Honoring Bruin Legends Kenny Washington/Woody Strode: Jackie Robinson(s) Of Pro Football

Bumped Again. This post got buried after Saturday's post game rush that last for few days. Bringing it up on the home page because want to make sure this gets more eyeballs. An incredible part of UCLA history that I am not sure many are aware of. The story needs to get our more in the coming days and months. GO BRUINS. -N

We frown upon putting up fanshots or fanposts bringing up same topics here on Bruins Nation. However, this story merits an obvious exception. I am frankly ashamed and also sad that I didn't know this part of UCLA's athletic history before this week.

How many of you here knew UCLA alumni not only broke the color barrier for Major League Baseball, but member of Bruin family also did the same in professional football league? I didn't until I read a story from first fanshotted by bruinbabe2000 on UCLA alumni Kenny Washington. Then ucla7477 alerted us to this column as a followup on the story highlighting why Kenny Washington and his fellow UCLA alum Woody Strode deserve a place in pro football HOF. Excerpted the following in our fanshots here:

The easiest argument to be made is on behalf of UCLA's Kenny Washington. Acclaimed as the best college player of 1939 in a vote of the men who faced him, Washington nonetheless went undrafted and unsigned by the NFL because of the owners' "gentlemen's agreement." Thus through the early '40s he played four seasons in the Pacific Coast Football League, which he dominated, even as he suffered several knee injuries. He passed, ran and commanded the defensive secondary. By the end of his minor league career, mostly with the Hollywood Bears, Washington had taken on placekicking duties too -- kicking lefty, on account of those knee injuries' ruling out use of his right leg.

When the Rams finally signed him in 1946, Washington was well past his prime, yet he turned in three creditable NFL seasons, including a 1947 campaign in which his performance -- he led the league in total yardage, average yards per carry (7.4) and the longest run from scrimmage (92 yards) -- hinted at what he could have done if only he hadn't been cheated of six years. Upon Washington's death in 1971, former Rams teammate Bob Waterfield said, "If he had come into the NFL directly from UCLA, he would have been, in my opinion, the best the NFL had ever seen."

It's the Pro Football, not NFL, Hall of Fame, so Washington deserves all credit for those minor league seasons on the West Coast. So does Woody Strode, who as a Hollywood Bear caught many of the passes that Washington threw. The Rams signed Strode, a teammate at UCLA, to serve as Washington's roommate on the road, and the club released him after a season because, Strode said before his death in 1994, it objected to his interracial marriage to a Hawaiian princess. So he decamped to Canada, where he led the Calgary Stampeders to a Grey Cup -- more non-NFL pro-football cred. Strode's career may not reach the threshold for induction as a player, but he deserves a spot in the Hall for his role as a trailblazer.

As Alexander Wolff noted in his piece this week, "together they were to the NFL what their UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson would be to major league baseball one year later: pulling guards in the sweep of history." More after the jump.

Wolff's account of Washington and Strode's days in Westwood are breath taking:

The two met in 1936 as freshmen at UCLA, which welcomed black football players. In the idiom acceptable at the time, a local sportswriter called them the Goal Dust Twins, a play on the two black children featured on the box of Fairbank's Gold Dust, a popular soap powder. "When I met Kenny, I swear he was nothing but a nice Italian kid," Strode wrote in his 1990 memoir, Goal Dust. "He had an accent that was half-Italian."

Washington—a.k.a. the Kingfish, after a character in the radio comedy series Amos 'n' Andy—stood astride the Westwood campus. During two seasons of varsity baseball he hit .454 and .350, far better than Robinson. Rod Dedeaux, the longtime USC baseball coach who scouted for the Dodgers, believed that Washington also had a better arm, more power and more agility than Robinson.

Though pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, Washington ran with power and a prodigious straight-arm. "He had a crazy gait, like he had two broken legs," Tom Harmon, a teammate with the Rams, told SI before his death in 1990. "He'd be coming at you straight, and it would look like he was going sideways." As a tailback in the single wing, Washington passed as much as he ran. In 1937, with five minutes to play and the Bruins trailing USC 19--0, he threw for two touchdowns in 29 seconds, then added what could have been the winner if Strode had held on to his pass at the one-yard line. The first scoring pass traveled 62 yards in the air. Afterward UCLA coach Bill Spaulding went by the USC locker room to congratulate his counterpart, Howard Jones. "It's all right to come out now," Spaulding called through the door. "Kenny's stopped passing!"

When the Washington State coach taunted him from the sideline with the n word, Washington went after him. Opposing players would sometimes pile-drive Washington's face into the lime used to line the fields; Strode and other Bruins would take names and settle scores on subsequent plays. But Strode remembered Washington's reluctance to play the same game: "If Kenny knocked a guy down, he'd pick him up after the play was over."

As the wingback in motion during Washington's senior season, Robinson helped free up Washington, who led the Bruins to an undefeated 6-0-4 season, including a scoreless tie with USC, which ended as UCLA's final drive stalled inside the Trojans' four-yard line. Years later it would be easy to read a pattern into both those dramatic games with USC: They seemed to prefigure a fate in which Washington would fall just short or lose out to the clock. When he left the Coliseum field as a Bruin for the final time, Washington received an ovation that sounded, as Strode put it, as if "the pope of Rome had come out."

Robinson, writing for Gridiron magazine in 1971, called Washington "the greatest football player I have ever seen.... I'm sure he had a deep hurt over the fact that he never had become a national figure in professional sports. Many blacks who were great athletes years ago grow old with this hurt."

You have to read the whole piece here.

The question I have is why hasn't UCLA played up these Bruin heros before? I have never heard about these guys until this week. I think that's a huge shame and a let down on the part of not just our athletic department but the entire university.

I really hope UCLA moves fast to launch a campaign to get these Bruin heroes enshrined in their rightful spots in the pro football hall of game. We can think out lot more in the coming weeks and months how they can make it happen or how we can push for it. We need to make sure we honor their legacy the same way we do with Jackie Robinson.


<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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