The L.A. Rams have been in existence since 1936 and there have been special teams in its history. Oftentimes, fans are caught imprisoned by the moment, sometimes forgetting about the squads of the past.
On February 2, Sports Illustrated dropped its final countdown of the 50 most influential teams in NFL history. Slotted between the 2001 Patriots and the 1974 Steelers was the 1946 Rams at number eight on the list. The then-Cleveland Rams were coming off a 9-1 campaign where it won the 1945 NFL Championship before moving to Los Angeles the following season.
This marked the first occasion a team had expanded away from the confines of the eastern part of the United States. Moving to Southern California expanded the league in a way that was previously unimagined. While the move was certainly uncharted territory for the sport, here is what else made this particular team so impactful, according to SI senior NFL writer Albert Breer in the article:
“Woody Strode and Kenny Washington weren’t the NFL’s first Black players, and the league had even had a Black coach before they joined the Rams in 1946. But the league instituted a color barrier in ’33, and, 13 years later, those two broke it down, a year before Jackie Robinson did the same in Major League Baseball. Their Los Angeles team would go on to finish a respectable 6-4-1, good for second in the NFL’s Western Division, which, in those days, wasn’t enough for a postseason berth. But those Rams’ impact on a league that’s player population is now nearly 60% Black would resonate for decades to come.”
As Breer mentioned, the NFL had zero black players in a 12-year span from 1933-45. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode made LA the first team to integrate after the end of World War II.
KENNY WASHINGTON— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) February 9, 2019
When the @RamsNFL moved to L.A. in 1946, L.A. Tribune sports editor Halley Harding led a push for the team to integrate if it was to be granted use of the publicly owned Coliseum.
They signed Washington, ending 12 years of unwritten segregation in pro football. pic.twitter.com/qXk1YSpIdL
WOODY STRODE— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) February 9, 2019
Asked to choose a roommate to join him on the Rams, Kenny Washington chose his former @UCLAFootball teammate Woody Strode.
Strode played just one year before retiring. He went on to become a well-renowned actor, even being nominated for a Golden Globe in 1960. pic.twitter.com/FIi2JnY8xb
Washington gave the NFL its “Jackie Robinson moment,” about a year before the baseball legend forever changed the course of America’s pastime. However, the UCLA icon has been largely forgotten by football historians. That was the case until CBS Sports did a pregame segment on Washington leading up to Super Bowl LV between the Buccaneers and Chiefs.
While the segment shined a spotlight on a story that was otherwise pushed by the wayside, it failed to properly address the severe racism and bigotry both players faced. SI writer Alexander Wolff wrote in-depth on the issue in an October 12, 2009 piece from titled “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.”
Wolff recapped the indignities Strode faced during his brief time playing professional football:
“Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life,” Strode told SI in an unpublished interview Wolff included in his article. “There was nothing nice about it. History doesn’t know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is. If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.”
When the Rams moved, the team sought out a lease at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Washington was signed solely to please the locals who wouldn’t allow for the Rams to play in the facility if they didn’t sign him to a contract. Strode felt the opportunities Washington and him received were unfair given the circumstances.
“They didn’t take Kenny because of his ability,” Strode said via Wolff. “They didn’t take me on my ability. It was shoved down their throats.”
The number of black players joined the league in greater numbers in the 1950s and 60s. Stars such as Jim Brown and Dick “Night Train” Lane dominated the sport in that era due to the Rams’ signings of Washington and Strode.
Segregation was a shameful period in football and should have never happened. The ugliness of history is frequently cast aside or rewritten by those who seek to control the narrative. As the NFL gets ready to play another Super Bowl a week from now, remember the journey and the players that got the sport to where it is today.
History should never forget the impact and contributions of Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. It is our job as football fans to continue telling their stories. If we can do that, then their mark on the game we love will be immortalized forever, and deservedly so.