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Don’t forget the others

By: Nick Johns

Down Goes Frazier

By: Nick Johns, our resident Sports Historian


Welcome to whatever the hell this column is called. I couldn’t think of anything so they’re going to name it for me. Here in this column we take a look back at historic moments in sports that don’t get the respect they deserve, either because they aren’t well known or because people don’t understand their full impact.

The movie 42 is getting ready to come out. Spoiler Alert! Jackie Robinson breaks baseball’s color barrier. Everybody knows the story and the importance this had on equality in sports, as well as the larger social impact it had. So let’s talk about some football.

Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball is a well-known story, but what is less well-known is the story of the four African-American men who broke the color barrier in football in 1946, the year BEFORE Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. These players were Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis.

Kenny Washington was a running back out of UCLA who was regarded as the best college football player in history 1962 when Ernie Davis overtook him. He was the first of the four to sign an NFL contract. He was signed by the Los Angeles Rams.

Fritz Pollard rarely gets remembered for being the first African American to play football.

Fritz Pollard rarely gets remembered for being the first African American to play football.

Strode, an end who also played at UCLA, was also signed by the Rams. Interestingly enough, Jackie Robinson also played football at UCLA and was a teammate of Washington and Strode.

Marion Motley played college football at the University of Nevada. He played both fullback and linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, and later the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bill Willis was a guard who played his college football at Ohio State and was signed by the Cleveland Browns. The story is that the Rams were moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles into the Los Angeles Coliseum.

African-American groups pointed out to the Los Angeles Coliseum commission that the stadium was built using public funds and should not house a segregated team. The Los Angeles Coliseum commission refused to lease the stadium to the Rams so long as they remained segregated. The NFL was forced to lift the ban on African-American players and integrate.

This isn’t the entire story though. Even less well known is the fact that this was actually the SECOND time the color barrier in football was broken. The NFL was not originally segregated, that happened later.

The American Professional Football Conference was founded in 1920, was renamed the American Professional Football Association three weeks later, and became the NFL in 1922. The APFA began play with two African-American players in the league. Their names were Bobby Marshall and Fritz Pollard. Marshall played end for the Rock Island Independents of the APFA in 1920 and 1921. In 1922, Marshall was signed by the Minneapolis Marines, and later played for the Duluth Kelleys. Pollard played for the Akron Pros of the APFA in 1920 and 1921, and was signed by the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922. He went on to play for the Hammond Pros and the Providence Steam Rollers. Pollard also became the NFL’s first African-American head coach when he was named head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921. He also served as co-head coach of the Milwaukee Badgers and the full head coach of the Hammond Pros.

There were several other African-American players in the NFL during the 1920s, but in 1933 the NFL imposed an official ban on African-American players. It’s commonly agreed that this was the work of the new owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, who was an avid segregationist.

But this raises a bigger question. How do you define “the color barrier”? It tends to get defined strictly in terms of black and white, but what about other minorities. Jim Thorpe, for instance, is the most famous Native American football player of all time, and when the APFA was formed in 1920 Thorpe was named its president while playing for the Canton Bulldogs. Thorpe was far from the only Native American to play in the inaugural season of the APFA. The NFL also included two Asian-American members in 1928 when the Dayton Triangles (Best. Team Name. Ever.) signed running back Walter Achiu, who was of Chinese-Hawaiian descent, and quarterback Arthur Matsu, who was of Japanese-Scottish descent (didn’t they do a Skittles commercial about that?).

No matter how you slice it, very little attention gets paid to the color barrier in football, even though it was broken first…and twice as many times. By the time the Earl Lloyd (SF, Washington Capitals), Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (C/F, New York Knicks), and Chuck Cooper (SF/SG, Boston Celtics) broke basketball’s color barrier in 1950, the buzz over African-Americans in major professional sports leagues had died down. Maybe Jackie Robinson stands out because he was alone in breaking the color barrier, as opposed to one of a few who did so. Maybe it was because at that time baseball was king. Regardless of why these other stories get lost in the shuffle, it’s important to give these men their due for being pioneers in their sports.

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