It is Football Day in America! Friends and families are geared up with their favorite Seahawks jerseys and Patriots face paint. Moms and girlfriends raided grocery stores to stock up on American fare and finger foods for epic game day menus. Fathers and sons are spending quality time before the big game to generate some championship ju-ju for their team picks. Super Bowl XLIX wraps another great football season as fans prepare for NFL’s 50th Super Bowl in 2016.
To kick off our Black History Month festivities, The Black Excellence Project would like to celebrate a few unsung Black History heroes from the National Football League Hall of Fame. The careers of Modern era players like Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, and Ray Rice would be nonexistent were it not for pioneers who played for the love of the sport. After World War One, professional opportunities for Blacks were scarce in sports. But that all changed when Kenny Washington broke the color barrier.
Kenny and Woody played 1939 UCLA football with MLB’s Jackie Robinson. Kenny Washington, considered “NFL’s Jackie Robinson” was the first African American to sign a contract with a NFL team in 1946. Kenny was a star from the start. As a native Los Angeles, Kenny led his Lincoln Heights teams to championships in baseball and football.
In January 1946, then Cleveland Rams owner, Dan Reeves, was positioning to move his team to Los Angeles. Reeves was head over heels for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum which had a 105,000 seat stadium. The Coliseum’s Commission were enthusiastic about the opportunity. The Rams’ would be the first team to represent Los Angeles and play on California soil. The Commission accepted Reeves’ proposal under one condition: the Rams’ were required to racially integrate their team. Dan Reeves quickly recruited two of the nation’s best college football players: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode from UCLA.
Kenny Washington was first courted by Chicago Bears’ coach, George Halas, who was unsuccessful in influencing the league to re-integrate. By the time Kenny Washington joined the Los Angeles Rams, he had already undergone five knee surgeries. After three seasons, he retired to pursue a successful career with the LAPD. Kenny Washington was inducted in to the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1958.
Professional football, or paid athletics, was not commonplace until 1892 when the Allegheny Athletics Association began paying athletes for exceptional performance. Most football clubs were region specific with no national or international engagement. Contrary to popular belief, Black, Native American, and Asian American players were allowed to play. The Shelby Athletic Club recruited Charles Follis in 1902, a halfback from Wooster (Ohio), who was the first documented player in 1904 for pay in professional sports.
There were several leagues and clubs to come before the official NFL. On June 24, 1922, the National Football League was founded by Leo Lyons and Jim Thorpe . Prior to, they were the American Professional Football Conference established to declare a championship game and create policy on poaching players in 1920. After two seasons, they created a sport that would inevitably rival baseball in popularity. Between 1920-1926, Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were among the first black players to sign with a professional NFL team. By 1927, several black players dropped out or were removed when the league refused to sign black athletes. Pressure from Boston Redskins owner, George Marshall Preston a self-proclaimed bigot, influenced owners to align with white supremacist ideals in sports by rejecting black athletes.
Luckily, money has a funny way of inspiring a change of heart in racist American society. Eventually George Marshall Preston succumb to integration at the urging of President Kennedy. Kenny Washington’s professionalism and athleticism in the face of hostility paved a way for Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
Here is a brief review of Bill Willis and Marion Motley careers with the Cleveland Browns.
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