Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson began with a question. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a reporter for Newsday, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke the effective ban on black players in the NFL.
Glauber figured he’d ask Johnson, who was an obvious member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is a Los Angeles native, though he played college football at USC after Washington and Strode stood out on the same 1939 UCLA team as Jackie Robinson.
Johnson, however, said he had no idea of their significance as two of four black players to break the NFL’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that NFL owners had entered into a gentleman’s agreement not to sign black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. Johnson learned that the ban had been broken only after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured Verm to sign Washington and Strode. 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the same year.
Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL has done to celebrate players. But that will change Saturday when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents the Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual ceremony.
It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied for the Hall to be honored and wrote “Forgotten Firsts: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and Breaking the NFL Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021. .
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber talked about why the story of the so-called Forgotten Four remains, the ramifications of the NFL’s racist past and the impact of awarding four pioneering players.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Keyshawn, you wrote that you didn’t know about Washington or Stroud, even though you played college football in the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as they did at UCLA.
Keyshawn Johnson You know, when you think about growing up, when you talk about African-American communities or black schools, there are only four black people in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a bit of Arthur Ashe infused. No real deep dive into history. And when we go to college, rinse it and do it all over again. They teach us all about white history.
So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was right in my own backyard where I grew up. I didn’t know about it because it just wasn’t talked about. There is a monument to Kenny in the Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if it’s there on the rose bowl. I just don’t remember ever seeing it and I go to a lot of games there.
One of the most compelling parts of the book was the discussion of the hidden ban on signing black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the segregationist owner of the Washington franchise, as having led the ban, but you point out that other owners also went after him.
Johnson It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everyone a racist, but when you put up with it and ignore it and turn the other way, you’re just as guilty. You are just as guilty as those who started it. It is the same in professional sports and politics today. Same thing, different years.
For decades, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of the league’s color barrier. Why did it take so long for the NFL to do the same?
Johnson At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson made his deal. Whereas in football you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] And then stopping at a time when college football and baseball were bigger. The League gets a lot of things wrong and then tries to fix them, so it’s not out of the question that it just flew right over their heads.
Bob Glauber It’s not a particularly true story that bans black players. And now, black players make up about 70 percent of all NFL rosters.
That said, when we went around the league looking for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “This story is true and we cannot change it and we have to accept it.”
All four players had different careers: some lasted longer. Some lasted, in fact, quite briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate more loudly with you, Keyshawn?
Johnson It’s just about how some of their teammates treated them, both good and bad. These stories always follow me. How people like George Preston Marshall treated people with a vengeance, but he could still own a team and wanted black players to serve him. For me, it’s mind boggling. At the same time, these players still have to fight and not let it take over or take away from doing what they love, which is playing professional sports. Motley was mostly injured, unable to play or coach in the National Football League, but he continued to fight through it. That perseverance, that mental toughness is what it means to me.
Race remains a central tension in the NFL with Brian Flores’ lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against in hiring, racial bias in the handling of concussions and criticism that there are few team owners of color. So will honoring these four players in the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?
Glauber It’s just an emotional conclusion to their story as the Hall of Fame honors them. But for me, it’s really the beginning of a greater awareness of who they were, what they did, and why they were so important, because they’re not big names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they ever will. But they should be.