Monday, February 22, 2016

Four Men Who Broke Pro Football's Color Barrier: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley

By John Turney
Bill Willis
Bill Willis was an Ohio State lineman from 1942-44. While there he was a three-year starter - including two seasons for coach Paul Brown - playing both offense and defense. Willis earned All-America honors in 1943 and 1944 (Ohio State's first-such African American honoree) and was a key part of the Buckeyes' 1942 national championship squad.  Willis went on to a great career with the Cleveland Browns (1946-53). 

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame. Willis played eight seasons in professional football and was First-team All-league (AAFC or NFL) seven times and Second-team All-League once.
Marion Motley
Motley enrolled in 1939 at South Carolina State College but transferred before his sophomore year to the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was a stellar player from 1941-43. In 1046 he joined the Cleveland Browns and led them to many league titles

Motley played nine professional football seasons and was First-team All-League five times and was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sports Illustrated's famed writer Paul Zimmerman said Motley was the best football player he ever saw in the pro ranks. 
Woody Strode
Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Jackie Robinson starred on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team. Strode only played one year in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and then played two years in the Canadian Football League. He went on to a wrestling career and a Hollywood acting career.
Kenny Washington
Washington was a single-wing tailback at UCLA from 1937 through 1939. In 1939, Washington led the nation in total offense and became the first UCLA player to be named All-American. 

Solely because of his race, Washington was passed over by the NFL (which had not had an African American player since 1933) Instead, he became the biggest star in two minor professional leagues on the West Coast. First, by playing for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Pro Football League in 1940-41.  Later, in 1945 for the San Francisco Clippers of the American Football League in 1944.

In 1946 the Los Angeles Rams signed Washington, ending the 12-year ban on black players in the NFL. After three seasons with the Rams, he retired in 1948. 

However, it was not pure virtue (far from it) that allowed Washington to be signed. Pressure on the Rams from the city of Los Angeles, trying to convince the Los Angeles Colesium Public Commission forced the hand of the Rams. That and public pressure from media in the Los Angeles area moved the process along as well. 

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