It’s difficult to put former Los Angeles Rams running back/quarterback Kenny Washington into context for today’s fan, so let’s try a modern method:
Let’s play three truths and a lie:
Kenny Washington still owns the longest TD run in Rams franchise history.
He was a movie star.
He played multiple seasons of professional baseball.
He’s the first black player in the modern NFL.
All four of these statements are true, but Washington’s story is not widely known.
In his new book “Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington” broadcaster Dan Taylor tries to summarize Washington’s athletic career and social impact.
At a shade under 200 pages, the book doesn’t answer every question. It’s remarkably light on details after Washington’s playing days are done, but it does create the narrative that Washington was all those things and more. He was a victim of his time, but also persevered despite it.
But the book leaves the reader with the thought that the saddest truth about Washington is that we’ll never really know how great he was.
“Walking Alone” is tirelessly researched in that it has details on Washington’s high school career at Lincoln High in Los Angeles, which included exploits in football, baseball and track. He attends UCLA, sits out a year because freshmen aren’t eligible, but then immediately becomes a star in the Bruins backfield.
Washington is described as a powerful runner, strong and fast, but also with a strong arm. There is a big portion of the early book devoted to the story of Washington maybe/sort of/possibly completing the longest in-air pass in football history.
That’s a great made-up record, but one thing that can never be solved.
At the end of the book, one contemporary of Washington describes him as “Jim Brown, but could do more.”
Washington was a box office star on the West Coast, starring in College Football All-Star games.
But when it was time to go pro, his options were limited.
Here, There, Everywhere
You read it now and it all sounds so dumb. NFL owners saying there were no “written rules” about having black football players in the league, but everyone adhering to the unwritten rule that the game should only have white players.
After leaving UCLA in 1940, Washington becomes a cop in LA and coaches on the side. World War II has broken out, and he is deferred because he’s married with a young family. The police force needs men, because they lose so many to the draft (in this case the draft to fight the Nazis).
But Washington can’t shake playing football. He plays in the Pacific Coast League for the Hollywood Bears. He dabbles in some baseball. Where he goes fans follow. At one point a whole new league is created on the West Coast just to make Washington its centerpiece.
The man was – as they say today – Money.
The Rams Backstory
We’ve written a few times on MyLASports.com around the Rams roots in Cleveland and winning an NFL title in Cleveland in 1945. But why did they move to LA to begin with?
“Walking Alone” sheds light on the story, and incredibly it hinges on a key NFL figure: Paul Brown.
Investors want to start a new football league: The All-American Football Conference (AAFC). They hire Coach Paul Brown away from Ohio State and put a team in Cleveland…which would become the Cleveland Browns.
The Rams owners know they can’t compete with that, so they hightail it to LA and make a deal to play at the LA Memorial Coliseum.
In one of the best stories of the book, Taylor describes Rams GM Chile Walsh showing up to meet with Coliseum officials and while there is attacked (verbally) by members of the black press community. Basically, the Coliseum was paid for by taxes on all citizens, so the Rams can’t use it unless they field an integrated team. It’s hard to know whether Walsh and the Rams leadership figured this was going to happen or not, but Walsh says the Rams will have no problem having black players…especially Washington on the team.
Washington Is A Ram
By the time Washington gets to the Rams he’s no longer in his prime. He’s had surgery on both knees and the Rams offensive style which used the T formation, not the single wing, limits what Washington can do.
The Rams try Washington at quarterback for a while, but then he settles in as fullback, but his Rams career is marked by big moments such as the still-record 92-yard TD run in 1947, and injury. The Rams go 6-4-1, 6-6 and 6-5-1 during his three years.
Washington abruptly retires from professional football in 1948 and is feted in a grand ceremony (the man was Money, remember). By then his UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson has broken the color line in MLB and the New York Giants take Washington to spring training in 1950 to see what he has left.
Not much. He could turn on a fastball, but the injuries had zapped his quickness in the field. The Giants release him and he plays in the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A baseball is modern equivalent).
The Story, The Book And The Legend
Washington has small roles in multiple movies, including “Pinky” a story about a light-skinned black nurse who passes for white. This being the early 50s, the movie is controversial and banned in parts of the country.
Think about all the things Kenny Washington did. He put UCLA football on the map. He was a box office star on screen and on the field. He’s the first black player in the NFL in modern times (there were players in the 1920s, Fritz Pollard is considered the first).
Taylor is guilty of overwriting the story sometimes and it gets mushy:
“raves abounded for one remarkable feat or another by the sensational yearling” (page 18). No one talks that way anymore.
And the book never really tackles the question of whether Washington encountered racism during his pro career. It notes some issues when he was at UCLA, but glosses over the rest.
But I give Taylor a pass because so much of Kenny Washington’s story is lost to time.
He was Bo Jackson, sort of. He was Jackie Robinson, literally. Washington was Carl Weathers, kind of.
All that is true. Reading the book makes you want to know more, but sad when you realize that the Kenny Washington story is largely lost to history.