Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football

The Forgotten Four covers Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley, with a mention of Jackie Robinson.   These were extraordinary athletes in their day and never received their accolades.   For me, it wasn’t the forgotten but the never knew.  There is so much history.   We are always provided with that one person to follow leaving the ones that come before out of the equation.

During that time, violence was the law of the land.  It was an ongoing dilemma that plagued the African American (or Negro – term of that period) community.  At that time, sports was a fast growing passion that grew more into an obsession.  Before the stock market crash in 1929, black players were within the league.  There weren’t many, but there was a presence.  “Fritz” Pollard was the 1st black coach of the NFL.  He and Bobby Marshall were the very first black players in the 1920s along with Paul Robeson.  Once the crash took place, then the positions that were labeled for “Negro” workers was now for white workers.  This also included sports.  This was a form of “cleanse” (if you will).  The “progression” was rescinded and left the African American wondering what his next move was going to be.

During the 1930s (after the crash), athlete Ray Kemp was asked to come back to the NFL to play for the Steelers but declined the offer because he had an opportunity to be the head coach at this alma mater.  Another athlete by the name of Joe Lillard was playing before the crash but was never asked to come back even though he was ranked at top of his game beforehand.   Soon after, George Preston Marshall (owner of Washington Redskins) convinced the other owners of the league to keep the NFL as whites only.  This causes much strain for the Forgotten Four.

Kenny Washington and Woody Strode played together for UCLA along with Jackie Robinson.  Washington and Strode commanded the field but still faced racial challenges on the sidelines from many of their own teammates and off the field.   Even though Washington led UCLA to their undefeated season in his senior year, he was still seen as inferior and unworthy to join the NFL.  One scout wanted him to play with the Packers, but once it was introduced to George Marshall that request was soon dismissed.  No matter how hard Marshall tried, he could not keep the African American man out of the sport because in 1946 Washington signed his NFL contract to play with the LA RAMS (reintegrating the league).  Before he signed his “John Hancock” he requested Strode to be signed.  Strode ended up signing his contract with the RAMS that year as well.  Now, as an African American athlete (and the first) you carry the burdens of racism on your shoulders not only for yourself but for your community.

Bill Willis and Marion Motley played together on the Cleveland Browns coached by Paul Brown.  Paul Brown was the head coach of Ohio State where Willis played in college, so he knew what Willis could do.  Motley & Willis became fast friends and knew what they needed to do to continue to push forward. Their experience wasn’t the same as that of Washington and Strode though.  Within their program, if you were not within the philosophy of Paul Brown then do you not belong here.  There was still segregation but a little bit more comradery.  Paul Brown was coined an innovator because of his inception of the T-formation, usage of equipment, film, & even Friday Night Lights.  He was more known for reintroducing black athletes in football.  He knew that his future was contingent on winning so he had to find athletes that could help him with that.  Color could not play a factor.

Check it out.  It’s good to see history and know what happened before your time.  There is so much out here that never gets talked about.


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