March 21 — This Day in History: Kenny Washington Becomes First Black Player to Join NFL
Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the athletic fields of UCLA, as both excelled at football and baseball.
Yet they remain worlds apart in our nation’s consciousness.
Major League Baseball celebrates Robinson every year on April 15 — the date in 1947 when he broke baseball’s longstanding color barrier. But March 21 comes and goes every year without anyone pausing to remember that Washington broke the NFL’s modern-era color barrier as a member of the Los Angeles Rams on that date in 1946 — a full year before Robinson’s milestone.
Every baseball player wears Robinson’s No. 42 on April 15. It’s the only day that any player can wear the number, with the exception of Mariano Rivera, the last player who was allowed to have it. When Rivera retires, no one else will wear it on a regular basis until the end of time.
Forget a league-wide recognition of Washington’s No. 13 by the NFL — his former team hasn’t even retired it. In fact, it allowed Chris Miller to once wear it while floundering around the Anaheim Stadium turf in the final throes of the Los Angeles Rams franchise. At least Kurt Warner finally restored some dignity to the number when he donned it.
Robinson was selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Dr. Martin Luther King called him “a legend and a symbol in his own time.”
Washington, on the other hand, has yet to be recognized by the institution with the official final word on football’s legacy — the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Washington’s name hasn’t been uttered by the senior committee, which nominates players who are more than 25 years removed from the game for enshrinement in Canton.
No offense to 2012 senior committee inductee Jack Butler, but it’s hard to imagine someone having a bigger impact on the game than the NFL’s equivalent of Jackie Robinson.
But the recognition is coming. Filmmaker Stephen Sariñana-Lampson is part of a Los Angeles Lincoln High School alumni group that has started the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation, the goal of which is to restore the dilapidated field he once roamed. The group organized the first-ever Kenny Washington Memorial Football Game in 2011, and the second will be played this September.
Sariñana-Lampson also will complete a documentary, “Hero from the City of Angels,” detailing the rise of Washington, who received a standing ovation from a crowd of 80,000 in the Los Angeles Coliseum during the last game he ever played, in 1948. Washington was presented with a trophy at halftime of that game, and it’s now handed down to the top athlete at Lincoln High School.
“What Kenny had to go through was in some ways harder than what Jackie Robinson had to endure,” Sariñana-Lampson said. “You could dodge a ball in baseball. But the Rams handed him the ball.
“One time in a game against the Redskins, the players held him down, piled on top and put chalk in his eyes.”
SOURCE: Adam Rank