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Paul Schissler coached the Chicago Cardinals' Joe Lillard, one of the last two blacks to play before the ban, and after the 1933 season Schissler told the Brooklyn Eagle that the Cardinals had let Lillard go in the best interests of both club and player. "He was a marked man, and I don't mean that just the Southern boys took it out on him either," the coach said. "After a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works." But Ashe and others speculate that owners were just as likely favoring white players in a shrinking labor market. The NFL had shed franchises as the Depression wore on, and surviving teams carried fewer and fewer players.
Whatever the reasons, the period from 1934 to '46 is a stain on the names of the NFL's founding families. "Among the NFL's decision makers during those 12 years were some of the most storied individuals in the history of the game," writes Andy Piascik in his recently released book, Gridiron Gauntlet. "Their commitment to apartheid was seemingly stronger than their commitment to winning championships. The Bears under [George] Halas did not employ a single black player in their first 32 seasons. The Giants began play in 1925 and did not sign any blacks until 1948. The Steelers were all-white from the day Ray Kemp was released [in 1933] until 1952." As for George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins (page 64), Piascik writes: "He at least did not pretend there were no blacks good enough to make his team. Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn't want them around."
Halas claimed to journalist Myron Cope in 1970 that "no great black players were in the colleges then," but such protestations are disingenuous and even slanderous. During the period of the NFL's segregation, a time when it was hard for them to win the favor of white selectors, no fewer than nine black players earned All-America honors, and not one got an NFL tryout. Northwestern coach Dick Hanley called Ozzie Simmons, a back at Iowa from 1934 to '36, "the best I've ever seen." In 1937 Grantland Rice named Jerome (Brud) Holland of Cornell a first-team All-America end. Other African-American stars included Julius Franks, a guard at Michigan; Bernie Jefferson, a running back at Northwestern; and Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a quarterback at Syracuse. Scores more played in obscurity at historically black colleges.
The league instituted a 20-round draft in 1939, yet no team chose an African-American until 1949. Even with the advent of World War II, when the NFL was so shorthanded that a desperate Halas coaxed Bronko Nagurski out of a five-year retirement and owners considered signing high school players, blacks needed not apply.
The snubbing of Kenny Washington indicts the football establishment more than any other exclusion. Though he led the nation in total offense as a senior in 1939, and played 580 of a possible 600 minutes by doubling as the anchor of the defensive secondary, Washington was relegated to second-team All-America by Hearst, the AP, the UP and Grantland Rice, while the East-West Shrine Game passed him over entirely. Yet when Liberty magazine polled more than 1,600 collegians on the best player they had faced on the field, Washington was the lone man named on the ballot of everyone he played against. It is only fitting that Washington—of whom former UCLA teammate Ray Bartlett once said, "He could smile when his lip was bleeding"—gouged the first bricks out of the NFL's all-whites wall.
The story of the NFL's integration offers no comfort to the league, which would prove notoriously slow to trust blacks with the positions of greatest responsibility, on the field, along the sideline or in the front office. Nor does the story offer the angels or redemptive moments we'd like or expect. "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life," Strode told SI in an unpublished interview before his death. "There was nothing nice about it. History doesn't know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is.
"If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."
Woody Strode grew up not far from the L.A. Coliseum, in what's now known as South Central Los Angeles but was then called the East Side. Just as he entered Jefferson High, his father, a mason with Native American blood, moved the family to Central Avenue, which ran like a high-tension line through the black community. As a high school freshman Woody spread only 130 pounds over a 6'1" frame, but he soon filled out enough for the Los Angeles Examiner to rave, "He haunts his end like a departed spirit, taking out four men on one play if need be."
Kenny Washington hailed from Lincoln Heights, where his was the rare black family among mostly working-class Italians. A woman who lived next door would regularly drag six-year-old Kenny to early-morning mass. His father, Edgar (Blue) Washington, was a rolling stone, playing Negro leagues baseball between intermittent jobs in Hollywood. He would collect from a studio, then disappear until his pockets went light. Kenny would write him out of his life and credit two others with raising him: his grandmother Susie, a grammar school custodian beloved for vetting the suitors of the daughters of her Italian neighbors; and his uncle Rocky, who would become the first black uniformed lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department.
"I had a black principal in my grammar school when I was a kid," Strode would recall. "On the Pacific Coast there wasn't anything we couldn't do. As we got out of the L.A. area we found these racial tensions. Hell, we thought we were white."