As February kicks off post-Super Bowl, we want to remember and honor the first African-American players who joined the Los Angeles Rams: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Washington and Strode are not just the first African-Americans to join the Rams, but also the first players to break the color barrier in the modern NFL.
The NFL had a few black players from the early 1900s to 1933, but the league had no black players from 1934-1946. This was due to an unofficial policy enacted by the league and team owners to ban non-white players. When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, that relocation created an opportunity to overturn that ban. Since the Rams would play in the publicly funded Los Angeles Coliseum, pressure from the city’s Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and local African-American newspapers proved successful. The Rams broke the mold and signed Washington and Strode for the 1946 season.
Washington and Strode were standout athletes at UCLA. Ironically, they also played Bruins football with Jackie Robinson. Robinson, a multi-sport athlete, would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball later with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Kenny Washington was born in Los Angeles, California in 1918. After graduating from Lincoln High School, he attended UCLA. In his senior season in 1939, he helped lead the Bruins to their first undefeated season. He was named top collegiate player that year, but Washington still went undrafted by the NFL in 1940. He ended up playing for the Pacific Coast Football League’s Hollywood Bears for a few seasons. Washington also became an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.
After World War II, the Cleveland Rams made their move to Los Angeles in 1946. Local African-American journalist, Halley Harding, pushed for the Rams to integrate. Harding argued that that the black community played a huge role in the war effort and that it was only right to sign Washington. Washington had been a local favorite for years.
On March 21, 1946, the Rams made history. Washington became the first black player to sign a contract with the NFL in 13 years. One request he made before signing with the Rams was to ensure that his former Bruins teammate Strode would also be signed. The Rams agreed.
Washington was 28 years old when he started playing for the Los Angeles Rams. He also previously endured five knee surgeries, but that didn’t stop him from leading the league in stats as a running back. In his first season, Washington led the NFL in yards per carry. He was among rushing leaders in the league during his second season. In the 1947 season, he had a 92-yard touchdown run against the Chicago Cardinals. This run remains the longest rushing score in franchise history.
Washington’s injuries caught up with him and he retired from the Rams after three seasons.
Woody Strode was born in Los Angeles in 1914. He graduated from Jefferson High School and then went on to UCLA. While at UCLA, Strode was a track and football standout. After college, he also played for the Hollywood Bears and was teammates again with Washington. During World War II, Strode joined the U.S. Army Air Corp where he served in the Pacific and played football for the Army in Riverside, California. After the war, Strode joined the L.A. Rams in their inaugural 1946 season with the insistence of Washington. He only played for one season with the Rams and then played in Canada for the Calgary Stampeders. Strode retired from football in 1949 at the age of 35.
After football, Strode was a professional wrestler. He also pursued acting in Hollywood full-time and starred in several films over many decades. He had a famous gladiatorial fight scene with Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus.” His other big films were “The Man that Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Sergeant Rutledge.” He also had a part in the 1990s hit “The Quick and the Dead.”
How Far We Have Come
These two men brought so much to the community of Los Angeles, the Rams franchise and the NFL. It is hard to imagine a time where African-American players were banned from playing in the NFL. The league is now 70% African American and diversity has brought so much to the sport. After Washington and Strode, the Los Angeles Rams continued the trend of bringing more black players. Tank Younger was the first to join the NFL from a historically black college and helped the Rams win their first NFL Championship in 1951. “Deacon” Dan Towler, Bob Boyd, Harry Thompson and Woodley Lewis were also an integral part of the championship team. Dick “Night Train” Lane would join later and break many Rams and NFL defensive records. The Los Angeles Rams should be proud of their history. They were the pioneers that broke racial barriers.