It was humbling to hear members of the NFL family like Jim Brown, Tony Dungy, Warren Moon, Art Rooney II, Art Shell, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and current Commissioner Roger Goodell discuss Fritz, his legacy, and the topic of race.

I couldn't help but think there was no better way to conclude the celebration of the NFL's 100th anniversary than to return to the beginning and tell a forgotten story from Year 1. Every black player, coach, executive and employee at the NFL owes a debt to Fritz Pollard, and I felt a unique responsibility as one of the few black storytellers (producer-directors) at NFL Media to share the story of his life with our fans.

Before I continue, let that sink in. Nearly 100 years after Fritz became the NFL's first black head coach, African Americans constitute roughly 70 percent of the players on NFL rosters, but only a handful of African American storytellers exist in the league's employ to tell their stories. As one of my mentors, Brian Lockhart, used to say repeatedly, "storytellers matter." Let me add to that phrase: black storytellers matter.

As we witness the seemingly constant deluge of video of unarmed black men and women subjected to police brutality, Fritz's story -- one of challenging social norms, and hope and progress in the face of the longest odds -- is more relevant now than ever. Change happens because people and institutions are willing to challenge the status quo, often at the expense of their own well-being. Fritz is a shining example of that, and the impact one person can make.

While we receive daily evidence of the injustice that still exists, America IS a story of progress. We are just 155 years removed from slavery in this country. My parents were born in the South in 1956, when Jim Crow was the law of that region. My daughters were born in the first decade of the 21st century, when the U.S. elected its first black president. That is progress. But progress is not always measured in a straight line. There's still so much more work to be done. For all those protesting against the racism that is embedded in this country and the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd -- that's what they are saying. That's what we are saying: We have a long way to go.

This is evident in our own league, where 100 years after Fritz made history, we have just three black head coaches.

Despite the challenges, I'm hopeful. We probably won't get to where we need to be in my lifetime. My daughters might not see the end of this road in their lifetimes. But this country will get there -- as long as we collectively keep moving forward. And as long as we are all willing to be agents of change like Fritz Pollard.

It was one of the great honors of my career to tell his story. It was one I had to tell.

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