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Acclaimed Newsday NFL Writer Bob Glauber co-authors "The Forgotten First" about the Breaking of the NFL's Color Barrier in 1946

Stode Robinson and Washington.jpg
Courtesy ASUCLA Photography/The Forgotten First/Grand Central Publishing
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Washington and Strode were teammates with Jackie Robinson (center) on the 1939 UCLA football team, and all three went on to play professional ball. Robinson, of course, gained fame by becoming the first African-American in the modern era to play Major League Baseball, while Washington and Strode have been far less celebrated as the first two Black players to reintegrate the NFL.

Newsday's Bob Glauber is one of the finest NFL writers, authors and columnists. Glauber has teamed up with former New York Jets and Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver and current broadcaster Keyshawn Johnson on an important book that tells one of the most significant cultural shifts in pro football history, as four men opened the door to opportunity and changed the sport forever.

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Doug Doyle/Zoom
Author and Newsday NFL writer Bob Glauber joins SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about "The Forgotten First"

Glauber joined SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the new book The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier (Grand Central Publishing).

More than a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, there was another huge moment in pro sports history. On March 21, 1946, former UCLA star running back Kenny Washington a teammate of Robinson's in college, signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams. he became the first African American player to be signed by an NFL team, thus ending the league's twelve-year ban on Black players.

Glauber explains what prompted one of the most shameful periods in NFL history.

"I think you always have to be mindful of what's going on in society around sports and what was going on in the 1930's was the Great Depression. There was a feeling that why should the potential of African American workers affect White workers in the NFL. That was not a hugely popular league. Players didn't make a ton of money but there was that dynamic going in. That was pretty prevalent at the time. It was not written in any constitution of bylaws of the NFL but there was an understanding among owners, particularly with George Preston Marshall of the Washington franchise. He was very public with his animosity toward black players and Blacks in general. He felt that the Washington team would not succeed if they had black players because it would alienate the fan base which was predominantly white. The owners went along with it. It was a bad time for everybody."

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Grand Central Publishing
The new book "The Forgotten First"

Kenny Washington would not be alone in serving as a pioneer for NFL integration. Just months after he joined the Rams, thanks to a concerted effort by influential Los Angeles political and civic leaders, the team signed Woody Strode, who also played with Washington and Robinson at UCLA in one of the most celebrate backfields in college sports history. That same year, a little-known coach named Paul Brown of the fledgling Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and defensive lineman Bill Willis, thereby integrating a startup league that would eventually merge with the NFL.

Kenny Washington player.jpg
Courtesy Kenny Norwood/The Forgotten First/Grand Central Publish
In 1939 Kenny Washington became the first All-American player in UCLA history and was arguably the most talented college player in the country. But because of the NFL’s ban on Black players, he went undrafted and played with the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Football League.

The same day Kenny Washington helped his underdog UCLA team tied powerhouse USC in 1939 with a spectacular performance, he was not selected in the NFL draft. In fact, more than 200 players were selected in that draft and none of them were black players.

The Forgotten Four also makes it clear that many colleges at that time like USC and Notre Dame did not want black players. Two of the pioneers, Washington and Strode had great careers at UCLA, but that wasn't there first choice of schools. Glauber stresses UCLA's more liberal mindset made them a better choice for the two stars.

"Back then, it was actually Kenny Washington's dream to play at Notre Dame and he had spoke with Woody Strode about this for many years and they were best friends. He wanted to go to Notre Dame in the worst way and Woody Strode was hoping to go to USC but blacks were not wanted there. UCLA was different. There was a more open-minded liberalism there. That came from some people in the athletic department. Bill Ackerman was a real champion for diversity at UCLA at the time. That was a big reason they were able to attract Jackie Robinson who was looking for a permanent school after going to Pasadena Junior College and starring there. UCLA was really at the forefront."

One of the most interesting parts of The Forgotten First is how these four players interacted with some of the greatest figures in sports history like Jackie Robinson, Paul Brown and even Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens. Bill Willis and his brother Claude were playmates of Owens.

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Courtesy Willis Family/The Forgotten First/Grand Central Publishing
Bill Willis was skeptical about attending Ohio State after the school passed over his older brother, Claude. But because Paul Brown was one of the few college coaches willing to have African-American players on his team, Willis agreed to play there and developed into an All-American defensive lineman. (Courtesy Willis Family)

"In summers they would go visit relatives and Jesse Owens was a kid at the time, he was not Jesse Owners like we know him now. Very nice family. They were all very friendly and played on the local playgrounds together. Bill Willis was a Hall of Fame defensive lineman who was so fast they called him "The Cat".

Kenny Washington and Marion Motley would also be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Courtesy Cleveland Browns/The Forgotten First/Grand Central Publishing
Marion Motley became the AAFC’s best fullback after joining the Browns in 1946. At 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, Motley was one of pro football’s greatest blockers and runners, and he helped his team win a league championship when the Browns were absorbed into the NFL in 1950.

Motley, "The Pride of Canton" would lead the Cleveland Browns and head coach Paul Brown to five championships and became the second black player to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Motley was such a great athlete that the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues asked him to pitch in a game, and he was extremely effective on the mound.

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Courtesy Los Angeles Rams/The Forgotten First/Grand Central Publishing
Woody Strode joined the Rams shortly after Washington did. Washington had insisted that the team sign his former UCLA teammate and best friend.

Woody 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 made his way to Hollywood and had a long career in film. He maybe best known for his acting career that followed him time with the Rams. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his role in Spartacus opposite Kirk Douglas in 1960.

Glauber, who was raised in White Plains, New York, says his relationship with co-author Keyshawn Johnson has always been a good one. Glauber says he enjoyed the collaboration on The Forgotten First.

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Bob Glauber
Bob Glauber and Keyshawn Johnson pose with their new book "The Forgotten First"

"Keyshawn was a beast, loved working with him. I've known Keyshawn since he started with the Jets in 1996, that's 25 years ago. I loved covering him back then. I've kept in touch with him over the years. I came to him with this about a year and a half ago. We discussed it. He loved the idea. He's been a tremendous partner with this whole thing. He truly believes the importance of getting this whole story out. The fact that he played high school ball about no more than ten miles away from Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, he was just blown away by the fact that he didn't know anything about these guys, or very little, maybe a little about Kenny Washington, certainly not much. It was a little frustrating for him. It was one of the reasons that he connected with the idea of it (the book)."

Glauber was a sports reporter for The Journal News before he joined Newsday in 1989. While at Newsday, Glauber initially covered the Giants and Jets for two years before moving on to become Newsday's National Football columnist in 1992.

You can watch the entire SportsJam conversation with Bob Glauber at https://fb.watch/8k9fS9254k/.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.