Everyone knows who Jackie Robinson was. The four-sport varsity star from UCLA was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. His monumental accomplishment stands as one of the greatest achievements in U.S. history. Robinson was an iconic figure for all of us.
But do you know who the first African-Americans to play in the NFL were? Can you name them? I'll bet you can't. For some reason, these great athletes just don't seem to get as much attention, despite the fact that they broke the NFL color barrier in 1946, one full year before Robinson did it in Major League Baseball (1947).
African-Americans did play professional football in its earliest days when it was still a club sport. But, by 1933, football was becoming big business and blacks were not welcomed. It wasn't until 1946, in one very special year, that four men endured the taunts, broke the NFL color barrier and opened the door for all those who have followed.
Bill Willis was an extraordinary football player. He possessed outstanding agility and quickness. He played "middle guard." Because of his versatility, he had a unique playing style, sometimes lining up at the line of scrimmage, while at other times, dropping back. In fact, it was Willis who was the progenitor of the modern-day linebacker.
Willis was an All-Pro selection in every season he played in the NFL. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Like the other men who broke the color barrier, Willis endured a lot of taunts and threats. But his contributions were momentous. The next time you watch great linebackers, remember Willis.
Marion Motley was a force to be reckoned with. At nearly 240 pounds, he was a very big back in his day and used his size to his advantage, running over and through defenders.
Motley played for the University of Nevada Wolf Pack from 1941-1943 and then spent time in the military. He joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946 along with Bill Willis, and together, they led the Browns to five consecutive championships.
While Motley anchored the offense, Willis anchored the defense. The second black player to be inducted in the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, Motley joined in 1968.
Kenny Washington was actually the first African-American to sign a contract in 1946 with an NFL team. He came out of UCLA, where he played alongside two other great black football players, Woody Strode and another player whose name you may recognize, Jackie Robinson.
That's right, Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, was a standout football player also. Imagine what it must have been like for those three players in those days. Two of them would go on to break the NFL color barrier while another would do so in baseball.
Washington had a brief, but memorable, NFL career. He played three seasons for the L.A. Rams and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1958.
After his football days, Washington joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where he had an equally distinguished career.
Woody Strode was one of three UCLA football players who changed history. Along with Kenny Washington, Strode was one of the first black men to join the NFL in 1946.
Strode's NFL career was brief, only one season. It was followed by a couple of years in the Canadian Football League. A professional wrestling career followed, but then, Strode really hit his stride. He made his way to Hollywood and had a long career in film. In fact, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his role in Spartacus opposite Kirk Douglas in 1960.
Along with Jackie Robinson in baseball, Willis, Motley, Washington and Strode paved the way for all the great black players who followed.
But they did much more; they changed the country for the better. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Let's make the names, Willis, Motley, Washington and Strode household names just as Robinson is.