“To dream, even in the face of humungous odds, dreaming is still worth the activity. Because it is what happened to me.”
These were the words three-time NFL Pro Bowler George Taliaferro said in an interview celebrating Black History Month in 2016.
“I dreamed of being a great football player like the football players that played before me,” Taliaferro said. “And I said, if ever I can get into an organized football arrangement, I’m going to be like Kenny Washington.”
When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the NFL, the league has a large blemish in the 1930s and 40s. While there was no rule that banished black players from the league itself, team owners conveniently just didn’t sign any for 13 years.
An unwritten rule, if you will. That was until March of 1946, when the Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles and signed running back Kenny Washington, making him the first African American to sign a professional contract with an NFL team.
Before breaking the color barrier for professional football, Washington was a star at UCLA where he found an athletic department that considered ability rather than skin color. During his tenure, the running back played alongside legend Jackie Robinson and Woody Strode, one of the first African Americans to play in the NFL.
Washington found most of his success on the Bruins football team but, like Robinson, played for the baseball team as well. The duo shared the backfield, where Washington led the team and nation in total offense in 1939, with 812 rushing yards and 559 passing yards.
The dual-threat versatility of Washington was well recognized as he not only became UCLA’s first All-American but also made the College All-Star roster where he had the opportunity to team up with some of the best college football players in the country.
The team would play in a charity game against the Green Bay Packers (a game in which the Packers ultimately won) and was covered by Time magazine. The reporter who covered the game wrote an article with a summation of players who were going to sign with pro teams.
He concluded his piece: “[One] of last week’s college stars whom football fans will probably see no more is kinky-haired Kenny Washington. Considered by West Coast fans the most brilliant player in the U.S. last year, Washington cannot play major-league pro football because he is a Negro.”
Today, Washington’s pathway would be clear: from college superstar to the NFL Draft to endorsement deals and riches. In 1939, those options did not exist. So instead, Washington graduated from UCLA, coached the freshman team at his alma mater and joined the Los Angeles Police Department.
From 1940-44, Washington split his time serving in the military on the USO tour during World War II as a sports ambassador. Additionally, he went on to play semi-professional football for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League and for the San Francisco Clippers of the American Football League.
When the Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946, the team had sought a lease to play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was publicly owned and funded by both Black and white taxpayer dollars.
The particular reason for this circumstance meant that there was an expectation that the team would be integrated and pressure from local Black newspapers and the stadium commission forced the Rams hand into integrating.
Following a championship victory in the 1945 season, the Rams made an even bigger headline after the signing of the talented Washington, making him the first Black football player to sign an NFL contract in the modern era. Additionally, Washington broke the league’s so-called “color barrier” a full year before his one-time teammate Robinson first crossed baseball’s color line by walking out to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“He’s a great football player and Los Angeles will make a lot of money with him in the lineup,” Jackie Robinson told the Pittsburgh Courier about Washington’s signing in 1946.
“People will come from far and near to see him play.”
In addition, the Rams knew Washington could not be the only Black player in the NFL and gave him options of other players’ names to sign on with the Rams. Washington could think of nobody else besides former teammate Woody Strode, and the Rams fulfilled his wish just two months following his historic signing.
Strode left after one season to pursue other career paths, citing issues such as lack of playing time and constant racial abuse as contributing factors to his quick departure.
Prior to his debut in a Rams uniform, Washington had undergone his fifth knee surgery where he removed torn cartilage from his left side and did not make his first start until the (then named) Washington Redskins visited the Coliseum on September 6.
While the injuries had taken their toll, Washington played three seasons with the Rams organization and still demonstrated his offensive prowess. In his second season, he led the league in yards per carry (7.4) and scored a 92-yard rushing touchdown against the Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona Cardinals), which sits as the 18th longest run in NFL history and a Rams franchise record that still holds to this day.
It would take two years until another franchise would add a Black player when the Detroit Lions signed Mel Groomes and Bob Mann in 1948. Thus, proving how big of a signing Washington really was for, not just the NFL, but society as a whole.
Washington always had support from the community and the Black press which, at that time, was a lot more powerful than what you might imagine it to be today. He persevered through the 13-year league ban, racist attacks, and numerous surgeries to change the course of football history much like his teammate and friend Jackie Robinson did for baseball.
While he technically was not the first Black player in the league, his contract signing paved the way for a league that is now over 70 percent African American. Despite the hardships, Washington made the most of his three seasons before retiring in 1948.
In his three seasons, Washington played in 27 games where he racked up 1,086 total yards (859 rushing, 227 receiving) and scored 9 total touchdowns.
While his numbers do not scream Canton, Ohio (location of the football Hall of Fame), Washington is a pioneer and should be recognized for his history-changing contract signing. For his efforts and performances at UCLA, Washington’s number 13 was retired and the All-American was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956, 15 years prior to his death in 1971.
In his induction speech, he credited football for the life he had.
“Football has been good to me,” Washington said. “I’ve made a good living at it. I’ve bought a home for my wife and sons. I have made wonderful friends in the game.”
Featured image: Archival image of Kenny Washington, Tom Harmon and Bob Waterfield #7 of the Los Angeles Rams.