Thursday, May 25, 2023

Kenny Washington's Seven Passes That Made History

 By John Turney 
 Woody Strode (left), Rams coach Adam Walsh (center), and Kenny Washington (right)

From 1933 through 1945 the NFL had a racist policy to not sign African-American players to their teams. It was not written down, it was not a rule it was euphemistically called a gentlemen's agreement. 

It was anything but.

In 1946 the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and after being publically questioned and challenged by members of the Black Los Angeles Media and faced with the possibility of not being able to play in the publically funded Memorial Coliseum the Rams signed two Black players—Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. 

In the upstart All-America Football Conference, the Cleveland Browns had also signed two African-Americna players— Marion Motley and Bill Willis.

In camp, the Rams played Washington at quarterback, a T-Formation quarterback making him the first player of African descent to play that position. 

There had been Black players that had thrown passes in the NFL's early days. Black players were part of the NFL from its beginning Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall being the first. 

Pollard became the first coach and Pollard was back and even called a quarterback but it was a different offense, the modern T-formation with motion was not introduced until 1930 and was perfected in the 1930s.

For many years it's been thought that Chicago Bears' Willie Thrower thrower was the first Black player to man the position of quarterback. In 1953 he stepped in for a benched George Blanda.

In 1968 Marlon Briscoe of the Broncos was the first to be a starting quarterback for the majority of a season, he was "the guy". The following year James Harris opened the season as the Bills' quarterback, another milestone - the first Black quarterback to open a season.

Back to Thrower. He'd been a quarterback since high school and played it in college and was drafted as a quarterback. He hadn't been converted from another spot.

Washington had been a passer and runner in a single-wing offense. He had a strong arm and was an incredible runner in college at UCLA and in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League but he'd never played in the "T". 

Until 1946.

He got in for a few plays in the Chicago All-Star game where the Rams played the College All-Stars and in the season opener versus the Eagles in Los Angeles. 

On that September day, there were several firsts. 

It was the first NFL regular season game on the West Coast, the breaking of the color barrier with Washington and Strode playing in the game and Washington being the first person of color to play T-quarterback in the NFL.

Sadly, Washington was a shell of his former self, his knee was not fully recovered from surgery and it seemed he hadn't had a lot of reps at quarterback. The timing of the offense was off and things simply did not go well. 

Here are some of his plays from the Rams' opening game in 1946—
Bucko Killroy hits Bob Waterfield who goes out until
late in the fourth quarter. He plays a series and is replaced

Kenny Washington's first snap and first pass

Washington is just inside the wing on the right side. You can pick him up
downfield and it can be seen that his knee is not 100%—his legs
are not under him and cannot react smoothly.

A failed exchange. Ball is placed properly, but
perhaps the timing is off due to a lack or reps together.

Washington is under heavy pressure but manages to get 
the pass off avoiding a loss. 

Also of note:  Rams left halfback Tom Harmon goes into motion
and Eagles All-Pro tackle follows him as a hybrid DT/LBer

Again motion, and again Wistert covers. Washington
gets pass off under heavy pressure.

Washington's first and only NFL completion—a good throw
into a pretty tight window to All-Pro Jim Benton.

More motion to the right flat, more Wistert coverage and more
heavy pressure on Washington who avoids another loss
by getting the ball off. After this pass, he's one for five
passing and is replaced by Jim Hardy for the majority
of the remainder of the game

Washington targets Strode but misses

After this pass, Washington is one for seven.

In Washington's eighth dropback, he steps past
the endline for an Eagles safety.

He went 1 for 7 in passing for 19 yards. He played the rest of the season as a running back and threw one pass which was not completed. Jim Hardy was the quarterback on the play.

In 1946 Washington was never really healthy until the following year and even then he was probably never what he was when he was in his early-to-mid twenties before the knee started to give him fits.

At the time the Los Angeles Times had documented Washington playing quarterback but we're not sure why his playing the position was not more publicized and why Thrower got the consideration in the media. Perhaps because it was short-lived and he was moved from the position after a single game.

He was successful as a running back, in his three-year career - when he was in his late twenties - he averaged 6.1 yards a carry and 15.1 yards per reception. He still holds the Rams' record for longest run (92 yards) and the single-season yards per carry record (among league qualifiers) with a 7.4-yard average (which also led the league).

A racist policy robbed Washington of a full career and football fans of seeing someone who would have been one of the all-time greats in his prime. 

Note: Film clips from author's personal collection. Contact the author for permission to use.


  1. for sure a "footnote", but this is an AMAZING revision of "standard knowledge" in pro football history....for decades the conventional wisdom was the "modern" pioneers were Willie Thrower and Choo Choo here we have (in color no less) proof that Kenny Washington is the first African American qb....kudos for this John and thank you!

  2. oh one more thing....on the punt play, it's clear that Kenny's legs don't work a darn, but man, after getting downfield, he r-e-a--=l-y anticipates the angle of the return man....evidence of a high situational football awareness....just imagine if he and Jackie Robinson could have been drafted in 1940....

    1. Yeah, he was using hands to get to return man, too. His mind was winning the body wasn't able.