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 signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 violated the current ban on black players in the NFL.
Glauber decided he would ask Johnson, who was an outspoken member of the Jets in the late 90s when Glauber covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is a native of Los Angeles, although he played collegiate football at the University of Southern California long before Washington and Strode were prominent players on the same UCLA team in 1939 as Jackie Robinson.
However, Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of the four black players who would break the NFL’s color barrier. He did not even know that the owners of the NFL had entered into a gentleman’s agreement not to sign black players, which was valid from 1934 to 1946. Johnson only learned that the ban had been violated after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. That same year, Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns.
Johnson’s ignorance was a sign of how little the NFL had done to honor players. But that will change on Saturday when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents its Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual dedication ceremony.
This would not have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for this honor and wrote the book Forgotten Firsts: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and Breaking the NFL Color Line, which was released in 2021. .
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber talked about why the story of the so-called “Forgotten Four” went largely unrecognised, the implications of the NFL’s racist past, and the impact of four trailblazing players paying homage.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
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 were at UCLA.
KEYSHON JOHNSON You know, when you think about growing up, when you talk about black communities or black schools, there are only four blacks in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty simple. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a bit of Arthur Ashe. There is no real deep dive into history. And when we get to college, it’s rinsing and repeating over and over. They’re going to teach us all white history.
So when Bob brought it to my attention, I got interested because it was in my own backyard, a few blocks from where I grew up. I didn’t know anything about it because it just wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if he’s in the Rose Bowl. I just don’t remember seeing it and I go to many games there.
One of the most interesting sections of the book was the discussion of the implicit ban on signing black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, a segregationist Washington franchise owner who led the ban, but you note that other owners agreed with it.
JOHNSON This never happens with one guy. You can’t call everyone racist, but when you tolerate, ignore, and turn your head the other way, you’re just as guilty. You are just as guilty as those who initiated this. So today in professional sports and in politics. Same things, different years.
For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the league’s ugly legacy of color barriers. Why did it take the NFL so long to do the same?
JOHNSON Baseball was the number one sport in America at the time when Jackie Robinson made the 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 stopping at a time when American football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to get things wrong about a lot of things and then try to fix them later, so it’s not out of the question that this could just fly completely over their heads.
BOB GLAUBER This is not a particularly righteous story with the ban of black players. And now that black players make up about 70 percent of all NFL rosters, the league has not covered itself with the glory of this story.
However, when we went into the league and looked for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he was right. He said, “This story is true and we can’t change it and we have to accept it.”
The four players have had different careers, with some lasting longer. Some didn’t really last long. Keyshawn, do any of their personal stories resonate with you more?
JOHNSON It’s just more about how they were treated by some of their teammates, both good and bad. These stories always stick with me. How people like George Preston Marshall were vindictive towards people, yet he could own the team and desired black players to serve him. For me, this is confusing. At the same time, these players are still struggling with it and not letting it own them or take away their spirit in order to do what they want to do, which is to play professional sports. Motley was effectively blacklisted, unable to play or coach in the National Football League, but continued to struggle. That perseverance, that mental toughness, that’s what’s important to me.
Race remains a major tension in the NFL, with a lawsuit by Brian Flores alleging he was subjected to hiring discrimination, racial bias in concussion settlement, and criticism that there are multiple team owners of color. Will these four Hall of Famers change the dynamic?
GLAUBER It just seems like an emotional end to their story because the Hall of Fame honors them. 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. But they should be.