Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson began with a question. In 2020, Bob Faithr, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose 1946 commitment to the Los Angeles Rams broke an effective ban on black players in the NFL
Faithr thought he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Faithr was covering the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, hails from Los Angeles, although he played college football at USC long after Washington and Strode had excelled on the same UCLA team as Jackie Robinson in 1939.
However, Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of the four black players in breaking the NFL’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that from 1934 to 1946 the NFL owners had made a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign any black players. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns that same year.
Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL had done to celebrate players. But that will change on Saturday when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents its Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual anchoring ceremony.
It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who championed Hall’s honor and wrote The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier, due out in 2021 became .
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four has remained largely unrecognized, the impact of the NFL’s racist past, and the impact of blaming the four pioneer players.
This interview has been slightly edited and shortened for clarity.
Keyshawn, you wrote that you knew nothing about Washington or Stroud even though you played college football at the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did when they attended UCLA
KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, if you think about how you were raised, if you talk about African American communities or black schools, there were only four black people in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean it’s pretty easy. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little bit of Arthur Ashe thrown in. There is no really deep insight into the story. And when we get to college, it’s going to be one more rinse and repeat. They will teach us all about white history.
When Bob pointed this out to me, it piqued my interest because it was in my own backyard, just a few blocks from my parents’ house. I had no idea about it because it just wasn’t talked about. There is a memorial at the Coliseum by Kenny Washington. But I don’t know if it’s up there in 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 sections of the book was the discussion of the implied prohibition on signing black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the Washington segregationist owner of the franchise, who led the ban, but you note that the other owners have followed suit.
JOHNSON It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everyone a racist, but if you tolerate and ignore and turn your head the other way, you make yourself just as guilty. You are as much to blame as those who initiated it. That’s how it is today in professional sports and politics. Same stuff, different years.
For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and grappled with the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why did the NFL take so long to do the same?
JOHNSON Back then, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson made his deal. While 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 a hiatus at a time when college football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to get a lot of things wrong and then try to fix them later, so it’s not out of the question that it could have just flown completely over their heads.
BOB GLAUBER This is not a particularly sincere story about banning black players. And now black players make up about 70 percent of the NFL’s entire roster. The League did not cover itself in glory with this story.
That said, when we went into the league and looked for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “This story is true and we cannot change that and we have to accept it.”
The four players, they had different careers: some lasted longer. Some were actually quite short. Does one of her personal stories speak to you louder, Keyshawn?
JOHNSON It’s just more about how they’ve been treated by some of their teammates, both good and bad. These stories will always stay in my mind. How the likes of George Preston Marshall vindictively treated people but were still able to own a team and wanted black players to serve them. For me it’s stunning. At the same time, these players still need to push through and not let it control them or discourage them from doing the things they want to do, which is play professional sports. Motley basically got balled up, couldn’t play or train in the National Football League, but he kept fighting through. This stamina, this mental strength, that’s what makes it for me.
Race remains a central tension in the NFL with the Brian Flores suit alleging he faced discrimination when he was hired, racial bias in the concussion settlement and criticism that there are few team owners of color. Will these four players being honored in the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?
BELIEVERS This appears to be just an emotional conclusion to her story as the Hall of Fame honors her. 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 household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they ever will be. But they should be.