The month of February is recognized as Black History month. A month where we celebrate impactful African American contributions in science, history, innovation, and much more. Perfect Performance will use this month to recognize “Black History” in football. We will choose historic figures and moments to discuss how it has impacted the game of football today!
When talking about breaking the color barrier in sports, most people likely think about baseball icon Jackie Robinson. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB). It has been well documented the struggles that Jackie Robinson had to go through on his journey to integrate MLB, and the many more hardships he endured while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie’s accomplishments opened doors for African Americans not only in baseball, but in our American society. This has made Jackie Robinson one of the most celebrated figures in American history. As a football fan it raised the question: Who was the first African American to break the color barrier in the National Football League (NFL)? In order to answer this question, we will travel to the start of the NFL and highlight key figures who have helped shape the NFL to be what it is today.
Fritz Pollard & Bobby Marshall: In 1920, the NFL was born. It was not necessarily as big as it is today. The league only had 14 teams compared to the modern day 32 teams. Given the time period, it would probably come as no surprise that the league was predominantly white, yet it was integrated (hardly). In 1920, Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first and only Americans in the NFL. Both were athletically gifted players who contributed to the success of their respective teams. Bobby Marshall played in the first ever NFL game for the Rock Island Independents, and Fritz Pollard would lead the Akron Pros to an unbeaten season and the NFL’s first championship! Fritz Pollard would also make history becoming the NFL’s first ever African American Head Coach and Quarterback in his career. Although Fritz and Bobby were successful, only a few additional black players would join them over the following years in the NFL.
NFL’s Color Barrier: In 1933, NFL league owners would hold a meeting agreeing on an unwritten rule to exclude black players from playing in the NFL. Thus, the color barrier was created. The league continued to proceed without an African American presence, but the re-location of the Cleveland Rams to Los Angeles would soon change all of that. In 1946, the Cleveland Rams franchise became the first NFL team to move west to play in the now historic L.A. Memorial Coliseum. A great move for the Rams Franchise. However, it was overlooked that the L.A Coliseum was surrounded by predominantly black communities, funded by black people’s tax dollars. The fact that the Rams were an all white team did not sit well with black community members and journalists. This led to a meeting between the black community leaders and the Rams where they convinced the team to sign black players to their team.
The First Four: In 1946, Kenny Washington was the first African American, first black man to sign a contract to play in the NFL. This was the Jackie Robinson moment in our sport of football. That same year, the Rams would add three more African American Players: Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley. Both Bill Willis and Marion Motley would help lead the Browns to five championships and would later be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Prior to entering the NFL, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode both started at UCLA playing football alongside none other than Jackie Robinson. Three men who probably had no idea how their accomplishments would impact not only sports but how it would impact our society as a whole.
Modern Day Significance: Fritz Pollard, Bobby Marshall, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley are just a few of the names of African American pioneers in football history that often go unnoticed. These players should be forever remembered for shaping our league to look the way it looks today.
There is also a deeper significance that should not be overlooked in the history of the signing of Kenny Washington. If it was not for the black community fighting for a black player to be added to the Rams team, who knows how long we would’ve had to wait for that barrier to be broken. The significance is that our community is strong, our platform is large, and we should all use our voice to inspire change. This is extremely important for athletes regardless of race or gender. In a time where we see athletes refute the “shut up and dribble” narrative. In a time where we’ve seen numerous athletes use their platform to speak out against racial injustices against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. In a time where we see media journalists constantly fight for and speak up more black head coaching jobs. The time is always right to fight for change. Thank you to these African American Pioneers.
“The Time is always right to do what is right”
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.