Kenny Washington, University of California at Los Angeles halfback on...

Kenny Washington, University of California at Los Angeles halfback on August 15, 1950, mentioned for all-conference honors. (AP Photo) Credit: AP


His name is mostly forgotten, even if his legacy is forever a part of NFL history.

Now the city of Los Angeles hopes you remember his name: Kenny Washington.

Not far from SoFi Stadium, where the Rams will play the Bengals on Sunday in Super Bowl LVI, Los Angeles City Councilman Curren D. Price introduced a proclamation naming Sunday, Feb. 13 "Kenny Washington Day" to celebrate the life of one of the most important players ever.

"Kenny Washington has a special place in history, in the story of the NFL, in the story of Los Angeles, in the story of fighting for justice and equality and inclusivity," Price said during a news conference outside the union headquarters of United Here, Local 11, which represents workers in hotels, restaurants and sports arenas, including SoFi Stadium.

"This commemorative date in Kenny’s name is extremely fitting as the world turns its eyes to L.A. to watch Super Bowl XVI."

So who is Kenny Washington?

Well, he is to pro football what Jackie Robinson is to Major League Baseball, even if his legacy is almost entirely overlooked.

Washington was the first African-American player to integrate the modern NFL when he signed with the Rams on March 21, 1946. That was more than a year before Robinson — who played football with Washington at UCLA and was part of the Bruins’ unbeaten 1939 team — broke the color barrier in baseball by making his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While Robinson soon became an iconic name in sports and American culture, Washington’s achievement has become a barely noticed part of football history. Yet his signing signaled the end of an unofficial 12-year ban on Black players in the NFL, one of the worst chapters of pro football history.

In today’s NFL, approximately 70% of all players are Black. But from 1934-45, there were no African-Americans in the league.

Washington’s signing — which occurred after pressure from Black sportswriters, including Halley Harding, who pushed the Rams to integrate because they were moving from Cleveland and wanted to play in the publicly owned Los Angeles Coliseum — soon was followed by his former UCLA teammate, Woody Strode. The two were the only Black players in the NFL in 1946.

That same year, Paul Brown, coach and part-owner of the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference, signed defensive lineman Bill Willis and fullback Marion Motley as the rival league’s only two Black players.

Fitting, then, that it is the Rams facing off against the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, with the Rams becoming the first NFL team to permanently integrate and the Bengals now owned by Paul Brown’s son, Mike.

The NFL, which has invited family members of all four players to the game, will honor Washington, Strode, Willis and Motley during a pregame celebration.

"Kenny would have been proud to see this day come," Price said. "And years down the road, some may forget the final score of the Super Bowl. However, one must never forget the legacy of Kenny Washington as the first Black player to break the color barrier to make it possible for others like him to play in the NFL. In the spirit of Black History Month, it’s important that we shine a bright light on the unsung heroes who changed the course of history."

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said it’s important to remember the legacy of Washington and others who paved the way for future generations of players.

"We teach our players history," said Smith, who is Black. "We teach them that we don’t have anything but for the sacrifices of people who came before us."

AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler, who applauded the new contract agreed to by stadium workers late Thursday night, said the union workers share an important connection to Washington.

"Trailblazing is hard work," she said. "They have a lot in common with Kenny Washington. It’s hard to be the first of anything, but it allows others to see the possibilities. You don’t trailblaze alone. We all trailblaze alongside each other."

Several members of Washington’s family were in attendance at Friday’s proclamation ceremony, including one of his grandsons, Kirk Washington.

"People want to know, who was the first? Who integrated the NFL?" Washington said. "The longer we’ve been here, the more stories we hear. It’s been overwhelming but a true honor. It’s something to behold. On behalf of all of us, we’d like to thank you all for putting his name out there, getting involved in telling his story. We’re very proud of that."


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