Framed in black and white and frozen in what’s become something of a lost generation is a legacy. It is a legacy of a man who makes the black in the black and white photos pop because nothing surrounding him is of the same color.
In a time where the Civil Rights movement was just gaining steam, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the removal of Jim Crow laws, the country found itself in need of people with the skin thick enough to take a stand and the character to set an example for those who would follow in their footsteps.
In the sports world, some legacies such as those of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali rightfully stand on their own. But for every name that’s known even today, other trailblazers can get lost in the shuffle.
Playing a sport that carried far less prominence than Robinson’s baseball, Kenny Washington became the first African-American to sign with a professional sports team in what is considered the modern era when he inked a deal with the Los Angeles Rams on March 9, 1946.
“I think that’s one of the things that his story and his recognition should be there,” Kirk Washington, Kenny Washington’s grandson, said. “It was just the timing of his career and that he didn’t play longer but he was a pioneer. And I think that his story should be told and he deserves that recognition.”
While others such as Charlie Follis, Paul Robeson, Duke Slater and Fritz Pollard had played professional football previously, the NFL was in the midst of a full-on revolt against having black players in the league.
The idea to keep African-Americans out of the NFL had begun in 1933 under the guidance of Washington owner George Preston Marshall.
When then Cleveland Rams owner Daniel Reeves looked to move the team to Los Angeles, part of the negotiation to use the Los Angeles Coliseum required Reeves to find a way to open the door to integration. The next step was finding the right man to bear the burden of all that would go with being the first black player in more than a dozen years to set foot on a NFL field.
Of course, right there in Los Angeles the perfect solution was hungry for an opportunity. The ultra-athletic running back was a homegrown star, dominating in football and baseball at Lincoln High in east Los Angeles in the 1930s.
From there, Washington had gone on to a superstar career at UCLA, where he actually shared a backfield with Robinson himself. Washington led the nation in total yards in his final year with the Bruins but didn’t make first team All American solely because his skin wasn’t the proper shade.
That served as another obvious hint to Washington that making the transition to the NFL would be extremely difficult if not impossible.
Despite overtures from George Halas after a strong performance in the Chicago All-Star game, the NFL simply wasn’t going to relent and allow Washington to enter the league right out of college.
Washington opted to take his talents to the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, a league that served as a sort of football answer to baseball’s Negro Leagues. Playing for the Hollywood Bears, Washington became an instant star. He was the highest paid player in the league and dominated games in a variety of ways through not only his speed and agility but the unique skill of ambi-dexterity that allowed him to throw with both arms.
“During that time, even Bob Waterfield with the Rams said if he had played with the Rams from 1940-1945, he would have set all kinds of records if he was allowed to play,” Kirk Washington said.
Still, Washington sought the challenge of playing at the game’s top level. Although he was 28 and had already undergone multiple knee surgeries, Washington was capable enough to play at a high level when the opportunity finally came.
Joined on the Rams by end Woody Strode, who signed with the team about two weeks after he’d signed, Washington’s physical skills were only part of the package needed to handle such a hefty role as the player to re-integrate the game.
“He felt like it was a lot about who he was and his makeup because his knees were bad by the time he signed with the Rams,” Kirk Washington said. “He still found a way to do well but he was determined to be the best he could and set a good example.”
Of course, setting a good example was much easier said than done. The on the field part still came relatively natural despite Washington’s injury history. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry in his three seasons and still holds the team record for longest touchdown rush with a 92-yard burst in 1947 against the Chicago Cardinals.
While the league had finally allowed black players to participate, it didn’t mean that all of the cities would follow suit.
In nearly every city the Rams visited, the team hotels would not allow Washington and Strode to stay with their teammates. Instead, they’d be shuffled off to a different hotel in what was deemed more “racially appropriate” lodging.
On the field, Washington was regularly hit with slurs and cheap shots were taken at the bottom of the pile. Because he was placed in such a difficult position, Washington found himself swallowing his tongue more often than he would’ve preferred.
“I think he endured it but there were times like anything else where he would have to get in somebody’s face to challenge somebody,” Kirk Washington said. “It got to him at times. It was hard to be a Negro during that time trying to play football. He endured a lot.”
Washington’s career came to a close too soon, just three years in but the trail he blazed along the way is what stands today well above any statistics he might have put on the field.
Upon leaving the game, Washington earned a handful of honors, including the retirement of his No. 13 jersey at UCLA and induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956.
Washington followed in the footsteps of his uncle Rocky, who had helped raise him and was the first black watch commander in the Los Angeles Police Department. He became an officer in the LAPD and a devout family man.
On June 24, 1971, Washington passed away from complications of a disease known as polyarteritis nodosa.
Upon his death, Washington left behind a legacy that not only carries weight in the football world but also through society. That is why his family has made it a priority to ensure that people take the time to remember what Washington accomplished.
In an effort to go against the family grain a bit, Washington’s son, Kenny Jr., played baseball at Southern Cal and also suffered through many of the divisive issues that his father did. But the elder Washington wouldn’t allow his son the opportunity to complain about his lot in life.
“I think the thing about it was that the challenge my dad had coming up was because my grandfather went through such a difficult time,” Kirk Washington said. “And being an African-American playing football at that time, he didn’t have a lot of sympathy for what my dad and his friends would go through during his time because he had it a lot tougher.”
That didn’t mean Washington didn’t create a loving home where his kids and, eventually, his grandkids would learn the same traits of character he always carried with him. He placed an emphasis on education, paying particular attention to ensure his family didn’t fall into stereotypes by using jargon and street language.
“My dad used to share the things that my grandfather went through and what he went through and of course my path was easier than those two,” Kirk Washington said. “But because of their experiences, they wanted to make sure we knew that nothing would ever be easy. People still make judgments by the color of your skin.
“They wanted us to know that the most important thing for us was to make sure people understand what your character is. That was very important for our family when we were coming up to be the same way.”
Because of the popularity of baseball in the 1940s combined with the length of Washington’s career relative to Robinson’s, Washington’s story can sometimes tend to get lost in the shuffle.
But as football has gained in popularity and more efforts are made to recognize Washington’s many achievements, his story has been told and acknowledged more regularly.
The Washington family, along with many others, have worked hard to establish Washington’s legacy on a more permanent basis while simultaneously helping the community.
The Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation was established by President Stephen Sarinana-Lampson nearly three years ago in an effort to help increase that attention.
With the help of a dedicated staff and support from Washington’s three grandchildren – Kirk, Kraig and Kysa – the foundation has big plans to find the funds for a major renovation and improvement of the athletic facilities at Lincoln High, which would subsequently be named in Washington’s honor.
At the same time, the foundation also has designs on helping Washington earn recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lincoln High has long embraced Washington as one of its most influential alumni, naming the football team’s MVP award for him and even using the original trophy the Rams awarded Washington when he retired as the prize for the best player in each of the past 63 years.
In addition, the Washington story has been told in a number of articles in major publications like Sports Illustrated and USA Today and Washington plays a prominent part in the “Third and Long” documentary detailing the struggles of integration in the NFL over the years.
Were his grandfather alive today, Kirk Washington has little doubt that Washington would be proud of all he accomplished. The trophies and achievements on the field would hold a place in his heart, certainly.
But the legacy of a man cuts deeper than rushing yards and touchdowns and spans further than 100 yards of green grass. What endures beyond all of that for Kenny Washington is what came in his wake.
“He was a very proud man that worked extremely hard,” Kirk Washington said. “He was very competitive and he wanted to make sure that his career meant something not only from a football standpoint but he wanted to conduct himself with integrity and high character and I think that in anything he did, he wanted to make sure people saw him that way. He was a hard nosed guy, he was tough but he still had something about him where he wanted people to see a man setting an example by doing the right thing at all times.”
To view the “Third and Long” documentary segment featuring Kenny Washington, follow this link:
To visit the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation page, follow this link: