By Fred Bowen
Lots of kids know about Jackie Robinson and how in 1947 he became the first African American to play Major League Baseball.
Not as many kids — or adults — know about Kenny Washington. But Kenny Washington was the Jackie Robinson of the National Football League (NFL).
When the NFL started, in the 1920s, a handful of African Americans played in the new league. But from 1934 to 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. There wasn’t an official rule against them, but there was an unwritten understanding among the teams. The teams would not allow African Americans into the league.
Some owners and coaches claimed that African Americans were not good enough for the NFL. That’s hard to believe, especially considering that nine African American college football players were named all-American stars during those years. Still, none were drafted, even though the NFL had 10 teams in 1940 and each team drafted 20 players.
Washington was one of the college stars who went undrafted. He was a running back who set rushing and passing records at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1939, Washington led the nation in total yards while also playing defensive back. (Players played both offense and defense in those days.)
Washington also played baseball for the UCLA Bruins. He hit .454 and .350 during his two varsity seasons. His teammate on the UCLA football and baseball teams was . . . Jackie Robinson. The head coach at UCLA’s top rival, the University of Southern California, said Washington was a more skilled baseball player than Robinson.
Despite Washington’s incredible college career, no NFL team drafted him in 1940. For the next few seasons, Washington played in the smaller Pacific Coast Football League, where he earned all-league honors every year.
Washington finally got his chance to play in the NFL in 1946. The Cleveland Rams had relocated to Los Angeles. The Rams agreed to allow African American players on the team after local black newspapers and the city’s stadium commission pressured the team to integrate (mix black and white players).
Washington was 28 years old and had undergone five knee surgeries when in March 1946 he became the first African American in years to sign a contract with an NFL team. He was not as fast as he had been at UCLA. Still, Washington was among the leading rushers in the NFL during the second of his three seasons.
Like Robinson, Washington had to endure dirty plays and mean name-calling throughout his football career. Washington might have had it even harder than Robinson. After all, Washington had to carry the football with tacklers smashing into him.
Since 1946, thousands of African Americans have played in the NFL. They all followed in the footsteps of Kenny Washington.