As the NFL season kicks off, we’re thrilled to unveil our #UntoldStories blog series, made possible through the generous support of the NFL and the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative. This series delves deep into the lives of remarkable individuals, highlighting the core values they embodied. These values, timeless and universal, serve as guiding principles in our lives. Our inaugural feature spotlights Kenny Washington, a trailblazer in the world of sports, who exemplified the core value of resilience. As we journey through this series, each story will shine a light on a specific core value, drawing inspiration from the lives and legacies of these influential figures. We’re incredibly grateful for the NFL and Inspire Change’s commitment to amplifying these important stories.
Kenny Washington – The Forgotten Pioneer
Kenny Washington, a name that may not be as familiar as Jackie Robinson but is equally significant in the annals of American sports history. Washington was the first African American to sign a contract with a National Football League (NFL) team in the post-World War II era, breaking the league’s color barrier in 1946, a year before Robinson did the same in Major League Baseball.
Early Life and Challenges
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Washington showed early promise as a football player at Abraham Lincoln High School. His talent was undeniable, leading his team to city championships and earning a scholarship to UCLA. There, he became a college football sensation, setting records and earning accolades. Yet, despite his prowess on the field, the NFL, which had unofficially banned Black players since 1933, overlooked him.
A Testament to Resilience
Washington’s journey wasn’t just about football; it was a testament to resilience, a core value that he embodied throughout his life. His resilience was evident in the way he faced challenges head-on, never allowing the racial barriers of his time to deter him from his passion for the game. As his former UCLA teammate, Woody Strode, once said, “Kenny Washington should have been in the pros straight out of UCLA… He was that good.” Yet, the racial prejudices of the time kept him out of the NFL initially.
Breaking the NFL’s Color Barrier
It wasn’t until 1946, after serving in World War II and playing for two years in other football leagues, that Washington made history by signing with the Los Angeles Rams. His signing wasn’t just a personal achievement; it was a monumental step forward in the fight against racial segregation in sports.
Kenny Washington’s Impact on the NFL and Sports Culture
The theme of resilience is echoed in the memories of those who knew Washington. According to accounts from former teammates and friends, he faced adversity with grace, determination, and an unwavering spirit. One teammate recalled, “He took all the abuse, spitting, and name-calling in stride. He never retaliated or talked back. He let his performance on the field speak for him.” This resilience, this ability to persevere in the face of adversity, is a lesson that resonates deeply, especially in today’s world.
Continuing the Legacy with EVERFI’s Course
As Woody Strode poignantly remarked in an unpublished interview before his death in 1994, “History doesn’t know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is.” It’s essential to remember and celebrate trailblazers like Kenny Washington, not just for their contributions to sports but for the values they embodied and the barriers they broke.
A Comprehensive Curriculum
EVERFI’s free-to-teachers “306: Continuing the Story” course offers a comprehensive curriculum designed to deepen students’ understanding of African American history, both past and present, and inspire them to become advocates for equality and justice. The course modules include:
- Untold Stories: Delving into the lesser-known narratives of African American heroes.
- Black Business Titans: Celebrating the achievements of African American entrepreneurs and innovators.
- Black Contributions in Medicine: Highlighting the significant contributions of African Americans in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
- Continuing the Legacy: Encouraging students to carry forward the legacy of equality and justice in their own lives.
These modules are an excellent addition to middle and high school courses focusing on history, social studies, or character education. Learn more about the course here.
- Layden, T. (2009, October 12). The NFL’s Jackie Robinson. Sports Illustrated Vault. Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/2009/10/12/the-nfls-jackie-robinson
- Plaschke, B. (2011, October 11). Kenny Washington broke the NFL’s color barrier, but why is he forgotten? Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-xpm-2011-oct-11-la-sp-plaschke-20111012-story.html
- Slate. (2021). Kenny Washington Broke the NFL’s Color Barrier. Why Has His Story Been Forgotten?. https://slate.com/culture/2021/12/kenny-washington-nfl-color-barrier-rams-jackie-robinson-football-history.html.
- UCLA Newsroom. (1997). Teammates Recall Jackie Robinson’s UCLA Legacy. https://web.archive.org/web/20170921002629/http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/970425TeammatesRecall.
About the Author:
Erick, a Senior Manager on the Customer Marketing team at EVERFI, holds a master’s degree in Sports Management from Georgetown University. With over a decade of experience in the sports and media sector, Erick has cultivated a deep-seated passion for making a meaningful difference in marginalized or underrepresented communities. Before joining EVERFI, Erick worked for Events DC, Washington, DC’s Sports & Convention Authority. He now supports EVERFI’s sports partnerships team, spearheading marketing and event initiatives that engage students around critical topics including character education, mental wellness, and STEM.