In 1933, NFL owners secretly banned Black players from the league. Thirteen years later, four Black men—Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley—reintegrated pro football. The Forgotten Four broke the race barrier in professional football one year before Jackie Robinson’s historic, and widely recognized, debut in Major League Baseball.
In Blackballed, a new four-part audio documentary on the Ringer NFL Show feed, we’re telling their story and exploring how it can help us understand the league’s complicated relationship with race in the present day. Below is an excerpt of Episode 2, “Kenny, Woody, Bill, and Marion.” Listen to Episode 1 here, and check back on Tuesday for Episode 3 and next Thursday for the series finale.
As Kenny Washington’s daughter Karin tells it, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode didn’t experience much racism during college, at least when they were in town.
“It appears that everything was cool as long as they were home. UCLA loved them and took care of them,” Karin says. “They were both from L.A., you know. This was home.”
On the road, though, it was a different story. They heard threats and other verbal abuse. Kenny and Woody were sometimes left home during trips. But overall, Kenny and Woody’s college experience, football and otherwise, was defined by success and friendship.
“They were already best friends,” Karin says. “You know, Jackie Robinson was there, but he wasn’t a best friend.”
Yes, that Jackie Robinson. The same guy who would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball was on their football team. He started at UCLA in 1939, three years after Kenny and Woody did. But Jackie didn’t become friends with them, not really.
“Jackie Robinson had suffered more racism than my father had,” Karin says. “Jackie’s from Pasadena. You know, life was different in Pasadena than it was in Lincoln Heights [the neighborhood where Kenny grew up], even though they’re not far away.”
They might not have become buddies, but they were standouts on the field. Especially Kenny and Jackie.
The 1939 UCLA football team finished with six wins, no losses, and four low-scoring ties. (Hey, it was a different era.) The team ended up ranked seventh in the AP poll, one of the best teams in the country. And the Bruins were led by their Black players: Kenny, Woody, and Jackie.
Kenny Washington ended his college career with a then-school record 1,915 rushing yards, plus 1,300 passing yards. He also played defense; during his senior season, he played both ways: 580 of UCLA’s 600 minutes of game time. That sounds exhausting.
That year, he led the nation in total offense, and was the first consensus All-American in UCLA history. His number 13 would eventually be retired—also a first for UCLA.
He and Woody were seniors, and had played their final collegiate game—a tie against USC, an all-white team.
On the same day as the UCLA-USC game, the NFL held its annual draft. Back then, the league had 10 teams, and the draft had 22 rounds.
There were 200 total picks. None of them were used on Woody or Kenny.
Today, a player with Kenny’s résumé would get picked very close to the top of the draft. But by 1940, it had been over six years since a Black player had played in the NFL.
Despite not having access to the NFL, Kenny and Woody didn’t stop playing football. In fact, they played in a semipro league called the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. It was basically a minor league, and it was mostly based in California.
Kenny played for the Hollywood Bears from 1940 through 1945. He became the league’s highest-paid player, and earned all-league honors every year. He probably would have kept playing for the Bears, but something happened that would open the door for Kenny, and then Woody, to play at the highest level against teams across the country.
A chance to play in the NFL.
In late 1945, the Cleveland Rams won the NFL championship. Keep in mind, this is still decades before the first Super Bowl. But the team was losing money, and another pro football team was moving to Cleveland.
So, less than a month after winning the championship, Rams owner Dan Reeves made a big decision: He would move the team to Los Angeles. At the time, the NFL did not extend farther west than Chicago and Green Bay. A move to L.A. was the first of its kind.
But the Rams still didn’t have anywhere to play.
In early 1946, just a few days after getting approval to move, Reeves tried to secure the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the Rams’ home stadium. But a group of Black L.A. sportswriters, led by Halley Harding, saw this as an opportunity to change the racial landscape of pro football. A moment of intense leverage.
At the time, the Coliseum was publicly owned, funded by taxpayer money. And many of those taxpayers were Black.
Because it was publicly owned, decisions about the stadium were made by a group called the L.A. Coliseum Commission, which met in public. At the next commission meeting, Harding spoke during the public comment session to argue against letting the Rams play at the Coliseum.
He said, basically, that allowing a team without any Black players to play there violated the rights of Black taxpayers. He talked about the success of Black players in prior eras, like Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson. He called out the gentlemen’s agreement—said explicitly that the NFL barred Black players since 1933. He pointed out the injustice of sending Black men to war but not letting them play football. And he talked about Woody and Jackie, and especially Kenny. A star Black football player who never got a shot in the NFL. He closed by recommending the commission refuse to host any pro football team at the Coliseum until they gave Black players a chance.
Harding’s speech was more than well-received. The crowd burst into applause. And the commission appeared to agree as well.
There were a few more hurdles: The Rams tried to avoid giving Kenny a tryout, citing his contract with the Hollywood Bears. But Harding was a step ahead of them. He secured Kenny’s release. Secured his chance to, finally, play in the NFL, at the highest level of pro football.