The two met in 1936 as freshmen at UCLA, which welcomed black football players. In the idiom acceptable at the time, a local sportswriter called them the Goal Dust Twins, a play on the two black children featured on the box of Fairbank's Gold Dust, a popular soap powder. "When I met Kenny, I swear he was nothing but a nice Italian kid," Strode wrote in his 1990 memoir, Goal Dust. "He had an accent that was half-Italian."
Washington—a.k.a. the Kingfish, after a character in the radio comedy series Amos 'n' Andy—stood astride the Westwood campus. During two seasons of varsity baseball he hit .454 and .350, far better than Robinson. Rod Dedeaux, the longtime USC baseball coach who scouted for the Dodgers, believed that Washington also had a better arm, more power and more agility than Robinson.
Though pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, Washington ran with power and a prodigious straight-arm. "He had a crazy gait, like he had two broken legs," Tom Harmon, a teammate with the Rams, told SI before his death in 1990. "He'd be coming at you straight, and it would look like he was going sideways." As a tailback in the single wing, Washington passed as much as he ran. In 1937, with five minutes to play and the Bruins trailing USC 19--0, he threw for two touchdowns in 29 seconds, then added what could have been the winner if Strode had held on to his pass at the one-yard line. The first scoring pass traveled 62 yards in the air. Afterward UCLA coach Bill Spaulding went by the USC locker room to congratulate his counterpart, Howard Jones. "It's all right to come out now," Spaulding called through the door. "Kenny's stopped passing!"
When the Washington State coach taunted him from the sideline with the n word, Washington went after him. Opposing players would sometimes pile-drive Washington's face into the lime used to line the fields; Strode and other Bruins would take names and settle scores on subsequent plays. But Strode remembered Washington's reluctance to play the same game: "If Kenny knocked a guy down, he'd pick him up after the play was over."
As the wingback in motion during Washington's senior season, Robinson helped free up Washington, who led the Bruins to an undefeated 6-0-4 season, including a scoreless tie with USC, which ended as UCLA's final drive stalled inside the Trojans' four-yard line. Years later it would be easy to read a pattern into both those dramatic games with USC: They seemed to prefigure a fate in which Washington would fall just short or lose out to the clock. When he left the Coliseum field as a Bruin for the final time, Washington received an ovation that sounded, as Strode put it, as if "the pope of Rome had come out."
Robinson, writing for Gridiron magazine in 1971, called Washington "the greatest football player I have ever seen.... I'm sure he had a deep hurt over the fact that he never had become a national figure in professional sports. Many blacks who were great athletes years ago grow old with this hurt."
Anticipating the snubs that would inflame the black press, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Wendell Smith wrote, "When the All-American teams are selected this year, the one with Washington's name missing can be called the 'un-American' team." Washington did play in the College All-Star Game at Soldier Field, scoring a touchdown, and afterward Halas asked him to stick around Chicago, saying he would "see what he could do," Washington recalled. A week later the Bears owner told Washington that he couldn't use him.
Similarly, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers appealed to Giants founder Tim Mara and Brooklyn (football) Dodgers co-owner Dan Topping to sign him. Yet Washington went unselected in the NFL draft, prompting NBC Radio commentator Sam Balter to blast league executives in a broadcast j'accuse: "You know ... he would be the greatest sensation in pro league history with any one of your ball clubs ... [yet] none of you chose him."
Washington spent the next year coaching the UCLA freshmen and finishing up his degree, then joined the LAPD. As undergraduates he and Strode had earned spending money as porters on Warner Brothers movie sets, and Washington picked up several film roles. In the meantime Strode took a job serving subpoenas and escorting prisoners for the L.A. County DA's office, and after Pearl Harbor he joined an Army football team at March Field in Riverside, Calif. When they could, Washington and Strode played in a pro league that would have them, the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL).
Washington never failed to earn all-league recognition during his four minor league seasons, despite several knee injuries, including one in 1941 that kept him out of the service. Legend had it that he once stood in one end zone of Hollywood's Gilmore Stadium and heaved a football clear to the other. ("It was really 93 yards," Washington would confess.) By 1945, when he and Strode played for the Hollywood Bears, Washington found his former Bruins teammate with a touchdown pass that covered 62 yards, and he surpassed that with 65- and 67-yard strikes to another black NFL refusé, Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson. "You'd have thought it was a revival for black people," Brad Pye Jr., the longtime sports editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel, says of those PCFL games. "People would come on Sundays after church, all dressed up. Thirty to forty percent in attendance were black. Kenny was like a god. He did everything, and Sugarfoot Anderson could catch anything Kenny put up."