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Kenny Washington: The Jackie Robinson of the NFL

Football legend Kenny Washington
Publish Date:05/04/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis
Los Angeles Rams Running back Kenny Washington (13) breaks a tackle during a 31-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 12, 1948, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. Kenny Washington - Los Angeles Rams - File Photos (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

What if I told you that the first African-American to play in the NFL actually played in the same backfield at UCLA with the great Jackie Robinson? Kenny Washington is a name forgotten by many today but he was considered the better baseball player at UCLA, compiling a higher batting average. Legendary USC Baseball coach Ron Dedeaux once said that Washington was a more skilled player than Robinson. Famed Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher actually offered Washington a contract before Robinson.  The contract came with the stipulation that he was to play in Puerto Rico for a year and then return to the states posing as a Puerto Rican to play for the Dodgers.  Washington refused.

It was on the football field where Kenny Washington found glory. Growing up in Los Angeles’ Lincoln Heights neighborhood, Washington led Lincoln High School to a City Section Baseball Championship as a junior (he hit a home run in the championship game) before leading his school to a football title in the fall.

“I heard a lot of tales about him, and I didn’t believe it at first,” his grandson, Kirk Washington said, “But then you talk to people who saw him play and it was all true.”

Washington was the star of UCLA’s football and baseball teams but the pain of not being selected to college football’s All-America team as a senior was difficult for him to overcome. Washington played 580 of 600 minutes for the Bruins, leading the nation in total offense in 1939. Time Magazine called Washington the finest collegiate football player on the west coast and he was awarded the Douglas Fairbanks trophy, which was given to the finest college football player in the country at that time.

Washington caught the eye of legendary Chicago Bears coach George Halas, who coached him in the College All-Star Game. Halas kept Washington in Chicago for three weeks at his own expense as he tried to lobby the NFL to re-integrate the league but he didn’t succeed as NFL owners blocked him.  The Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was quoted at the time as saying that he would let a black play on his team “as soon as the Harlem Globetrotters sign a white player”. (Note: Marshall was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.  He should not have been).

Washington became a huge draw in semi-pro ball. His Pacific Coast Football League team often was billed as “Kenny Washington and the Hollywood Bears”. But it looked like he would never make it to the NFL. Then, in 1946, the upstart AAFC promised to add a Los Angeles franchise owned by actor Don Ameche, prompting the NFL into allowing the Cleveland Rams to relocate to Southern California.

When that happened, the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and Los Angeles Tribune columnist Halley Harding, pressured the NFL into integrating as a condition of allowing the Rams to play games at the Coliseum. To fulfill that obligation, the Rams had no choice but to sign Washington.

The Rams also signed Washington’s UCLA teammate, Woody Strode (who went on to have an outstanding movie career, because they wanted somebody to room with him on the road. A few months later, the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis – both future Hall of Famers.

But Washington’s story is often forgotten because professional football wasn’t nearly as popular as baseball then. Also, Jackie Robinson was a charismatic figure playing in New York – the country’s biggest city and media market.

It is important to remember that when Washington got to the NFL, he wasn’t the same player he was when he left college. He had already undergone five knee surgeries, partly because he contracted rickets as a child and was hit by a car, breaking both knees at a young age.

Still, Washington had three solid NFL seasons with his best coming in 1947 when he averaged 7.4 yards per rush.  His three-year overall career numbers were less than stellar totaling 859 yards and 8 Touchdowns but still with an impressive 6.1 yards per carry.

After his retirement, Washington became a distinguished member of the Los Angeles Police Department.  He passed away in 1971 at the age of 52.

I know the NFL was not nearly as popular then it is today, but I believe Kenny Washington should be honored with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Washington’s accomplishments during his collegiate career and during his three years in the NFL are enough to make him eligible for induction.  He deserves to be remembered alongside his college teammate, Jackie Robinson.

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