The day Kenny Washington ended the NFL’s unofficial blackout
The UCLA product became the first African-American to sign an NFL contract in 13 years when he joined the Rams in 1946
There was no rule that banished black players from the NFL during the 1930s and ’40s. Team owners conveniently just didn’t sign any for 13 years.
The Cleveland Rams, who were relocating to Los Angeles, changed that. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in which the team wanted to play was publicly owned, meaning it was funded by white and black taxpayer dollars, and there was an expectation that the team would be integrated.
On March 21, 1946, Rams general manager Charlie “Chile” Walsh signed former UCLA standout Kenny Washington. The Rams purchased the 27-year-old’s contract from the Hollywood Bears and reportedly signed the halfback to a “five-figure salary,” the Los Angeles Sentinel reported. Walsh would tell the Los Angeles Times that the “financial arrangements are entirely satisfactory to Washington and keeping with the [ex-UCLA player’s] gridiron reputation.”
Liberty Magazine named Washington an All-American for the Bruins in 1939. Of the 664 players nominated, Washington was the only one who received the vote of every opponent he faced during the season.
This distinction helped him win the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding player in the nation that season. After graduating from UCLA, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Washington worked as a police officer for two years. He returned to football in 1941 to play with the Pacific Coast League Bears for four seasons.
When the Rams signed Washington, he was coming off knee surgery and wouldn’t be available until the summer. His first game action came in the last week of August at Soldier Field against the Collegian All-Stars. Washington’s first start at home wouldn’t be until the Washington football team visited the Coliseum on Sept. 6.
“We’ll use him where we can get the most good out of his outstanding abilities,” Walsh told the Los Angeles Times about how Washington would line up in the team’s T-formation attack.
In the NFL’s infancy, African-Americans such as Fritz Pollard, Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, Bobby Marshall, Sol Butler and Duke Slater enjoyed tremendous success in the league. But in 1933, Chicago Cardinals halfback Joe Lillard became the last black player to suit up for a pro team until the Rams signed Washington.
Historians who have studied that decade-plus drought reported a gentlemen’s agreement among the owners. When Walsh opened the door for Washington, he also opened it for Washington’s former UCLA and Hollywood Bears backfield mate Woody Strode on May 7, 1946.
Washington and Strode were two of the three African-Americans in the UCLA backfield along with Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.