With Super Bowl LVII taking place in metro Phoenix on February 12, many football-related events also were held here. A special luncheon to recognize diversity in the sport of football was held on February 9 at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Phoenix. The Fritz Pollard Alliance presented the 18th annual Johnnie L. Cochran Salute to Excellence Awards to six athletes who exemplify the theme of “Black Resistance: Building Bridges, Navigating Barriers.”
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Vice-President Ricardo Leonard, Council Representative Jacob Butler and the Bird Singing and Dancing by the River group attended the luncheon.
“Today, we are going to honor six extraordinary individuals and organizations who, in their own way, embody the spirit of Fritz Pollard,” said Kimberley A. Martin, NFL reporter for ESPN. Pollard was one of the first two African Americans to play in the NFL, in 1920. “Mr. Pollard’s intellect and determination [helped propel him] from being an undersized but phenomenal [player] for the NFL Akron Pros to becoming the team’s head coach in 1921, making Pollard the league’s first African American head coach. Now just think about that, 1921. It surely was a different time.”
She said, “The [Fritz Pollard Alliance] plays a consequential role in ensuring qualified Black candidates and other minorities receive a fair shot at maximizing their potential as part of one of the most popular sports in America.”
At the luncheon, Leonard gave a land acknowledgement and then performed a traditional song. “We would like to thank the [Fritz Pollard Alliance] for allowing us to do this, that we have been acknowledged as the first people in [this] area,” said Leonard.
He continued, “It is vitally important to acknowledge that the land we live and work on is the homeland of the Native people who have inhabited this landscape for millennia and continue to be spiritually connected to the land.” He added that two distinct tribes, the Akimel O’otham and Piipaash, inhabit what is now the Phoenix metropolitan area, and their traditional homelands stretch south to Baja California.
Later in the luncheon, the Bird Singing and Dancing by the River group took to the stage to perform a series of songs and dances. Afterward, the six awards were presented.
The Collegiate Award (the Fritz Pollard Trophy) was presented to Deslin Alexandre, defensive end for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. Alexandre was given the prestigious award for showing good character on and off the field and for engaging with the community.
The John B. Wooten Award went to the San Francisco 49ers, who were recognized for their efforts to diversify their organization.
The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) received the Paul J. Tagliabue Award in recognition of their work to continuously diversify the league in both gender and racial representation.
In recognition of exceptional performance of an individual, the two Salute to Excellence Awards went to Leslie Frazier, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, and Perry Fewell, senior vice president of officiating administration for the NFL.
Finally, the FPA’s highest award, the Daniel M. Rooney Lifetime Achievement Award, was presented to Kevin Demoff, Chief Operating Officer of the Los Angeles Rams, “for his dedication and long-term meritorious history to improve the workplace surrounding the game of football.”
Accepting the award, Demoff stated, “It is a tremendous honor to receive the Dan Rooney Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fritz Pollard Alliance and to be associated with two legends who helped transform the NFL in Dan Rooney and Fritz Pollard. This is a crucial time to advocate for more access to opportunity and equity in our game, and I am grateful to the Fritz Pollard Alliance for their commitment to and leadership in this work.”