Even if you don’t follow sports, you’ve heard of Jackie Robinson. You may have even seen 42, if not for the baseball elements, at least, for the amazing story behind the man who glorified the number. Some tend to forget that Jackie played more than just baseball during his time at UCLA—he also played basketball and football and ran track.
But, how much do you know about his football teammate Kenny Washington?
I knew a little about Washington’s contributions to the NFL, but there’s so much more to the story that begins all the way back at UCLA. He played football and baseball, and was actually a better player than Jackie Robinson. There were a total of four African-American players on the team at the time: Robinson, Washington, Woody Strode, and Ray Bartlett. This was actually a big deal for UCLA as college football team rosters were about a third the size of what they are today.
Washington played tailback and was both a skilled rusher and passer. He rushed for a total of 9,975 yards during his collegiate career, a record that stood at UCLA for 56 years. He was the first Bruin to lead the nation in total offense, and also the first from UCLA to be named a consensus All-American in 1939.
Washington was no stranger to racial discrimination. Even though he was a stand out player, he was only a second team All-America selection, rather than a first team pick. That kept him out of the East-West Shrine game in 1939. The media blamed racial discrimination, something that former teammates commended him for ignoring. While Washington excelled at football, he actually had a shot at major league baseball, but, again, racial discrimination reared its ugly head.
The story goes that Washington was actually offered a contract by then-Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, but he had to play in Puerto Rico for a year, then come to the United States posing as a Puerto Rican. Washington refused, so the baseball story line almost ends there.
In 1940, George Halas, renowned coach of the Chicago Bears, was actually interested in signing Washington, but was unable at the time to convince the league to integrate. Instead, Washington would coach football at UCLA and join the Los Angeles Police Department, following in his Uncle Rocky’s footsteps, who was the first African-American uniformed lieutenant in the LAPD.
From 1941-1945, Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, where he was the league’s highest-paid player. He suffered a knee injury that would keep him stateside for World War II, but he did serve one year as a sports ambassador for the USO.
It was when the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles that Washington made it to the NFL. The Rams came to L.A. wanting to play in the Coliseum, which, in turn, created pressure on the NFL to integrate. As a publicly owned and paid for facility, both black and white taxpayers had funded the construction of the Coliseum. With his outstanding record in both college and the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, he was signed to the Rams in 1946, becoming the first African-American player in the NFL since the 1934 ban, one year before Robinson began the integration of baseball. Former teammate Woody Strode would also be signed by the Rams about a month and a half later.
The successful coexistence of these two African-American players with their white teammates was actually what prompted Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to sign Robinson in 1947.
Washington would play for the Rams for three seasons. Before his NFL career even started, he had surgery on both knees to remove cartilage and a supposed “growth” (which was his fifth knee surgery in his lifetime). Even though his career was short, he still led the league in yards per carry in 1947 and scored a 92-yard touchdown, a record that still stands with the Rams as the longest run from the line of scrimmage.
When Washington retired from football in 1948, he received a standing ovation from 80,000 fans that packed the Coliseum to pay homage to this groundbreaking athlete.
Upon retirement, Washington returned to the LAPD and also worked for a grocery store and whiskey distributor. His link to the Dodgers would come full circle, as he would become a scout for the team after they moved to Los Angeles.
Washington’s accomplishments and contributions to sports would not go unnoticed, as he was recognized with a ”Court of Honor” plaque at the Coliseum. he was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956. His number 13 jersey was the first to be retired at UCLA and he was inducted into the first class of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984 as a posthumous member.
Why has this incredible accomplishment become a footnote in major league sports, rather than a banner event? Part of the problem is that baseball was definitely “America’s Pastime” in the 1940s, and football didn’t really gain traction until the 1950s, with the rise of powerhouse programs at the collegiate level and the major success of the NFL’s 1958 championship game. If you go back even further, Washington technically wasn’t the first African-American player in the NFL. There had been several in the 1920s and 30s up until they were banned in 1934. It wasn’t until Washington played in 1946 that African-Americans would play again.
For another look at Washington’s accomplishments, check out this video from Histor-E: