How Kenny Washington Broke the NFL's Color Barrier...And Why You've Never Heard of Him
He pushed past brutal racism to become the first Black player in major league sports—a year before Jackie Robinson—yet even his own kids never knew his full story. It’s time everyone did.
Awaiting the snap, Kenny Washington scanned the Philadelphia Eagles defense, who were digging their cleats like enraged bulls. All of the white men scowled, making it impossible to know which of them might try to inflict a punishment more severe than tackling him. It was 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson would take the field in Brooklyn, and Kenny Washington had just broken the NFL’s color barrier. Los Angeles Rams coach Adam Walsh seemed to waver about playing Washington; he didn’t insert the former University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) star until late in the fourth quarter, down 23-14 to the Eagles. Playing quarterback and backed up against his team’s end zone, Washington faced long odds. With time running out, everyone in the L.A. Coliseum, including the Eagles defense, could predict the play, knowing that Washington would have to rely on the cannon arm he’d used to mount epic comebacks for UCLA, often in this same stadium. But that was seven years ago, a lifetime in football years. Washington breathed deep and listened to the cheers of the crowd, including loyal Black fans who had followed him since high school. Adrenaline almost numbed his aching knees, which had endured a fifth surgery to make this season possible. With lips pursed, the grin that he had become famous for remained hidden under his trim mustache. Washington’s maskless leather helmet, soaked with sweat from the 95-degree day and dampness from an earlier downpour, would offer little protection. Washington received the ball, cradling it less than a second before finding the laces and cocking his arm. As defenders closed in, Washington fired to a receiver downfield. The pass missed. He missed on another try. And another. Washington completed just one of eight passes in that game. On one desperate play, he avoided a hit by running out of his end zone for a safety. He staggered off the field after the loss, wondering how it had come to this. After all the work. All the pain. He’d be damned if this was how people remembered Kenny Washington.
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