Kishon Johnson wants the NFL to remember the ‘Forgotten Four’

The Keyshawn Johnson history lesson began with a question. In 2020, Newsday reporter Bob Glober wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who both signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 breaking an effective ban on black players in the NFL.

Glauber thought he’d ask Johnson, who was an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is a native of Los Angeles, although he played college football at USC long after both Washington and Strode starred on the same 1939 UCLA team as Jackie Robinson.

However, Johnson said he had no idea how important they were as two of the four black players to break the NFL color barrier. He didn’t even know that the NFL owners had made an agreement with the gentlemen not to sign black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. Johnson learned that the ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after Los business and journalists lobbied Los Angeles on the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns that same year.

Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL did to celebrate the players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Professional Football Hall of Fame will award its flagship award to families of players at its annual honoring ceremony.

It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the hall for the tribute and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and The Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021.

In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the history of the so-called largely forgotten Four, the effects of the NFL’s racist past and the impact of awarding the four leading players their due, remains unrecognized.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and intensity.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you knew nothing about Washington or Strode even though you played college football in the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did when they attended UCLA

Kishon Johnson You know, when you think about it when you grow up, when you talk about African American communities or black schools, there are only four blacks that you talk about in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s very basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens sprinkled in sports and a bit of Arthur Ashe. There is no real deep dive into history. And when we go to college, it’s rinsed off and over again. They will teach us all about white history.

So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was in my own backyard, within blocks of where I grew up. I had no knowledge of it because it wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if there was a Rose Bowl. I just don’t remember seeing it at all, and go to a lot of games there.

One of the most compelling sections of the book was discussion of the implicit ban on hiring black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the racial concessionaire in Washington, as leading Prohibition, but you notice the other owners went with him.

Johnson It never happened with just one man. You can’t call everyone a racist, but when you tolerate, ignore, and turn your head the other way, you are guilty. You are just as wrong as those who started it. This is the case in professional sports and politics today. Same stuff, different years.

For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and faced the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why did the NFL take so long to do the same?

Johnson At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson was making his deal. While in football, you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] Then he stopped at a time when college football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to get a lot of things wrong and then try to correct them later, so it’s not out of the field that it could have just flown over their heads.

Bob Glauber This is not a particularly straight story, banning black players. And now, black players make up nearly 70 percent of the entire NFL rosters.

However, when we went to the league and kind of looked for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said, “This story is true and we cannot change it and we have to accept it.”

The four players, they had disparate careers: some lasted longer. Some lasted, in fact, for a short time. Do any of their personal stories resonate with you, Kishon?

Johnson It just comes down to how some of their teammates are treated, good or bad. Those stories always stick with me of how people like George Preston Marshall treated people in a vindictive manner, yet he still managed to have a team and wanted black players to serve him. For me, it’s mind boggling. At the same time, these guys are still fighting through it and not letting them own it or take their spirits away from doing the things they want to do, which is to play professional sports. Basically getting the black ball, Motley couldn’t play or train in the NFL, but he kept fighting through it. That perseverance, that mental toughness is all about me.

Race remains a central tension in the NFL with a Brian Flores lawsuit alleging discrimination in hiring, racial bias in the settlement of concussions and criticism of having too few team owners of color. So will these four Hall of Fame honorees change the dynamic?

Glauber This seems just an emotional conclusion to their story because the Hall of Fame honors them. But for me, it’s really a start to raising awareness of who they are, what they did and why they were so important because they aren’t household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they will be. But they should be.

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