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 Los Angeles 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.
"In many ways sports set the tone for America to begin integration," writes Charles K. Ross in Outside the Lines. "The NFL was the first major sport to lower its color barrier during the postwar period, though not without a struggle."
Washington died at 52 years old in 1971, long before seeing his sacrifice lead to an NFL that's now nearly 70 percent Black players. His daughter, Karin Washington Cohen, says full credit for his part in the struggle is overdue.
Washington Cohen's parents divorced when she was 8 years old, and although her father still lived nearby and moved back into their house when his health began failing, Washington died when his daughter was 15. He didn't brag about his glory years, so Washington Cohen has mostly learned about her father's football career from the documentary filmmakers and writers who have tried to uncover his buried legacy in the last couple of decades. Washington Cohen knows many of today's young players couldn't tell you her father's name.
"You know the Jackie Robinson story," she says. "You should know the Kenny Washington story."
Washington, born in 1918, grew up in Lincoln Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood then dominated by first- and second-generation Italian and Irish families. Railroad tracks framed one edge of Lincoln Heights, and many in the neighborhood found work on the trains. Washington's grandfather was a cook on the local train line, which is likely how the family became the only Black residents of the neighborhood, according to friends and historians.
Washington's parents met as teenagers. His father, "Blue," stood 6 foot 5 and translated that physical prowess into a Negro Leagues baseball career, along with bit parts in Hollywood films, including an uncredited role in Gone With the Wind. However, Blue reportedly squandered his money on women, booze, and gambling. When Washington was 2 years old, his mother separated from Blue and moved in with Washington's grandparents, uncle and aunt. Although Blue would resurface at Washington's UCLA games, his boastfulness embarrassed Washington, who always saw his uncle Rocky as his father, writes Woody Strode, Washington's teammate and best friend, in his memoir Goal Dust.
Washington's family had established a respectable community presence, bonding with neighbors who often faced prejudice as immigrants. His uncle Rocky was the Los Angeles Police Department's first Black uniformed lieutenant. He'd joined an almost entirely white police force, combating pervasive prejudice with an easygoing charisma that set an early example for his nephew. Growing up, Washington might have gained a false impression that he could be anything he wanted. A 6-year-old in overalls, Washington approached the coach of an all-white semipro baseball team in a nearby park, Gretchen Atwood writes in her book Lost Champions. Soon, Washington shagged flies for batting practice, stunning the coach with his arm. In high school, Washington played both baseball and football, routinely throwing passes more than 50 yards while leading his team to a city championship. He won the title in the Coliseum he'd one day consider his second home. Washington was recruited by the University of Southern California (USC), a football powerhouse, but he knew that the Trojans had recently recruited a Black high school star only to have him sit on the bench. Realizing that USC might merely want to prevent him from playing for a rival school, he signed on with the fledgling UCLA program instead.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.