Kenny Washington, a talented football player, was unable to join the NFL due to its ban on black players. He played semi-pro ball before becoming the first black player to sign an NFL contract in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson’s debut in baseball.
Kenny Washington had an all-American football career at UCLA, setting a career high for total offense and winning the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy as the top college player in the country. But when Washington graduated in 1939, there was no way for the National Football League. Black players had been banned six years earlier, so Washington played semi-pro ball with the Hollywood Bears. After World War II, the NFL was forced to abandon 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.
One year before Jackie Robinson:
Washington’s former UCLA teammate Woody Strode also signed with the Rams in 1946.
Legendary Chicago Bears head coach George Halas attempted to sign Washington after graduation, but was blocked by other NFL owners.
Washington broke the NFL’s so-called “color barrier” a full year before Jackie Robinson crossed the Major League Baseball color line for the first time playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.