A forgotten legacy: Jesse Owens film brings back memories of UND track star Fritz Pollard Jr.

A forgotten legacy Jesse Owens film brings back memories of UND track star Fritz Pollard Jr. By Wade Rupard Forum News Service GRAND FORKS -- Everybody seems to know the story of Jesse Owens. His story of how the African American track and field ...

Fritz Pollard Jr
UND is hoping to rename its High Performance Center after Fritz Pollard Jr. (Submitted photo)

A forgotten legacy

Jesse Owens film brings back memories of UND track star Fritz Pollard Jr.

By Wade Rupard

Forum News Service


GRAND FORKS -- Everybody seems to know the story of Jesse Owens.

His story of how the African American track and field star won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin in front of Adolph Hitler is the subject of a major motion picture, “Race,” which was released Friday.

Owens, however, wasn’t the only black athlete to win an Olympic medal in that games. In all, black athletes took home 12 medals, including UND alumnus Fritz Pollard Jr.

In that Olympics, Pollard took home a bronze medal in the 110-meter high hurdles, finishing 0.2 seconds behind the winner, who broke a world record that day.

But as history has passed, some may have forgotten the legacy of Pollard and all that he achieved, UND Assistant Athletics Director Jayson Hajdu said.

“Given the time, the era and the social issues of the time, not only what he accomplished, but when and where he accomplished it and who he accomplished it in front of, it’s extraordinary. It’s really one of the most underrated and forgotten stories of UND athletics history.”

Never one to brag


The son of Fritz Pollard Sr., the NFL’s first black head coach and a member of the College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fames, Pollard originally attended his father’s alma mater, Brown University. At Brown, Pollard ran track and set a world record in the 110-meter high hurdles.

After three semesters, Pollard decided to leave Brown and attend UND, where he excelled in both track and football.

As a halfback, he was a three-time selection to the All North Central Conference Team in football and was named to the Collier Magazine Little All-American in 1938.

In track, Pollard was set on perfecting his hurdling abilities. With no indoor facility to work out in during the winter months and few places on campus clear of snow, he would dress in his warmest clothes, go down to the railyard just south of campus and practice atop the parked boxcars, hurdling the gaps between, said Earl Strinden, a close friend of Pollard.

Hajdu said he believes Pollard is the only non-hockey medalist in school history and was a charter member of the school’s athletics hall of fame in 1975.

Though he had so much success, Strinden said Pollard was never one to brag or talk up his accomplishments. Strinden remembers the last time he saw Pollard, when the two of them were part of an alumni group who went to the Dominican Republic.

They were together in the airport, lining up to board a plane back to the States. Strinden then mentioned his friend to somebody from another school and pointed to Pollard.

“The person you’re right next to is a true American hero,” Strinden said, telling the person about Pollard winning a medal at the Berlin Olympics.


All of a sudden, word spread throughout the airport, and people began coming to Pollard, shaking his hand, taking pictures with him and asking for autographs.

“He was not a person who was in anyway pompous or one to in anyway bring attention to himself, but it really made Fritz feel awfully good,” Strinden said.

Telling his story

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

Later in life, Pollard worked for the U.S. State Department, traveling abroad and helping promote athletic involvement.

He always spoke well of UND and would come back for Alumni Days and other alumni events until his death Feb. 15, 2003, Strinden said.

“He always had a strong appreciation for the University of North Dakota,” Strinden said.

In the 1930s, few black athletes were able to compete in sports, even at the university level.  Professional baseball player Jackie Robinson wouldn’t break the color barrier until 1947. Pollard was one of UND’s first black athletes, according to Hajdu.

Going through old archives, Hajdu said he would like to think UND was ahead of its time when it came to minority opportunities, but he said he’s not going to assume it was a perfect lifestyle by any means. In old clips and materials, Hajdu said African American athletes were almost always referenced as “black,” “colored” or “negro” when referenced in materials, almost as if that qualifier had to be there.

Strinden said Pollard didn’t speak much about being a pioneer for his accomplishments at UND or in the Olympics.

“There were other conferences and other universities where if you were a black athlete, you weren’t going to be allowed on the team,” Strinden said. “You weren’t welcome. They came to the University of North Dakota, and while they were certainly isolated, they found the university was a place where they were accepted.”

Through all he accomplished, Hajdu said the university is working on ways to get Pollard’s story out and recognize his achievements.

“In my opinion, given the stage, given the stakes, given the era, it’s arguably the most impressive achievement by a UND student-athlete,” Hajdu said.

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