Who Was Kenny Washington?
After college, Kenny Washington was passed over by the NFL, which had not had an African American player since 1933. Instead, he became the biggest star and most popular player in two minor professional leagues on the West Coast. Finally, in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams signed him, ending the 12-year ban on Black players in the NFL.
Washington was born on August 31, 1918, in Los Angeles. The product of L.A.'s Lincoln Heights neighborhood, a mostly Italian section of the city, Washington was raised mainly by his grandmother and his uncle Rocky, the first uniformed African American lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department.
In school, Washington was an athletic force. He led Lincoln High School to the city title his junior year and then six months later to the football championship his senior season.
His dominance continued at University of California, Los Angeles, where he starred on the university's football and baseball teams. As a ballplayer, Washington hit well over .300 the two years he played on the varsity squad. Some scouts even viewed him a better player than his teammate Jackie Robinson.
On the football field, Washington was nearly unstoppable. In 1939 the running back played 580 of 600 minutes and led the nation in scoring. That same season he became the first UCLA player to be named an All-American.
Later, one of his teammates on those Bruins teams, Woody Strode, remarked that when Washington left the field for the final time as a UCLA player, the ovation that thundered for him sounded as though "the pope of Rome had come out."
Despite his impressive college numbers, an NFL career was not available to Washington upon graduating from UCLA. At the time, the league was in the midst of what would prove to be a 12-year ban on African American players, a policy that had been steered into place in 1933 by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.
Not even legendary Chicago Bears coach George Halas, who'd coached Washington in the College All Star Game and pushed hard to get Washington to play in the NFL, could get the ban overturned.
Instead, Washington briefly coached the freshman team at UCLA, joined the city's police department and played four seasons of semi-pro football, first for the Hollywood Bears and later for the San Francisco Clippers. Despite the obscurity of the two leagues he played in, Washington became a star, whose profile was as high as that of any NFL player.
Finally, in 1946 the NFL lifted its race ban when the Los Angeles Rams, facing a threat of losing its lease on the Los Angeles Coliseum unless it signed an African American player, inked Washington and Strode to a pair of deals.
Even though Washington's knees were pretty much shot, he still managed to average 6.1 yards per carry during his three seasons with the club. His 92-yard touchdown run against Chicago in 1947 continues to be a franchise record.
Washington retired from the NFL following the 1948 season. His No. 13 jersey was retired by UCLA in 1956, and that same year Washington was inducted into the College Hall of Fame.
Washington died of heart and lung problems in Los Angeles in 1971 at the age of 52.
We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!