Kenny Washington had already undergone five knee operations when he made his NFL debut at age 28. Now a running back on a T formation team, he could no longer mystify defenses as a tailback who might run or pass. He fared best in the second of his three seasons, when he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yardage, led the league with 7.4 yards per carry and ran 92 yards from scrimmage for a score shortly after being knocked unconscious by a Chicago Cardinals linebacker.
"Kenny was just a shell of himself when he played for the Rams," says the Sentinel's Pye. "If you could have seen him with the Hollywood Bears...." Angelenos seemed to know that. Upon his retirement in 1948, the 80,000 fans who came out for a tribute did so to honor his entire career.
When the Rams hit the road that first season, management checked the white players into one hotel and peeled off a hundred dollars for each of the black players to find lodging elsewhere. This wasn't always because of Jim Crow; Washington and Strode liked the autonomy. "In the black section of Chicago, we'd never seen so many black people in our whole lives," Strode recalled. "Bob Waterfield and about five players came down looking for us because they'd made arrangements for us to move back to their hotel. We're in a cellar [of the Persian Hotel] where Count Basie's playing, it's integrated and all the white people are having a ball. We're sipping Tom Collinses, and Waterfield said, 'You sons of bitches!' The team was too embarrassed to bed check us because we'd been shoved out of the family. And when the white players came to get us, we said, 'No way, we're gonna stay segregated.' That's why I say it was never [an issue among] the athletes."
On offense, Strode, then 32, played only enough to catch four passes; on defense, he was put "in the butcher shop on the defensive line at 200 pounds," Strode said. "It was a joke ."
Harmon, his old teammate, confirmed this. "Woody was one of the greatest defensive ends I ever saw, but he never got a chance to prove it because of that fool coaching staff. In practice you could never get near him. You never saw a man in better shape."
Strode learned of his release while lying in bed one morning, when several of Washington's mob-connected friends from Lincoln Heights came by with the news. One of the wise guys—"the biggest bookie in Hollywood," Strode said—reported overhearing Reeves and Snyder in a bar on Sunset Boulevard ("drunk on their asses," in Strode's telling) bragging about how they'd let Strode go. "[The bookie] said, 'We don't like the way they did it. We want to know if you want to fight it.' I could have started a war."
Both Chile Walsh and his brother Adam, the L.A. coach, resigned after the Rams, NFL champions in 1945, went 6-4-1 in 1946. But even if the season had been a disappointment on the West Coast, to a man watching from Brooklyn it had been a triumph. As a teammate of Charles Follis's with the Shelby Athletic Club at the turn of the century, Branch Rickey had been impressed by Follis's even temper in the face of taunts and cheap shots. Now, Rickey said to himself, if blacks and whites could play a game of violent collisions in close quarters without major incident, the Dodgers could surely call up Jackie Robinson to the majors. Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers the following season.
Strode went on to play two seasons in Canada and spent five years in Italy doing spaghetti Westerns and action films. On screen he exuded an equipoise that one critic praised as "an effective counterpoint to the noise and confusion around him." By the time he died of lung cancer in 1994, he had made more than 100 movies, including Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His last film, The Quick and the Dead, was released in 1995.
After retiring, Washington worked as a distributor for a grocery chain and a whiskey distillery. He served as a part-time scout for the Dodgers, in whose system his son, Kenny Jr., played several seasons. In 1971, after Washington became ill with congestive-heart and lung problems, Strode hurried back from Italy to his old friend's hospital room in the UCLA Medical Center. He wanted to take Washington to Rome, to show him a place full of people like the neighbors back in Lincoln Heights. But Washington was too far gone and knew he was best left to contemplate the Bruins' football practice field, which he could see from his window.
Washington was 52 when he died. In his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Waterfield said, "If he had come into the National Football League directly from UCLA, he would have been, in my opinion, the best the NFL had ever seen."