African Americans, Brice Taylor, Bruins, college football, Crosstown Rivalry, football, Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, Los Angeles Rams, National Football League, Trojans, UCLA, University of Southern California, Westwood
The dynamic and historic UCLA backfield in 1939, featuring Woody Strode (left), Jackie Robinson (center), and Kenny Washington (right)
Being that this is the month where African-Americans are remembered, saluted, and honored for their many contributions to all facets of American society, it would be wrong on a pronounced scale to not have an article highlighting at least some of the prominent blacks that so beautifully graced the sports landscape in SoCal on this site.
Among such African-American athletes were two young men who were true pioneers who were standouts in football for Los Angeles’ two main institutions of higher learning, UCLA and the University of Southern California.
What was impressive about these guys’ exploits was the fact that not only were they essential in putting the Bruins and Trojans, respectively, on the gridiron map, they did so in the face of the rampant racism that permeated America at that time as although L.A. was not the Deep South with regards to blatant Jim Crow segregation and bigotry, it wasn’t a paradise either with (as examples) the racially restricted covenants and segregated beaches that were an indelible part of Los Angeles until the 1950s.
Without wasting anymore time, here are the profiles of these SoCal pioneers, starting with the first USC football player that was named an All-American while a Trojan:
Besides the fact that he helped put USC football on the map as his All-American year at offensive guard was in 1925, there are quite a few other impressive facts about this man:
* He was one of the first black players to don the cardinal and gold, which wasn’t always easy as he had to endure animosity from even some of his teammates, let alone opponents.
* Like a certain notorious fellow Trojan forty years later going by the name of O.J. Simpson, Taylor ran track for ‘SC as well as play football, running the 100-yard dash in a world-class 9.9 seconds.
* Incredibly enough, he accomplished all of this while being born without a left hand as one can say that before former Angels pitcher Jim Abbott (born without a right hand), there was Brice Taylor.
* After his Trojan days, he coached Southern University, a historically black college in Louisiana, where he started the Bayou Classic game with in-state rival Grambling State.
* He was the first African-American high school football coach in Los Angeles.
* And on top of everything else, Taylor was a descendant of Tecumseh, the leader of the Shawnee Native American tribe who sided with the British during the War of 1812.
Quite the resume for someone who admittedly wasn’t as widely known among L.A’s black sports pioneers as Jackie Robinson or this next man, who along with Robinson was essential in making UCLA a legitimate football force and broke a sport’s color line of his own:
As far as breaking major sports barriers were concerned, before Jackie Robinson, there was Kenny Washington.
Like his crosstown rival Brice Taylor of a decade and a half before, he was the first football All-American to come out of Westwood, the honors coming in 1939.
Among his other accolades:
* His career total of 1,914 rushing yards stood as the Bruin record for 34 years as he was a key part of a dominant UCLA backfield that featured two other African-Americans – Robinson and Woody Strode – that made UCLA a leader in racial progress as they were one of only a handful of schools in that time period that allowed blacks on their teams.
* Mostly thanks to Washington (as well as Robinson and Strode), the Bruins finished undefeated for the first time in ’39 and were the first Bruin football squad to not lose to USC in their Crosstown Rivalry clash, battling them to an epic 0-0 tie before over 100,000 fans at the Coliseum.
* Upon graduating from UCLA, he served in World War II where – in a feat that is very impressive – he helped liberate Jewish people from the Auschwitz, the infamous concentration/death camp where around a million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.
* After the war, Washington broke the color line in the National Football League when he signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 and began playing with them in September of that year, seven months before his ex-UCLA teammate Robinson would make his historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
* He would play three seasons with the Rams, once setting a record with a 92-yard run from scrimmage before being forced to retire in 1948 due to knee injuries.
* He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956, and his #13 jersey was the first one ever to be retired at UCLA.
* After his gridiron days were done, Washington joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where he became a distinguished member of the force.
Anyone who disputes the importance that this man had in sports and in society in general must certainly be delusional as one can say that without Kenny Washington, it may well have been that much more difficult for Robinson to do what he did.
Washington certainly served as a role model in that aspect.
Here’s a clip from YouTube of some of his exploits:
I think that summing up this salute is rather simple:
These two men are pioneers that need to remembered and celebrated not just during February, but every month of the year for what they did to help make the American sporting landscape inclusive for everyone, regardless of race – or anything else for that matter.