Remembering Fritz Pollard Jr.’s Olympic legacy

UND’s first Black athlete in football, track and boxing achieved Olympic greatness in 1936

Alongside Olympic legend Jesse Owens, then-UND student Fritz Pollard Jr. was among the Black athletes on the U.S. Olympic team who took home a total of 12 medals during the 1936 Summer Games. In his years at UND, Pollard Jr. was a standout athlete and the first Black member of the football, track and boxing teams.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story appeared in UND’s University Letter in 2016.

Eighty-five years ago, the world was on the brink of another war in Europe that would spread across the globe.

One of the main instigators of that eventual conflict was “Der Fuhrer,” Adolph Hitler, who, in early August 1936, was preparing a massive stage to showcase a resurgent Germany – risen from the ash heap of World War I – poised to flex its muscle and newfound swagger for all to see.

That stage was the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Hitler had amassed an army of German athletes – men and women – who optimized his Aryan vision of pure white racial superiority.  The idea, at least in the minds of Nazi elite, was that this master race of athletes would dominate the games and advertise Germany’s looming foothold in a new order of nations.

One problem, at least for Hitler: A young  black man by the name of Jesse Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, was destined to alter the German dictator’s grand plan with an athletic display that, in the words of ESPN writer Larry Schwartz, “singlehandedly crushed [the] myth of Aryan supremacy.”

Owens would go on to win gold medals in four track and field events at the 1936 Games: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x 100 relay – all under the disapproving gaze of Der Fuhrer.

Legacy of firsts

But this story isn’t just about Owens.

Owens was not the only black athlete on the U.S. men’s track and field team in Berlin. In fact, there were seven other athletes of color on the 25-member squad, including University of North Dakota alumnus Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard Jr.

Pollard left a legacy no one would soon forget in his years at UND. He was the school’s first black athlete — a triple threat when it came to sports — in football, track and boxing.

Pollard was born on Feb. 18, 1915, in Springfield, Mass. He was the son of Fritz Pollard Sr., who also held a few “first” designations, one of which was as a pioneering black athlete at Brown University in Providence, R.I. There he played halfback and led the Brown Bears football team to the 1916 Rose Bowl (the first black athlete to play in the Rose Bowl).

The elder Pollard would later become the first black football coach and quarterback in the then fledgling National Football League. He was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 in Canton, Ohio.

And in 1936, while the world was fixated on Jesse Owens at the Olympics, the younger Pollard was poised to make UND proud with a strong showing of his own. Despite the fact that Pollard had only run hurdles in a total of five meets before competing in the Olympics, he took home a bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles that year.

By the time of the closing ceremonies, Pollard, Owens and the other black athletes had won 12 medals, putting Hitler in an embarrassing position.

While at UND, Pollard excelled in football, picked All North Central Conference in 1937 and 1938, and was a Collier’s Magazine Little All-America selection in football in 1938. UND’s High Performance Center will now be named in his honor.

UND years

Before coming to UND, Pollard excelled at track and academics at Senn High School in his father’s native Chicago. Later, he would follow his father’s footsteps to Brown, where he continued his success on the track, equaling the then-world-record in the high hurdles.

Circa 1935, Pollard left Brown after three semesters and eventually enrolled at UND. It about this time, prior to the 1936 Games in Berlin, that he was selected to join his close friend Owens on the 1936 U.S. Olympics Track and Field team.

While at UND, Pollard excelled in football. He was chosen All North Central Conference in 1937 and 1938, and was a Collier’s Magazine Little All-America selection in football in 1938.

As for track, in order to train during the long Grand Forks winter, Pollard was known to wear thick layers under his sweat suit and would run atop the train boxcars that lined the southern edge of the UND campus, hurdling the gaps between, because this was one of the few places he could train that was kept clear of snow.

Pollard also was a member of UND’s varsity boxing squad.

Loyal alum

Besides athletics, Pollard was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, vice president of his graduating class and vice president of the UND Chapter of the Blue Key club.

Pollard graduated from UND with a bachelor’s degree in education and later earned a law degree from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He served in the U.S. Army as a special services officer during World War II.

After the war, Pollard held numerous jobs, ranging from a physical education teacher to a real estate broker in Chicago. He eventually became a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. State Department, overseeing U.S. educational institutions abroad. He retired from the position in 1981.

Throughout the years, Pollard remained loyal to his alma mater as a member of the Old Main Society, a UND Foundation philanthropic club. In 1986, he was honored during UND’s Homecoming parade and football game, and received UND’s highest alumni award — the Sioux Award — that same year.

Pollard died on Feb. 15, 2003, in Washington, D.C.