March 21, 2010
On March 21, 1946 the Rams, newly moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, signed former star UCLA tailback Kenny Washington to a contract. More than adding a player to the roster, the significance was that he was black, and no African-American had played in the NFL since 1933. By the time the ’46 season got underway, Washington would have a black teammate and the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC) would have two African-American players.
Between 1920 and 1933, there had been a total of 13 African-American players in the NFL. They included Paul Robeson, a former Rutgers All-American who played end and tackle with Akron (1921) and Milwaukee (1922) and who is far better remembered for his career as an entertainer and political activist. They also included tackle Duke Slater, who played for ten seasons and received second team All-Pro recognition after six of them, and Fritz Pollard, a 1920 All-Pro back who co-coached the Akron Pros in 1921 and, for at least one game, the Hammond Pros in 1925.
But after 1933, when tailback Joe Lillard played for the Chicago Cardinals and tackle Ray Kemp for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were no black players in the league. The color line was apparently unofficial and, for years afterward, unacknowledged, but was certainly real.
Washington had been a huge star as a college tailback, coincidentally enough in the same backfield with Jackie Robinson, who would integrate major league baseball in 1947. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, he had the necessary size as well as speed for pro football, and also, in those days when versatility was far more essential, could pass and kick. When he first came out of UCLA in 1940, he drew interest from the Chicago Bears, but nothing came of it. Thus, he was relegated to playing in the Pacific Coast Football League, where he injured both knees.
By 1946, Washington was a 28-year-old back with two bad knees. However, the commission that operated the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the newly-relocated Rams would be playing, insisted that he be given a tryout. In May, 31-year-old end Woody Strode, who had also come out of UCLA, was also signed, thus giving the Rams two black players going into the season.
With the condition of Washington’s knees a significant question mark, Head Coach Adam Walsh initially used him at quarterback, with unimpressive results. He was shifted to fullback, where he played well until reinjuring a knee. His numbers in 1946 were thus limited – 114 yards on 23 carries (although that resulted in a healthy 5.0 average yards per rush), six pass receptions for 83 yards, and one completion in eight passing attempts for 19 yards. However, he had a much better year in 1947, gaining 444 yards on 60 carries for a formidable 7.4 average gain and that included a 92-yard touchdown run, the longest in the NFL that season. He played one more season in ’48 and ended up with a career total of 859 yards on 140 rushes (6.1 yards per carry) with 8 touchdowns while catching 15 passes for 227 yards and a TD.
Woody Strode played one season with the Rams, catching four passes for 37 yards, before moving north to Canada. The two African-American players in the AAFC, FB Marion Motley and G Bill Willis(pictured at right), had greater impact. They were key players with the Browns, who dominated the league in all four of its seasons before moving to the NFL. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The process of integrating pro football was slow, with the AAFC initially outperforming the NFL. By 1949, the rival league, with seven teams, had 11 black players while the NFL had five spread across 10 clubs. However, as more of the African-American players had a significant impact, the process moved along – not always evenly or easily. But it started with Kenny Washington and three other players breaking pro football’s color line in 1946.