As all eyes have turned to Indianapolis this week for the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, where teams are evaluating top prospects, it’s unthinkable that a college phenom who presented no concerns about character wouldn’t be considered for an opportunity to play professionally.
That’s exactly what happened, however, to Kenny Washington because of the color of his skin. Washington became the first consensus All-American at UCLA and was awarded the 1939 Douglas Fairbanks Trophy for being named the most outstanding player in college football.
Washington was omitted from an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, the marquee college all-star game of that era. Chicago Bears Owner/Coach George Halas wanted to sign Washington, but was unsuccessful in trying to get an unwritten ban on participation in the NFL by African Americans lifted.
Instead, Washington played for the Hollywood Bears from 1941-45 and served in the military.
Fate turned when the Rams decided to move from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 and sought to play home games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a public venue. Pressure from the community — the threat of denying use of the Coliseum — led the Rams to sign Washington on March 21, 1946, reintegrating the NFL for the first time since 1934. Washington convinced the Rams to also sign his former college teammate Woody Strode.
Washington rushed for 859 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in his three pro seasons, but he courageously created opportunities for future players.
After his football career, Washington became a highly distinguished officer in the Los Angeles Police Department before passing away in 1971 at age 52. Washington’s legacy, however, lives on, and professional football will return to the Coliseum this season when the Rams move from St. Louis to Southern Cal and wait for their new stadium to be built.
National Museum of African American History and Culture Director Lonnie G. Bunch noted the significant contributions of Washington, Strode, Willis and Motley in a documentary, The Forgotten Four. Bunch said:
“These men were exceptional and they carried amazing burdens so were they courageous? Absolutely. Were they pioneers? They clearly were, but they really were people who came out of an African American community and realized their job was to ensure not only their own success but the success of the broader community, and that is a heavy burden that they carried and carried well.”