Keyshawn Johnson Wants the N.F.L. to Remember Its ‘Forgotten Four’

Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson began with a question. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an effective ban on Black players in the N.F.L.

Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken 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 U.S.C. long after Washington and Strode were standouts on the same 1939 U.C.L.A. team as Jackie Robinson.

Yet Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of the four Black players to break the N.F.L.’s color barrier. He did not even know that N.F.L. owners had struck a gentlemen’s agreement to not sign Black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams into signing Washington and Strode in 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 N.F.L. had done to celebrate the players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the players’ families at its annual enshrinement ceremony.

Woody Strode with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946.Credit…Associated Press

It would not have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for the honor and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the N.F.L. Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021.

In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the effects of the N.F.L.’s racist past and the impact of giving the four pioneering players their due.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you did not know about Washington or Stroud even though you played college football in the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did when they attended U.C.L.A.

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or Black schools, there’s only four Black people talked about 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 little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no real deep dive into the history. And when we get to college, it’s rinse and repeat all over again. They’re going to teach us all about white history.

So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was in my own backyard, within blocks of where I grew up. I had no knowledge about it because it just wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I just don’t ever remember seeing it, and I go to a lot of games there.

Kenny Washington at U.C.L.A. in 1939.Credit…Associated Press

One of the most compelling sections of the book was the discussion of the implicit 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 note that the other owners went along with him.

JOHNSON It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everybody a racist, but when you tolerate and you ignore and you turn your head the other way, you’re just as culpable. You’re just as much at fault as the ones who initiated it. That’s the way it is in professional sports and in politics today. Same stuff, different years.

For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why has it taken the N.F.L. so long to do the same?

JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing 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 a stoppage at a time when college football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to get a lot of things wrong and then try to correct them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it could have just completely flown over their heads.

Marion Motley with the Cleveland Browns in 1948.Credit…Associated Press

BOB GLAUBER This is not a particularly righteous story, banning Black players. And now, Black players make up approximately 70 percent of the entire rosters of the N.F.L. The league did not cover itself in glory with this story.

That said, when we went to the league and kind of looked for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “That story is true, and we can’t change that and we have to accept it.”

The four players, they had diverging careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, actually, quite briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate louder with you, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s just more about how they were treated by some of their teammates, both good and bad. Those stories always stick to me. How people like George Preston Marshall vindictively treated people, yet was still able to own a team and want Black players to serve him. To me, it’s mind boggling. At the same time, these players to still fight through it and not let it own them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they want to do, which was play professional sports. Motley got basically blackballed, couldn’t play or coach in the National Football League, but he continued to fight through it. That perseverance, that mental toughness is what it’s all about to me.

Bill Willis at Ohio State in 1944.Credit…Associated Press

Race remains a central tension in the N.F.L. with the Brian Flores suit that alleged he was discriminated against in hiring, racial bias in the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few team owners of color. So will these four players being honored at the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?

GLAUBER This just seems like an emotional conclusion to their story because the Hall of Fame is honoring them. But to me, it’s truly the beginning of more awareness of who they were, what they did and why they were so important because they are not household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they ever will be. But they should be.

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