In 1946 the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington, the first African American player in the NFL modern era. This happened one year before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson.
When the NFL started, in the 1920s, a few blacks played in the new league. But from 1934 to 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. There wasn’t an official rule against them, but there was an unwritten understanding among the teams that they would not allow black players into the league.
Some owners and coaches claimed that African Americans were not good enough for the NFL even though nine African American college football players were named all-American stars during those years. Even though the NFL had 10 teams in 1940 and each team drafted 20 players, not one black player was drafted.
Washington was one of the college stars who went undrafted. He was a running back who set rushing and passing records at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1939, Washington led the nation in total yards while also playing defensive back.
Washington also played baseball for the UCLA Bruins. His teammate on the UCLA football and baseball teams was Jackie Robinson.
Despite Washington’s incredible college career, no NFL team drafted him in 1940. For the next few seasons, Washington played in the smaller Pacific Coast Football League, where he earned all-league honors every year.
Washington finally got his chance to play in the NFL in 1946. The Rams agreed to allow African American players on the team after local black newspapers and the city’s stadium commission pressured the team to integrate.
Washington was 28 years old and had undergone five knee surgeries when he signed with the Rams. He was not as fast as he had been at UCLA. Still, Washington was among the leading rushers in the NFL during the second of his three seasons.