When Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts faced each other in Sunday’s thrilling showdown, they became the first two Black quarterbacks to oppose each other on the Super Bowl stage — and it didn’t happen until the 57th iteration of the game. It was a significant milestone, to be sure, but it also might have called to mind the many other Black football players who put in the time to deal with adversity and significant challenges before Mahomes and Hurts, including link-placeholder-0], [Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Doug Williams.
There’s also one name that, according to Johnathan Franklin, has flown too far under the radar.
“Telling Kenny Washington’s story is long overdue,” said Franklin, Rams director of social justice and football development (and a former NFL running back), in a phone interview Wednesday. “There’s never a perfect moment to tell his story, but when you think of the reach we have today with social media, and in this moment at the height of social justice nationally, it will have a greater impact than it would have had 10 or 15 years ago.”
Growing up in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood just outside of downtown Los Angeles, Washington led his high school to its most recent city championship in football in 1935 before becoming the first All-American football player in UCLA history in 1939. He eventually signed with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946, re-integrating the NFL after a ban on Black players that lasted from 1934 through 1945.
The Los Angeles Rams are doing their part this February — in celebration of Black History Month — to make sure the story of Washington, who died in 1971, reaches as many people as possible by helping to produce a powerful film. Kingfish: The Story of Kenny Washington, described in a release announcing the film as a “docustyle short,” includes the voices of Washington’s family members and coaches and past players from the Rams. It premiered Wednesday evening at The Miracle Theater in Inglewood, California.
As historic as Washington signing with the Rams was, one seemingly unknown facet of this story is that Washington broke the NFL’s modern-era color barrier a full year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson, who played baseball and football with Washington at UCLA, is honored by the MLB every year on April 15.
In fact, Washington’s story eluded Franklin, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and played the same position as Washington at UCLA, until his playing days were over.
“I was instantly inspired,” he said, adding that conversations about the film first began in 2016. “When you think of the barriers he had to face and that he was creating his own pathway as a trailblazer, there was probably hopelessness in his situation. When you take a step back and look at Los Angeles today, there is a lot of homelessness, food insecurity, education inequities, and with aspects of criminal justice, there are so many barriers when it comes to access. Kenny is a hero everyone can look up to in times of adversity and moments of hopelessness.
“Youth can look to him as a hero and use his story to follow their dreams and reach beyond their reality. They can believe they can become something outside of their current zip code, and that’s what’s exciting about this project. It can reach so many communities that we serve today.”
Franklin, who has a small on-camera role in the film, has helped carry on Washington’s legacy through several Rams programs. The organization supports the Kenny Washington Memorial Game at his high school alma mater, launching the Kenny Washington Memorial Scholarship for 13 first-generation high school students from communities in need, and honoring 13 community leaders who embody the leadership traits of Washington through the pLAymakers program.
“These two programs, along with Watts Rams and now North East Lincoln Rams, are providing an impact in the Los Angeles community,” Franklin said. “To have the platform and allow football to be the unifier, there are major barriers being broken. There is a lot of emphasis on impacting youth, and though we may not see change tomorrow, there is a confidence that five or 10 years from now, there will be change.”
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