Kenny Washington: Football’s forgotten Black pioneer

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The multi-billion-dollar NCAA football business begins again on August 27 when 13 games will be nationally televised. Three PAC-12 schools are on the richest list: University of Southern California, University of Washington and the University of Oregon.

Not all the preseason headlines, however, involve speculation about which teams might reach the 2023 National Championship Game. UCLA and USC stunned the football world when they announced that, in 2024, they’ll leave the Pac-12. But since UCLA didn’t advise the University of California’s Board of Regents, which includes Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Bruins’ grandiose plan could be scuttled. The Board doesn’t affect USC, a private institution.

Once, back in the PAC-8 days when the pre-season buzz in Southern California was about football’s star players, and not TV billions, no player thrilled fans more than Los Angeles Lincoln High School dynamo and UCLA superstar Kenny Washington. During the 1930s and 1940s, Washington was the Los Angeles area’s most popular athlete. When Washington first donned a UCLA uniform, college football had only 25 black players nationwide; the UCLA campus was 3 percent black.

In his new book, “Walking Alone, the Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington,” Dan Taylor chronicles the tale of a groundbreaking black football star who could have been, had he so chosen, the first to break baseball’s color line. Jackie Robinson, Washington’s UCLA baseball and football teammate, readily acknowledged that Washington was his superior on the diamond.

Instead of breaking baseball’s black player ban, in 1946 Washington became the first African-American player in 13 years to join an NFL roster, the Los Angeles Rams. On the field, Washington withstood endless taunting and racist slurs, so ugly that he refused to play in games held in the south. His opponents blatantly fouled him, but referees refused to penalize the rule-breakers.

Washington’s pro-football debut was inauspicious. Playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 96-degree heat against the Philadelphia Eagles and before 30,000 excited fans – the Rams had just relocated from Cleveland – Washington entered the game when Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield left in the second half. Most of Washington’s passes sailed over receivers’ heads. His coach moved Washington to running back where his stats improved. In his first game at tailback, Washington was, despite knee injuries sustained earlier in his career, the Rams’ leading rusher against the Detroit Lions.

After the 1946 season ended, speculation abounded that Washington, encouraged by Robinson, would leave the Rams to pursue a baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher passed on him because “his knee was on the bum,” Washington returned to the Rams, this time with more success. Through his first four 1947 games, Washington scored four touchdowns and had a 7.5 yards per carry average.

In 1948, Washington took another strong stand against bigotry. After its Hawaii training camp disbanded, the Rams headed to Dallas, Texas, a Jim Crow state, to play in an annual exhibition game. Washington refused to play. Eventually, Rams owner Dan Reeves worked out an agreement with the games’ organizers that would pave the way for Kenny and future blacks to play in the Dallas game. Washington played and became the first black to appear in Texas professional football.

Early in the 1948 season, Washington, beset by injuries, announced his football retirement. In previous off-seasons, Washington had starred in black films, and he opted to return to Hollywood. He also had another shot at baseball, a near miss.

Polyarteritis, a heart and lung disease, took Washington, only 51, in 1971. In 1957, speaking on behalf of the NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund, Robinson spoke about his friend Washington, calling him “the greatest.” Author Taylor concluded that Washington was a football trailblazer who helped the NFL reintegrate.

Copyright 2022 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected]