Fritz Pollard ’19
At Brown and beyond, fritz Pollard led a life of firsts. When he joined the Brown football team in 1915, he was the first black player in the school’s history. He led the team to its first (and only) Rose Bowl appearance and was named the first black All-American in collegiate football history.
After graduation Pollard played with the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the NFL in 1922. He quickly took on much of the team’s coaching responsibility and was named head coach in 1923—another first for a man of color.
Such trailblazing didn’t make Pollard’s life easy, however. In an interview with the New York Times in 1978, he recalled his days in Akron: “They had some prejudiced people there,” he recalled. “I had to get dressed for games in [team owner] Frank Neid’s cigar factory. The fans booed me and called me all kinds of names. You couldn’t eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels.”
His playing career ended in 1926, but Pollard wasn’t done breaking ground. While continuing to coach semipro, college, and high school football, he founded the first African-American investment banking firm in New York City and did well until the 1929 crash. He recovered quickly and in the 1930s formed and coached an all-black, semipro team in New York City called the Brown Bombers. In 1935 he became publisher of the Independent News, the first black-owned-and-operated tabloid newspaper in Harlem. He later went on to careers in talent management and tax consulting.
Born Frederick Douglas Pollard, the man of many firsts wasn’t pleased that so many of his records went unchallenged during his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1989—three years after Pollard’s death—that Art Shell was named head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders and the NFL had its second African-American head coach.
William Almon ’75
The only Brown athlete ever selected as a number-one draft pick in any sport, Bill Almon played shortstop in the major leagues for fourteen years. Breaking in with the San Diego Padres, who drafted him in 1974, Almon hit .316 in his rookie year and stayed at the top of the Padres lineup until the team acquired Ozzie Smith. Almon went on to play for the Montreal Expos, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Phildephia Phillies. The high point of his career was his 1981 season with the White Sox, when he led American League shortstops with a .301 average.
After his 1988 retirement from baseball Almon returned to his native Rhode Island and started a construction company. The hardest part of being a major league player, he says, was spending so much time away from his family. “As I got deeper into my career I was spending a lot of time away. My kids were getting involved in activities, and I was missing those things.” In 1993 Almon returned to Brown to coach varsity baseball, but he left after three years with a 49–108 overall record.
Almon has the dubious distinction of being the only Brown athlete christened with two Chris Berman ’77 nicknames: Bill Almon “Joy” and Bill “Toasted” Almon.
Mark Donohue ’59
Mark Donohue won his first road race during his junior year as an engineering concentrator at Brown. Over the next sixteen years he became one of the best race-car drivers of his time, the winner of fifty-seven major races and a charter member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
After joining forces with Robert Penske to create the Penske Racing Team in 1966, Donohue collected a number of championships. In 1972 he won the famed Indy 500, setting an average lap-speed record that stood for the next twelve years.
After winning Daytona in 1974 Donohue retired briefly and wrote an autobiography, The Unfair Advantage. Soon he was pursuing the Formula One Grand Prix Championship, which had never been won by an American. But in August 1975 his car flipped over a barrier during a practice round in Austria; he died two days later.
“He was the finest road racer that this country has ever produced,” recalled Penske teammate Bobby Allison, “and given enough time—just one more year, maybe—he would have become America’s first world champion.”
Albina Osipowich van Aiken ’33
Even before sitting down for her first class at Pembroke, Albina Osipowich had already become one of the greatest swimmers in University history. As a seventeen-year-old student at North High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, she stunned the world in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics by setting a new world record and winning a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. She won a second gold as a member of the winning 400-meter relay team.
When Osipowich returned home to Worcester, she was greeted by a crowd of thousands, who lined the streets for a parade in her honor. The girl who had been forced to swim against the boys to find decent competition at the Lincoln Square Boys Club was eventually sent to Pembroke thanks to the generosity of her townfolk. Worcester residents raised $4,000 in scholarship money for her to attend college. Van Aiken died in 1986.
Joe Paterno ’50
When listing the records and accomplishments of Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, fans rarely mention this one: after a half-century he still holds the Brown mark for most interceptions thrown by a quarterback (fourteen). Sportswriter Stanley Woodward once described the young Bear quarterback as someone who “can’t run, can’t throw—just thinks and wins.”
Since becoming head coach at Penn State in 1966, Paterno has had one of the greatest college coaching careers ever and this year may surpass Alabama’s Bear Bryant as the all-time winningest coach of a major football college. Paterno has led his Nittany Lions to two undisputed national titles and four other undefeated seasons. He is the only coach to have won all four top bowl games: Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton.
Paterno entered Brown on an athletic scholarship after serving the final year of World War II in the U.S. Army. He later wrote that “probably because of my unimpressive height and weight, the Paterno doorstep wasn’t overrun with college scouts.” Brown gave the vertically challenged quarterback not only a chance to play; it introduced him to coach Rip Engle, who offered Paterno a job as one of his assistant coaches when Engle moved to Penn State in the early 1950s.
In an era of cynicism about big-money college athletics, Paterno is widely hailed for his emphasis on education. Dozens of his players have gone on to careers in the NFL, yet Paterno is particularly proud of his athletes’ graduation rates, which have been as high as 80 percent. In the mountains of central Pennsylvania, Paterno and his trademark thick glasses and rolled-up trousers are cultural icons, appearing on Cup of Joe coffee mugs and life-size cutouts. While speaking engagements and endorsements have made him wealthy, Paterno and his wife, Sue, have donated millions to Penn State, including a $3.5 million grant to endow faculty slots and scholarships.
“How many football coaches majored in English literature at an Ivy League school?” retired Penn State athletic director Jim Tarman, a Paterno friend since 1950, once asked. “When he sits up half the night, as he did for years, doing Xs and Os for the next day’s practice or next Saturday’s game, he always listens to opera. I think the fact that he has such a broad range of interests is one of the reasons our football program has been different.”
Steve Jordan ’82
After graduation steve Jordan was eager to put his civil engineering degree to full use, but there was always something getting in the way.
That something was a thirteen-year career in the National Football League as a tight end for the Minnesota Vikings, where the former Bruin standout caught nearly 500 passes and was named to the Pro Bowl for six consecutive years. Known to his teammates as Ivy, the 240-pound Jordan was equally capable of throwing a crippling block or catching a long touchdown pass. Yet Brown’s most successful professional athlete always seemed surprised buy his success.
“I had put in four grueling years studying and was all ready to get to work nine-to-five,” he said once. “I had my little engineering job all set up.”
Indeed, for several seasons during his pro football career, Jordan worked summers as an engineer for a Minneapolis-area construction firm, and after his football days finally petered out with a string of injuries, he moved to Phoenix, where he works as a senior project manager for the engineering firm Ryan Companies.
He had an equally strong work ethic on the football field. When the Vikings did not re-sign him after a knee injury in 1994, Jordan continued to run sprints and visit the weight room, hoping another team would call him up. While his gridiron career was fading, Jordan returned to Brown in 1993 after President Gregorian asked him to serve on the Corporation’s Board of Trustees. He has been actively involved in campus race and diversity issues ever since, donating $100,000 toward scholarships for minority students and serving most recently as a member of the Visiting Committee on Diversity, which reviewed the University’s performance over the past fourteen years on matters of race and ethnicity.
John Heisman 1891
Legend has it that John Heisman played his first football game at Brown against a group of Providence natives who gave him a black eye and a bloody nose for his efforts—an early glimmer of the toughness that made Heisman one of the greatest coaches ever.
Most football fans know Heisman from the trophy awarded annually in his name. What most don’t realize is that Heisman was single-handedly responsible for many of football’s modern innovations, especially the forward pass and the snap from center. He also devised the hand-off, the so-called “flea flicker,” and the hidden-ball trick. It was Heisman who first used the word hike.
After Brown (which Heisman left before getting a degree) he coached football over a nomadic career that spanned thirty-six years and 185 victories. A Shakespearean actor during the off-season, he was known for his language. He would tell his players that a football was “a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere—in which the outer leather casing is drawn up tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing.” After a long pause he would add: “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”