Book excerpt: 'The Forgotten First' explores the breaking of the NFL's color barrier
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 and helped change American culture forever. But it was a year before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers that four African American players became the first to play pro football in the modern era, thus ending a 12-year ban on Black players in the NFL and blazing the trail for thousands to come after.
"The Forgotten First," co-written by former Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Newsday NFL columnist Bob Glauber, tells the stories of these four men -- Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams, and Bill Willis and Marion Motley of the Browns -- and the challenges they had to overcome to help impact future generations and change the league forever.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of that first season, a fitting reminder of just how far the NFL has come in creating one of the most diverse leagues in pro sports. It’s a fitting tribute to the first four men to do for football what Robinson, a former UCLA teammate of Washington and Strode, did for baseball.
By KEYSHAWN JOHNSON AND BOB GLAUBER
The clock stopped with fifteen seconds left in the fourth quarter — the first undefeated season in UCLA history now assured — and Kenny Washington was called to the sidelines by coach Babe Horrell.
More than 103,000 fans had packed into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a sun-splashed afternoon on Dec. 9, 1939, to watch the USC-UCLA game. The outcome would decide which team went to the Rose Bowl and be in position to win the national championship. As Washington made his way to the bench, the crowd stood and roared. Even USC fans understood the magnitude of the moment and paid tribute to the player whose dashing runs and powerful arm had built the Bruins into a national contender.
Washington had produced one of the greatest seasons in college football history, playing almost every minute of every game in leading UCLA to a 6-0-4 record and nearly conquering a USC team that had more talent, more swagger, and more history than the upstart Bruins.
The game would end in a 0–0 tie—maybe the most impactful score-less game in football history, given the circumstances and the stakes. And while the result might represent a failure by today’s standards, given how easy it has become to score points, this was an epic game — up to and including the dramatic 71-yard drive Washington engineered in the fourth quarter that nearly resulted in one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Washington played at the left halfback position, giving him primary responsibilities in both the passing and the running game. He led the Bruins on a thirteen-play drive alongside teammate Jackie Robinson— yes, that Jackie Robinson—and his best friend, renowned end Woody Strode, getting the team inside the USC 5-yard line with a mix of his passing and running.
USC stood up to the Bruins near the goal line, stopping UCLA on three straight inside runs, setting up a dramatic fourth-down play. This was an era when coach-to-player communication was prohibited from the sidelines, meaning that the players had to decide whether to go for the game-winning field goal — which might have seemed like a no-brainer but was complicated by the fact that UCLA had missed its last five extra-point kicks over the previous two games.
A vote was taken in the UCLA huddle to decide their fate. Five players wanted to go for the touchdown. Five wanted to kick the field goal. Ned Matthews, ultimately responsible for the play calling, broke the deadlock. The Bruins would go for six points.
Washington walked to the line of scrimmage and surveyed the USC defense. Crouching down low behind the center, he took the snap and faded back to pass. End Don MacPherson, lined up to the right of the formation, sprinted into the end zone and quickly cut to his right. Washington delivered the pass, but Trojans defender Bobby Robertson stepped in front of MacPherson to swat the ball away.
The game would end in a scoreless tie, USC would get the Rose Bowl berth and eventually earn the national title with a win over Tennessee. But Washington’s impact was unmistakable against 14-point favorite the Trojans. Washington played all but a few seconds of the entire season — halfback on offense, where he was the leading rusher and passer, and safety on defense. He’d become the first player in Bruin history to win All-America honors and was considered among the best — if not the best — college players in the country.
Now it was time for his curtain call.
As he walked to the sidelines, the applause grew. It quickly reached a level almost never heard before in the stadium.
Strode couldn’t believe how loud it got.
"It was the most soul-stirring event I have ever seen in sports," he later said. "As Kenny left the field and headed up to the tunnel, the ovation followed him in huge waves. It was like the Pope of Rome had come out."
As his eyes welled with tears at the emotion of his farewell to college football, Washington couldn’t have known then that the next time he walked onto this same field years later, he’d make history and open the doors of opportunity for thousands of players after him. Nor could Strode, his closest friend and teammate.
While Washington left to a thunderous ovation that afternoon, the NFL was in the midst of its annual college draft for the 1940 season. On a cold, overcast day in Milwaukee, representatives from the league’s ten teams gathered in the ballroom of the stately Schroeder Hotel.
The draft would last twenty-two rounds, with each team taking twenty players. In all, two hundred players were selected, starting with Tennessee fullback George Cafego going first and five halfbacks among the first ten selections.
Kenny Washington’s name was not called that day. Nor was Strode’s.
All two hundred players selected were white.
STAY HOME FOR SAFETY SAKE
Cleveland coach Paul Brown didn’t tell Marion Motley and Bill Willis why he wasn’t taking them to Miami. He just handed them their weekly salary and told them they wouldn’t be traveling with the Browns for their Dec. 3, 1946, game against the Miami Seahawks.
It was the next-to-last game of the inaugural season of the All-America Football Conference, and the Browns were dominating the eight-team league with a 10-2 record. Motley and Willis were two of Brown’s most indispensable players — Motley, the bruising fullback who teamed with quarterback Otto Graham to form one of the greatest backfields in pro football history; and Willis, the cat-quick defensive lineman and reliable offensive lineman who’d played for Brown at Ohio State and now was part of Brown’s team in the fledgling pro league.
The letters came a few days before the game, and Brown was mortified. Yet he chose to withhold the information from Motley and Willis, the only two African-American players in the league. He didn’t tell them of the plot to murder them.
"Paul decided he wasn’t going to let them travel to Miami to let them play," said Willis’s son, Bill Willis Jr. "He just gave them $500 apiece to stay home. Paul did not say to them, ‘I don’t want you to go because they’re going to kill you.’ "
Instead, the coach kept the information to himself and decided not to take any chances.
"They were not aware of the death threats until much later," Willis said. "It would have been terribly upsetting if he’d told them at the time."
The construction crew arrived at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, early the morning of June 19, 2020. Workers carefully slipped heavy-duty straps around the ten-foot high monument of George Preston Marshall, founder of the then–Washington Redskins. The night before, the words "Change the Name" had been spray-painted on it in bold letters. Once the statue was secured, it was hoisted off its moorings by a giant crane and taken away from the place it had stood since Marshall had moved the team from Griffith Stadium in 1961.
That the statue was removed on this particular day was not a co- ncidence. June 19—Juneteenth — is the holiday celebrating the official end of slavery. Also called Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, it commemorates the date of June 19, 1865, when Union Army general Gordon Granger announced slavery’s end in Galveston, Texas.
Marshall owned the team from 1932, when he purchased the Boston Braves and then moved the franchise to Washington a year later, until his death in 1969. Marshall, who was behind an unwritten agreement preventing African-American players from joining the NFL from 1933 to 1945, was the last NFL owner to integrate his team. And he only did it in 1962, long after every other team, and only because then–attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened to prevent the team from playing at the stadium because it was on federally owned land.
"This symbol of a person who didn’t believe all men and women were created equal and who had actually worked against integration is counter to all that we as people, a city, and nation represent," read a statement by Events DC, which operates the stadium. "We believe that injustice and inequality of all forms is reprehensible and we are firmly committed to confronting unequal treatment and working together toward healing our city and country."
That same day, the statue of another former sports owner with ties to Washington and a racist past — Calvin Griffith, who moved the Senators to Minnesota in 1960 — was taken down at newly built Target Field in Minneapolis.
In a 1978 speech he made in Waseca, Minnesota, in 1978, Griffith said, "I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 Blacks here. . . . We came here because you’ve got good, hard-working white people here."
Both statues were removed during a national reckoning following the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis on May 25 while in police custody. The forty-six-year-old African-American man died during an arrest after he had allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. Police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and he was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
The event was captured on video and led to monthslong protests around the country. Chauvin would be found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
CREDITING PRO FOOTBALL PIONEERS
The Forgotten First is the largely untold story of integration in pro football, a painful chapter in the country’s most popular spectator sport. It is the story of the first group of players to break the color barrier, the people who helped them get there — and the people who tried to block them.
A year before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues, Washington, Strode, Motley, and Willis helped pave the way for the players to come after. While Robinson’s transformative story is an iconic piece of sports history and American culture, the first year of integration in pro football is mostly overlooked and doesn’t carry nearly the same impact as Robinson’s journey.
Each year on April 15, every Major League Baseball player celebrates Jackie Robinson Day by wearing his No. 42 jersey to commemorate the day he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in 1947. It was the first time a Black man had played in the big leagues in more than fifty years.
Even the most casual sports fan knows it was Robinson who broke baseball’s color barrier.
Yet chances are even the most diehard football fan can’t tell you the first African-American to be signed by an NFL team. It was Kenny Washington with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946, followed by his teammate Woody Strode a few weeks after that. Bill Willis was invited by Brown for a tryout with the Browns that summer, and he and Marion Motley soon made their own history by integrating the AAFC.
Washington, who played alongside Robinson in football and baseball at UCLA, made history against the wishes of the league owners, and only after public pressure was brought to bear on the –Rams owner Dan Reeves when he moved the team from Cleveland to Los Angeles.
The impact of Paul Brown’s actions on integrating pro football was much more closely aligned with that of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey in Major League Baseball in terms of intentionally bringing Willis and Motley to the Browns. It was Rickey who made the bold decision to sign Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945 that led to his Major League career two years later, even though Rickey knew there would be harsh blowback from fans and opposing players, and even some of Robinson’s teammates. Rickey felt the combination of Robinson’s talent and character would live up to the moment, as he once told Robinson he wanted a man who "had guts enough not to fight back."
Brown, however, was reluctant to attach the kind of racial significance that Rickey acknowledged. Even so, Willis and Motley knew the sacrifice made by their coach and the ramifications it carried, and they were grateful he would stand up for them and give them a chance.
Motley and Willis would go on to produce Hall of Fame careers along with Brown, one of the most innovative coaches in sports history, who has a place in Canton alongside two of his greatest players.
"This story needs to be told over and over and over, so our young people see how all of this led them to where they are now," said former Browns Pro Bowl guard John Wooten, the longtime executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting coaching and executive diversity in the NFL. "That’s the history. That history is not told enough, in my opinion."
Wooten is right. Not enough people know the story of these men, and I — Keyshawn — speak from experience.
I grew up in the same city as Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, played high school football twelve miles from Lincoln High School, where Washington was a legend. I played my USC home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, walked off the same field one last time, just like Washington did to those roars of more than 103,000 people on that December afternoon in 1939.
But I’d never heard of Washington or Strode, never realized what Motley and Willis had to go through to blaze the trail for the players, like me and so many others, who came after them.
Yes, the story of these men — the forgotten first of the NFL — really does need to be told. They need to be remembered for who they were, for what they did, and for what they meant.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Excerpted from The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier, by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber. Copyright © 2021 by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.