Kenny Washington had an All-American football career at UCLA, setting a career record for total offense and winning the Douglas Fairbanks trophy as the best college player in the country. But when Washington graduated in 1939, there was no path to the National Football League. Black players had been banned six years before that, so Washington played semi-pro ball with the Hollywood Bears. After World War II, the NFL was forced to drop its discriminatory policies, and the running back became the first black player to sign an NFL contract in the modern era when he joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1946.
A year before Jackie Robinson:
- Woody Strode, Washington’s former UCLA teammate, also signed with the Rams in 1946.
- George Halas, legendary coach of the Chicago Bears, tried to sign Washington after his college graduation, but he was blocked by the other NFL owners.
- Washington broke the NFL's so-called “color barrier” a full year before Jackie Robinson first crossed Major League Baseball’s color line by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.