LOS ANGELES — There is a lot going on in the NFL shop at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There’s a section for Los Angeles Rams gear, Cincinnati Bengals gear, a place to customize your own gear, places for memorabilia such as autographed helmets and portraits, and a DJ. At the entrance of that NFL shop, take an immediate left and walk to the end of the shop. That’s where the DJ booth is as well as a section titled Origins, an NFL Collection.
Take a squat and there’s a row of t-shirts with a Black man in a leather helmet on the front. Flip the $48 t-shirt around and you’ll see that person is the late Kenny Washington, running back for the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1940s. Washington is one of four Black men who re-integrated professional football in 1946, and the first of those four to sign. The other four were his teammate, and best friend, Willy Strode, and in the upstart All-American Football Conference Marion Motley and Bill Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns. Fritz Pollard was the league’s first Black player, and coach, but there was a 12 year span from 1933-45 in which there was an agreement amongst owners to have no Black players on their roster.
Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946. That was one year before his backfield mate at UCLA, Jackie Robinson, signed his Major League contract with MLBs Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking that color barrier. Washington took the field for the Rams in August of 1946, nine months before Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers. When Robinson received a contract from the Dodgers, he received a congratulatory phone call from Washington.
“I’m told when [Robinson] signed my father called him up and said, ‘How does it feel to be the first negro in the pro league?’” Karin Washington Cohen, Washington’s daughter told Deadspin. “Jackie told him, about the way it felt for you last year when you did it.’”
During a time when sports were mostly consumed either in person or by radio broadcast — the first televised World Series was Robinson’s rookie season of 1947 when the New York Yankees defeated the Dodgers in seven games — NFL football was far behind Major League Baseball as America’s favorite sport.
Because of that, Washington’s first game with the Rams was not treated with the same reverence, even though he suffered many of the same indignities as Robinson. People would stomp on his hands, rub the paint that marked the yard lines in his eyes, and the coaches would keep him on the field on defense to keep him away from his other teammates who mostly did not care for him. That is on top of the great indignity of being the best player in college football in 1939 and having no chance at going to the NFL. Instead his knees were already worse for wear, and he only played three seasons for the Rams before having to leave the game. Outside of a few flashes of brilliance, like a 92-yard touchdown run against the Chicago Cardinals, on the biggest professional stage, he never got to display why those who saw him in his prime say he was one of the greatest football players of all time.
In Los Angeles, Washington was a star. He was always the life of the party. People there knew who he was and treated him as if he was Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams.
“In L.A., frankly everybody kissed his butt all over town,” Cohen said. “Everybody fell all over themselves, so much so that I even noticed it as a small child. I knew that dad was somebody that everyone knew. My friends had no idea who he was. It was clear to me that the adults did. My dad had a box at The [L.A.] Coliseum and a box at Dodger Stadium. I was in and out of all these places when I was little, and I knew that everybody didn’t do that.
“I came home from school [once] and Willie Mays was sitting in my chair at the table.”
However, for all of the love that he got at home, during his life he was never recognized nationally the way that his former teammate, Robinson, was. He also never got the recognition from the NFL. Washington passed away young, at just 51 years old in 1971. While he didn’t complain much about never becoming a national star, after Washington’s death, Robinson wrote in Gridiron Magazine: “I’m sure he had a deep hurt over the fact that he never became a national figure in sports. Many Blacks who were great athletes years ago grow old with that hurt. I was lucky enough to get the chance when I was still young enough to make it work. Kenny didn’t and now he’s gone. It would be a shame if he were to be forgotten. I know I never will forget him.”
Robinson died the next year.
It certainly has bothered Cohen. In the past 10 years there have been more efforts to recognize her father’s contributions to professional sports. There have been documentaries such as the Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football about Washington, Strode, Willis, and Motley, and Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber’s book about that group titled The Forgotten First that was released last year. The Rams have invited Cohen to several games, and he was honored in the very last game that they played at Los Angeles Coliseum, which she says “Was my father’s house.”
She will also be at Super Bowl LVI, along with the sons of Willis and Motley and the wife of Strode’s late son Kalai. There will be some type of presentation honoring those four men, Cohen isn’t exactly sure what. But sadly, Washington, who lost his best years to the league’s defacto racist policy, is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But in the last half decade there has been a push to get Washington into Canton. Cohen said that a group of fourth graders in Indiana learned about Washington campaigned to get him inducted. She even talked to a man that she was told was the “Howard Cosell of Mexico” who is also on board.
Washington is even featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington D.C. He is displayed both as an athlete and as an actor in movies such as When Thousands Cheer and Boxes of Harrow.
Cohen is loving this recent push to give his father, and the other three men, their due for what they did and what they endured by integrating the game, but part of her is still upset that it took this long. She spent her life hearing that Jackie Robinson integrated American professional sports and knows that’s not entirely true.
“I understand the times and a whole lot of people are working to make that different now,” Cohen said. “I still carry that with me because my dad has been dead since ’71. Now they’re noticing. Are we that slow? I will always think that he was mistreated in death. I always understood he was mistreated in life because that’s where the country was with racism and all that at the time.”
“I thought that sucked.”
This weekend will be another step in correcting that wrong, but it’s unfortunate that America’s most popular sport never did acknowledge a person who, by breaking the color line, made it possible for the NFL to surge past the MLB in the last 50 years, becoming the country’s most popular sport.