1946: NFL's Historic African-American Signings
1946: NFL's Historic African-American Signings

In 1946, the Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles, becoming the first top-level sports team on the West Coast. But the move turned out to have far greater historic implications.

The Rams turned their attention to a recently graduated player at nearby UCLA: halfback Kenny Washington. In 1939, Washington was the nation's leader in total offense, and was the first UCLA player to be named an All-American. After college, he began a successful minor league career, playing for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Pro Football League and the San Francisco Clippers of the American Football League. He was consistently one of the most popular football players on the West Coast.

The Rams signed Washington, along with his UCLA teammate, end WOODY STRODE, making them the first African-Americans to play in a major sports league in the modern era (post-World War II).

The Rams' signings helped jumpstart the integration of American sports. Later in 1946, the Cleveland Browns (then of the fledgling All-America Football Conference) signed fullback Marion Motley and guard BILL WILLIS -- both of whom are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The next year, Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, Washington's roommate and teammate at UCLA.

Football's four African-American pioneers enjoyed careers of varying success.

Washington played three seasons with Los Angeles before being hampered by knee injuries.

Strode played one season with Los Angeles, but ended up with a successful career as a character actor in Hollywood. He appeared in nearly 100 television shows and films alongside actors ranging from LEE MARVIN and BERT LANCASTER to RUSSELL CROWE and LEONARDO DI CAPRIO. One of his most visible, albeit minor, roles was in Spartacus, in which he fought KIRK DOUGLAS to the death.

Motley and Willis -- whose Browns joined the NFL in 1950 -- had longer careers. Motley, who was the AAFC's career rushing leader when it disbanded, played with Cleveland until 1953 (being selected to the 1951 Pro Bowl), then spent the 1955 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Willis also stayed with the Browns until 1953, making the Pro Bowl from 1950-53.

Both on and off the field, the impact of Washington, Strode, Motley and Willis paved the way for the current generation of players, coaches and executives.


Modern Pro Leagues' First African-American Players

League Year Team Player
Source: NFL
NFL1946Los Angeles RamsKenny Washington
NFL1946Los Angeles RamsWoody Strode
AAFC1946Cleveland BrownsMarion Motley
AAFC1946Cleveland BrownsBill Willis
MLB1947Brooklyn DodgersJackie Robinson
NBA1950Boston CelticsChuck Cooper
NBA1950New York KnicksNat Clifton
NBA1950Washington CapitalsEarl Lloyd
NHL1958Boston BruinsWillie O'Ree


Influential African-American Moments in NFL History


Fritz Pollard is signed by the Akron Pros. He plays eight seasons and becomes the first African-American to play quarterback. Then in 1921, Pollard becomes the first African-American head coach in the American Professional Football Association.


Kenny Washington becomes the first African-American to play pro football in the modern era when he is signed by L.A. Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves. It has been suggested that Reeves' signing of Washington and his UCLA teammate Woody Strode paved the way for Branch Rickey's decision to sign Jackie Robinson.


Paul Brown signs guard Bill Willis and fullback Marion Motley to the Cleveland Browns. Along with quarterback Otto Graham, Willis and Motley led the Browns to four All-American Football Conference titles before joining the NFL in 1950.


Jim Brown begins a nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns that would make him one of the NFL's all-time greats (nine Pro Bowls; eight league rushing titles; 12,312 rushing yards; 126 total TDs and selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame).


Former running back Claude (Buddy) Young becomes the first black executive in pro sports when the NFL names him director of player relations. Young holds that position until his death in 1983.


Emlen Tunnell, defensive back and kick returner for 14 seasons (1948-58, NY Giants; 1959-61, Green Bay), becomes the first black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tunnell recorded 79 interceptions in his career, returned five punts for touchdowns and was selected to nine Pro Bowls.


Gene Upshaw becomes executive director of the NFL Players Association, a position he held until his death in 2008. Upshaw served as the alternate representative or player representative for the Oakland Raiders from 1970-76 during his years as a player. He was a member of the NFLPA Executive Committee from 1976-80 and served as president of the NFLPA from 1980-83.


Washington's Doug Williams becomes the first African-American quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl, leading the Redskins to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII by throwing a then-NFL record four touchdown passes, all of which came in the second quarter of the game.


Two months after entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the game's greatest offensive tackles, Art Shell is named head coach of the Oakland Raiders (promoted from offensive line coach). Shell becomes the NFL's first modern-era black head coach and the first overall since Fritz Pollard in 1921. He posts a 56-41 career record with the Raiders from 1989-94, including three playoff appearances.

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After a 13-year career with the Cleveland Browns in which he became the alltime leading receiver in franchise history with 662 receptions, and after helping the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl XXXV title as director of pro personnel and later senior VP of football operations, Ozzie Newsome becomes the first African-American general manager in NFL history.


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NFL Football History: "1946: NFL's Historic African-American Signings"