It was the late 1940's and a superstar multi-sport athlete from UCLA was in the news. He would break the color barrier for a major professional sport, but he would be eclipsed the next year by his college teammate Jackie Robinson. Day 2 of Black History Month celebrates Kenny Washington - the other Barrier Breaker.
When Jackie Robinson enrolled at UCLA he wasn't even the first African American player to suit up for the Bruins. That distinction belonged to Kenny Washington
On the baseball diamond, Washington hit .397 and led the team in Home Runs and RBI's. On the football field Washington led the country in total offense, and was the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy as the nation's best player during his senior year.
The second of four generations of baseball players, Kenny’s father Edgar “Blue” Washington played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants. Kenny’s son, Kenny Jr., starred at USC from 1961-1963 and was on two NCAA National Championship teams, then went on to a seven year professional baseball career. His grandson, Kraig played for USC in 1986 and in the Chicago Cubs organization. Another grandson, Kirk, played at Cal Poly Pomona from 1983-1986 and in the Chicago Cubs organization.
In 1939, Washington would lead UCLA to its first undefeated season. Washington would play in an All-Star game with fellow collegians against the NFL's Green Bay Packers. While most of his teammates would sign with the NFL, Washington was not picked, and instead joined the Los Angeles Police Department while playing for the semi-pro Hollywood Bears.
UCLA Bruins Woody Strode, Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington
In 1940, Washington would star in a film, While Thousand Cheer. It was a movie about a football star from UCLA who would go on to become the first African American in the NFL after initially being refused an opportunity to play in the league due to segregation.
In 1946, fantasy would become reality when Kenny Washington joined the Los Angeles Rams, who had just moved from Cleveland and ended a ban that had been in place for 13 years keeping African Americans out of the NFL. Washington and his former UCLA teammate Woody Strode would both sign to play with the Rams, thus becoming the first African American players in the NFL, while Marion Motley and Bill Willis were the first African Americans to play in the All-America Football Conference. Collectively they would be known as the Forgotten Four.
Earlier in 1946, pro football would see the formation of the All-America Football Conference with one of the teams being the Cleveland Browns. This spurred the Cleveland Rams of the NFL to relocate to Los Angeles. When the Rams needed a lease to play in the Coliseum, a group of black sports writers and Los Angeles Coliseum Commission member Roger Jessup would urge the commission to let the Rams play there on the condition that at least one African American be on the team. That player was Kenny Washington, breaking the NFL’s 13-year color barrier along with Strode, whom Washington insisted join the Rams as his teammate.
In 2014, Producer Ross Greenburg made a documentary titled Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football, chronicling Kenny Washington and the other Barrier Breakers. While Motley and Willis would go on to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Strode and Washington only played for one and three years respectively. "None of the four players expressed bitterness about the fact that their breaking of the color barrier in professional football has been largely forgotten", Greenburg said. "They were very principled men with supreme character," Greenburg said. "They created close-knit families. They never felt they needed to be propped up as symbols of racial equality."
Kenny Washington would become the first UCLA football player to have his uniform retired. He would also join the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956.