Tom Hoffarth / FartherOffTheWall.com
The date is important.
Seventy-six years ago today — September 29, 1946 – Kenny Washington strapped on a modest, facemask-less leather football helmet, subbed in for injured star quarterback Bob Waterfield, and the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams’ season opener was even more historic.
The first Black player to reintegrate the National Football League, and the first professional Black player on the progressive West Coast, came into play. It blotted out more than a decade of an exclusionary, unwritten policy about franchises signing anyone of that particular race.
All heck did not break loose as some-30,000 at the Coliseum saw it happen on that sweltering 96-degree Sunday afternoon. No grief either that the Rams lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 25-14 – the last two points, when Washington’s right foot went over the back line of his own end zone for a two-point safety as he was launching a not-yet-phrased Hail Mary.
This was still 6 1/2 months before Washington’s former UCLA football teammate, Jackie Robinson, made much bigger headlines by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It makes the Washington moment even more astounding.
These days, they erect statues, name stadiums and build museums for Robinson.
In Lincoln Heights, almost 10 years ago at the intersection of North Broadway and Lincoln Park Avenue, near his Lincoln High football field, they have a square named after Washington.
Maybe that’s not a fair comparison. Washington, had he not died far too young at age 52 in the summer of 1971 from a rare blood disorder, might have had more to say about it. Robinson died about a year later at age 53.
Yet it was Robinson who was once quoted: “Kenny Washington was the greatest football player I have ever seen. He had everything needed for greatness – size, speed and tremendous strength. … It would be a shame if he were to be forgotten.”
For context, only a couple books have come out, and only recently, that helps explain all these dot-connections. But for the most diligent project to shed a spotlight on more of what we’d like to consume comes from Dan Taylor’s new book, “Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 256 pages, $36).
Taylor’s two-and-a-half-years of research and writing reveals even more that, without Washington, there’d likely not be the Robinson we’ve come to know and hold in such high esteem.
Taylor writes about how when the two were at UCLA, Washington became a calming influence for Robinson, often seen as volatile and frustrated. Washington went with Robinson on walks around the Westwood campus to talk about dealing with life issues.
Taylor is also profoundly baffled why more isn’t known about how Robinson lobbied Branch Rickey to sign Washington as the Dodgers, and MLB’s, second Black player. Washington, not Robinson, was UCLA’s first black baseball player. It appears the Dodgers considered it. Washington’s health was an issue.
“I found Kenny Washington to be a remarkable life story,” Taylor says. “He’s undeniably one of the great football players of all time and one of America’s greatest athletes. It’s unfortunate he has been forgotten. Someone so talented who made such an impact on not just UCLA, but Los Angeles, the Rams, and the NFL, should not just be remembered but held in great regard and celebrated.”
The Rams were only proactive in signing Black players because local media — the Black newspapers — demanded it as part of the Coliseum Comission’s decision to allow them to circumvent a rule that no pro football could be played at the facility as long as USC and UCLA called it their home field. Washington appears on the October, 1946 cover of Ebony to accentuate this development — even though he’s not wearing his familiar No. 13.
We may never see a day in the NFL when everyone wears Washington’s No. 13 – or at least sports a patch for it on their jersey. Fritz Pollard is considered the Jackie Robinson of the NFL in most historical accounts.
The Rams may never feel a need to retire it themselves – Washington, already a couple years into a pro football career with the local Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, playing at Gilmore Field, battling some surgically repaired knees, played just three seasons as a halfback/split end/defensive back for these L.A. NFLers. He had just five starts in 27 games for the team (at age 28, 29 and 30, gone by ’48), and had only one outstanding season where he continues to hold the franchise’s longest run from scrimmage – 92 yards on Nov. 2, ‘47. (Something called DiscoverLosAngeles.com includes in the Top 10 moments in the franchise history, from a list in 2019).
Washington’s No. 13 remains unclaimed among the eight already retired, even if game MVP Kirk Warner wore it while leading the franchise to the Super Bowl XXXIV title.
Could the Rams at least sport a No. 13 patch somewhere, or post a plaque, somewhere in SoFi Stadium, just as the Coliseum has a plaque for him in its Court of Honor – which is just for his UCLA achievements?
“Any of those suggestions would be appropriate,” said Taylor. “This is a big part of the Rams heritage. They should celebrate it. It’s more than a little perplexing that they haven’t. I don’t understand how something so significant has been ignored for all these years.”
A headline in Slate’s culture section posted last December asked: “Why Isn’t Kenny Washington an American Icon?” Last year, on the 75th anniversary of Washington’s appearance, why wasn’t it a bigger deal during the Super Bowl run by the Rams, who were led by such Black stars as Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller? The franchise is also known for Hall of Fame players with retired numbers like Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Deacon Jones, Jackie Slater and Isaac Bruce. The legacy of Black running backs with the Rams includes Deacon Dan Towler, Dick Bass, Cullen Bryant, Lawrence McCutchen, Stephen Jackson and Todd Gurley.
It doesn’t seem as if Washington is forgotten. It’s more that he’s not all that well remembered.
“He paved the way for so many individuals that we see playing today,” said Johnathan Franklin, another former UCLA star running back and current Rams director of social justice and football development.
There are far more questions than answers about Washington’s impact, his influences … things that biographers like Taylor seek to excavate in projects like this. Washington leaves almost a mystical legacy defined by superlatives than statistics. Washington’s true story may never be resolved.
“As much as ‘Walking Alone’ does reveal about Kenny Washington, there is much still to be learned,” said Taylor. “The inability to get answers to so many key questions about Kenny was a very frustrating part of this project. I would agree that we are left with a degree of mystery about him.
“Baseball’s popularity led to so many interviews, articles and books about Jackie Robinson which helped the public develop an understanding of his journey. While we can appreciate Kenny’s remarkable skills and accomplishments, our inability to get inside his head and learn what he thought and felt, how his character was built, and how he built the strength he exhibited does probably prevent fans and the general public from embracing him with the same level of esteem as Jackie Robinson is accorded.”
Now think about what happened 52 years today – September 29, 1970.
More than 1,000 friends of Kenny Washington gathered at the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Blvd., for a benefit. They knew he was in poor health. They want to help thank him for what he brought to sports and Los Angeles, and perhaps prolong his existence by funding medical treatment.
He concluded his speech: “This tribute to Kenny Washington should be a tribute from Kenny Washington to you.”
Soon, he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights with a simple headstone that includes the line: “Our Loved One.”
It definitely feels as if Washington made bigger headlines in L.A. and the nation when he signed his contract with the Rams on March 21, 1946, as the team was still considered by some to be the Cleveland Rams. The photos and headlines above attest to that, how he was framed as “the first Negro in Major Pro Football” or “the first Colored Star in Modern Grid Circles” or in the “reorganized pro game.” But Rams GM Chile Walsh was no Branch Rickey. Walsh, and the Rams, felt pushed into this arrangement, with no guarantees Washington would even play despite a “five-figure salary.”
Focusing on that date seems more disingenuous even if it was when the league lifted “the unofficial blackout.”
Last May, the Rams seized on that occasion to establish a Fulfillment Fund project and launch the Kenny Washington Memorial Scholarship to give to “13 students from lower-resourced communities who are among the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education.” Said the Rams’ Franklin: “We created this scholarship to highlight his core values. When I think about Kenny, I’m reminded of our scholars today.”
Perhaps September 29, then, may be as an important a date on the NFL calendar as April 15 is in MLB?
“Without question,” says Taylor. “It is a bit surprising that it has never before been held up as an important date in the history of the NFL. I certainly understand that when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers baseball was far-and-away America’s national pastime. In 1946 professional football was not the popular sport it is today. Jackie’s signing thus received wide spread attention, far more than Kenny’s and that plays a big part in why it is remembered and he is celebrated today. I also understand that Fritz Pollard and other African-American players were tremendous pioneers in the 1920s and we don’t want to diminish their contribution or accomplishments.
“Still none of it should make what Kenny Washington achieved any less important. What he overcame, and all he had to deal with was tremendous and should be remembered. September 29 is a date the league should always showcase.”
== More on Kenny Washington and Dan Taylor:
= Taylor talks to the Good Seats Still Available podcast as well as the “11 Personnel” podcast via The Athletic.
= Two more books on the subject:
“The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington and Ray Bartlett” by James Johnson (2018, University of Nebraska Press)
“The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier” by Keyshawn Johnson and Rob Glauber (2021, Grand Central Publishing)
= Another new book related to this subject: ESPN’s Andscape, former known as The Undefeated, keeps its focus on the intersection of sports, race, culture in publishing Jason Reid’s book, “Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America.”
While the focus may be more on names like Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes — even the Rams’ James “Shack” Harris in the ’70s, the 1974 Pro Bowl MVP — Washington is mentioned as well as the start of the process, again the focus of his signing date with the Rams and how the rival All-American Football League had promised to also sign a Black player in the first season in L.A. The local franchise, the Dons, didn’t do so. “Washington, (Willie) Strode, (Bill) Willis and (Marion Motley) highlighted a promising future for Black football players,” writes Reid. “But their troubles and those of the players who followed in their cleat marks, especially any who dreamed of playing under center, were far from over.” Reid also points out how the Chicago Bears owner George Halas had “expressed interest” in possibly signing Washington in the early 1940s “but abandoned the idea after he failed to get the backing of other owners.”