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Remembering forgotten hero Kenny Washington

Washington, an alumnus of L.A.'s Lincoln High, broke the NFL's color line a year before Jackie Robinson reached the major leagues. Some at Lincoln hope to give him long-delayed recognition.

October 11, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Kenny Washington, who was a star running back at Lincoln High School and UCLA, played three seasons in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams.
Kenny Washington, who was a star running back at Lincoln High School and… (Associated Press )

Welcome to Kenny Washington's house, home of the powerful running back who broke the modern-day NFL color barrier.

Just watch where you walk. The scruffy field at the downtown Lincoln High is beset by gopher holes and dirt craters.

And watch where you sit. The Lincoln bleachers, which rise and recede into steep darkness, were once condemned.

And, oh yeah, be prepared to have no idea what is happening on the field. The tiny Lincoln scoreboard is shrouded in trees, and there is no public address system or press box for an announcer.

Mark Shapiro has spent 35 years shouting out yards and numbers to Lincoln fans with a tiny microphone while standing in the seats in front of the marching band. In the most sadly perfect of ironies, on Friday night at a Kenny Washington memorial game designed to raise money to fix this field, he couldn't talk about the honored man because nobody could hear him.

"And believe me, somebody needs to talk about Kenny Washington," said the retired teacher and softball coach.

Welcome to Kenny Washington's house, the home of a man who fought for something that has not fought for him.

On March 21, 1946, Washington signed a contract with the new Los Angeles Rams, making him the first African American in an NFL that had been unofficially segregated the previous 12 seasons.

The former UCLA star, who signed when he was 28 years old and coming off five knee surgeries, lasted just three pro seasons. He retired young, and when he died at age 51 of heart and lung problems, his memory seemingly vanished with him.

"He wasn't in the NFL long enough, so he just faded out of sight," said Jim Tunney, former longtime referee and Lincoln High administrator whose father once coached Washington here. "And now nobody knows what to do with him."

Washington broke his sport's color barrier a year before his former UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, yet pro football never retired Washington's No. 13, and his Los Angeles hometown has yet to put his name on any parks or fields.

"You would think there should be some sort of shrine to him somewhere," said his granddaughter Kysa Washington. "But there's barely a mention of him anywhere."

Washington was the first of four blacks to play pro football in 1946 -- former UCLA teammate Woody Strode joined him on the Rams, and Marion Motley and Bill Willis joined the Cleveland Browns of the fledgling All-America Football Conference.

Yet today only Motley and Willis -- who joined a new league that had never been segregated -- are in pro football's Hall of Fame.

"It blows my mind how little attention has been paid," said his grandson Kirk Washington.

Washington is not officially in Canton, and he is not officially at Lincoln, where community organizers have formed the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation in hopes of raising money to fix up the joint and put his name on the shingle.

"Nothing here has changed since Kenny played here, and that's just wrong," said Stephen Sarinana-Lampson, a third-generation Lincoln graduate who is president of the foundation. "He deserves better, and the community deserves better."

The foundation organized Friday's event, which accompanied Lincoln's 56-3 victory over Torres High. But typical of the disillusionment that is draped over what was once known as "The Enchanted Hillside," officials began the halftime activities on the sidelines with the game still being played behind them because the scoreboard wrongly showed all zeros.

"Nothing is hard to believe about this place anymore," said Jose Vargas.

The foundation was formed a couple of months ago, but community leaders have complained about the stadium for years, the charge being led by Lincoln graduate Vargas, who has long bombarded me with emails begging me to visit.

When I saw Vargas at Friday night's memorial game, the accounting administrator was hopeful that the message would resonate far beyond this ancient structure overlooking the clutter and buzz of Broadway.

"To me, this is about getting the word to the NFL," he said. "For the sake of the memory of a guy who changed their league forever, the NFL needs to find a way to take care of this."

Indeed, Washington started something. Today African Americans make up about 70% of the league's players, a huge change from 1939, when the UCLA star led the nation in total yards and was considered its best college player yet was still not chosen in the NFL draft.

Washington's later contract with the Rams was essentially forced by local journalist Halley Harding and the Coliseum Commission, neither of whom would accept the team's relocation to the Coliseum from Cleveland unless the league began accepting blacks, beginning with their local hero.

Part of the problem with Washington's memory was that the bitterness of this struggle overwhelmed his desire for fame or fortune, a feeling that was passed down to relatives who lost, gave away or sold much memorabilia, preventing them from keeping the flame alive.

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