Rams release film on trailblazing RB Kenny Washington, who reintegrated NFL

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Kenny Washington starred on the football field more than 75 years ago at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. On Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles Rams shared his life story in the intimate setting of the refurbished Miracle Theatre in downtown Inglewood, a stone’s throw from the team’s new-era home at SoFi Stadium.

Most people are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson — how in 1947 he overcame overt racism to break the color barrier in becoming the first Black player to compete in Major League Baseball in the modern era.

But few know the journey of Robinson’s baseball and football teammate at UCLA. Washington accomplished the same thing in professional football a year earlier, becoming the first Black player to reintegrate the NFL after a 12-year ban on Black players. 

Years earlier, Washington, Robinson and Woody Strode, known nationally as the “Gold Dust Gang,” starred in the backfield for the Bruins. In 1939, Washington became the first UCLA player named an All-American. 

To bring attention to Washington’s accomplishments, the Rams partnered with black-owned production company The BLK Originals to create “Kingfish: The Story of Kenny Washington,” a 20-minute film chronicling the talented runner’s career. The Rams premiered the film to employees and other invited dignitaries at the comfy theater on Market Street. 

“This film would not have been possible without this organization using Kenny’s legacy to help inspire today’s community,” said Rams COO Kevin Demoff. “Because this story from 77 years ago is as relevant as ever today. When we think about breaking barriers, creating opportunities, making change and perseverance in the face of adversity in the Los Angeles community — all of that which Kenny did — that all stands true for what we’re talking about right now.” 

The film includes former Rams players Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson plus current L.A. defensive coordinator Raheem Morris all discussing the impact Washington has had on their lives.

“Sometimes when telling the story, the ugly truth needs to come out,” Jackson said in the film. “And because that truth is so distasteful at times, you just try not to tell the story at all. As young people continue to explore the history of the game and why we’re able to do what we do, it’s not because we showed up one day and put on cleats.  

“It’s because there was someone who stood in the gap. And Kenny Washington stood in that gap for a lot of Black athletes.”

Washington died in 1971. Attending the premiere was his granddaughter, Kysa Washington, who served as part of a panel to discuss the film after the viewing. 

“We’re humbled, proud and now the new word is excited,” Washington said. “Excited that the rest of the world gets to know the information that we were raised with. In our household, we had a lot of this information, but a lot of it wasn’t readily available to everyone else.” 

On March 21, 1946, 27-year-old Kenny Washington signed a contract with the Rams after playing six years for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, for which he was the highest-paid player.

When the Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles to play in the Memorial Coliseum in 1945, the Black community pressured the team to integrate because public funding was used to build the stadium. 

Washington and former UCLA teammate Strode joined the Rams, while Marion Motley and Bill Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns. Dubbed “The Forgotten Four,” these players were honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year for their contributions, receiving the Hall’s Ralph Hay Award. 

In 2021, writer Bob Glauber partnered with former NFL receiver and Los Angeles native Keyshawn Johnson to publish “The Forgotten First,” a book detailing the players’ reintegration of the league in the 1940s.

“It’s an important story to tell,” said Glauber, who also served on a panel after the showing of the film. “And it needs to be told, again, again and again.”

Johnathan Franklin, a former football standout at UCLA now serving as the Rams’ director of social justice and football development, will be tasked with getting the word out about the film. Franklin said the Rams plan on having a screening event digitally available to all 32 NFL teams at the end of the month. 

It can also be viewed free of charge on YouTube.

“We want to tell the world who Kenny is,” Franklin said. “He’s going to be a hero not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the entire United States.” 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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