NFL broke color line in 1946

Fred Jeter | 2/8/2024, 6 p.m.
Sunday night’s Super Bowl will showcase two franchises with Black players making up some 65% of their rosters.
Woody Strode, Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington are shown in this 1939 photo from UCLA.

Sunday night’s Super Bowl will showcase two franchises with Black players making up some 65% of their rosters.

So much has changed in that regard over the many decades following World War II.

Sports fans and even non-sports know plenty about the pioneering Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color line in April 1947.

Not so much is known about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who broke the same racial barrier in the NFL, and even beat Robinson to it by seven months, in September 1946.

Washington and Strode, football teammates of Robinson at UCLA, were the first Black players in the NFL after being signed, long after college, by the Los Angeles Rams.

Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Washington was a brilliant running back who in 1939 for undefeated UCLA led the nation in scoring and total offense and was the Trojans’ first consensus All-American.

Still, there was no place for him in the NFL, which had been segregated since 1933 largely due to Washington owner George Preston Marshall’s “gentleman’s agreement” among executives.

Instead, Washington helped coach at UCLA, joined the LA Police Department and played a brand of semi-pro football for the Hollywood Stars.

By the time the NFL came calling he was 28 and had been through several knee surgeries.

Still, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry in three seasons and ran back a kickoff 92 yards that still stands as a Rams record.

Woody Strode, born in Los Angeles in 1914, was a full 32 when he played on the Rams’ line at little more than 200 pounds, although heavily muscled.

Between UCLA and his Rams’ debut, he joined the U.S. Air Corps, serving in Guam and the Marianas, and played semi-pro football with Washington on the Bears.

Strode played just one season with the Rams before turning his focus to the silver screen. In 1946, the Rams went 6-4-1 with the league’s first integrated team.

Known as the “Black Hercules,” Strode starred in many feature productions, perhaps most notably The 10 Commandments in 1956 and Spartacus in 1960. He also dabbled in pro wrestling and mixed martial arts.

While Washington and Strode broke the NFL color line on the West Coast, bruising running back Marion Motley (from Leesburg, Ga.) and undersized lineman Bill Willis (from Columbus, Ohio) were in a similar role with the Cleveland Browns of the then All-American Football Conference. The AAFC was secondary to the NFL before merging in 1950.

With Motley and Willis as headliners, the Browns won the AAFC in 1946, ’47, ’48 and ’49.

In 1950, the Browns’ first NFL season, Cleveland went 10-2 and won the title, defeating the Rams in the finals. In 105 NFL games Motley rushed for 4,720 yards, averaged 5.7 per carry and scored 31 touchdowns.

Willis was a six-time All-Pro guard in the AAFC and NFL combined.

Young sports enthusiasts coming along need to learn about Robinson, but not to overlook Washington and Strode, and Motley and Willis as well.