Fritz Pollard is recognized as the first African American player and coach in the NFL, but thanks to a 2021 book “The Forgotten Four,” by former NFL player Keyshawn Johnson, attention is being brought to four Black athletes who reintegrated the NFL during the 1946 season. The four men broke football’s color barrier seven months before Jackie Robinson was promoted from the Class AA Montreal Royals to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
In 1920 Fritz Pollard was the first Black player in the fledgling NFL. The league had just formed and Pollard, who had been the first Black football player at Brown University, was the very young coach at Lincoln University (1918-1920), a Historically Black College in Oxford, PA. The university’s football team was struggling financially and Pollard began playing for the Akron Pros to help supplement his coaching income.
By 1926 there were nine Black players in the NFL, but that year they were all removed from the league. The ban of Black players was further strengthened by a 1933 “gentleman’s agreement” reached by the owners not have Black players in the league. It wasn’t until 1946, 12 years into what is considered the modern era of the NFL, when Black players were once again allowed to play in the NFL.
The entry of the first two Black players into the league wasn’t as much as case of a welcome change as it was a forced change.
Washington and Strode
The Cleveland Rams were moving to Los Angeles and would play in the Coliseum, a public stadium owned by the city of Los Angeles. Halley Harding, a Wichita, KS native and former Negro League Baseball player was working as a sportswriter and editor for the Los Angeles Tribute and the Los Angeles Sentinel, used his column to advocate for the integration of the Rams. His positions was if the Rams were using a publicly funded stadium, contributed to financially by people of all colors, the team should be required to include players of all colors.
In response, the Rams added Kenny Washington and Woody Strode to their lineup The two were best friends and had been teammates on the UCLA football team. Washington was the first UCLA player selected as a consensus All-American and helped lead the Bruins to their 1st undefeated season.
After graduating from UCLA, Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League from 1940 – 1945.
He’d suffered a knee injury and had several knee surgeries when he joined the Rams. Despite his injuries, he remained with the Rams for three seasons. He led the league in yards per carry in his second season and scored a 92-yard touchdown, which set a Rams’ record for the longest run from scrimmage.
Strode only played for the Rams for one year. Citing lack of playing time and racial abuse. Strode described integrating the NFL as the low point in his life. He says White players were often abusive to Black players, including stepping ton them with their cleats. He went on to have a successful career in acting.
Willis and Motley
That same season, and just months after the Ram signed Washington and Strode, the newly-formed Cleveland Browns signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
Willis was an All-American defensive tackle from Ohio State University. He was known for his quickness and his play in the NFL helped create the position known today as linebacker. He played eights seasons in the NFL and appeared in three NFL Pro Bowls.
After college football, Motley joined the Navy where he played on a team coached by Paul Brown, who would go on to become the co-founder and first coach of the Cleveland Browns. Brown reportedly said he recruited both Willis and Motley, not as a civil rights gesture, but because he wanted to build the best team possible.
It’s reported that they Browns signed Motley to provide a roommate for Willis, but he went to to become a leading player for the team. With a combination of quickness and power, Motley averaged 8.2. yards per carry in his first season. In 1950, he led the NFL in rushing yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Together, the two helped the team win every championship in the AAFC’s four years of existence between 1946 and 1949.
Motley played for the Browns until 1953 until he was slowed by knee injuries. Both Motley and Willis have been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.