Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only black pioneer in professional sports, just as Billie Jean King wasn’t the sole trailblazer among women. For some reason, our society needs to anoint exactly one martyred saint per race or gender, even though many others broke through similar barriers.
For those who have forgotten or never knew, it is important to learn the names Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Those were the four black players who smashed pro football’s color barrier in 1946, re-integrating the sport against the wishes of Washington’s racist owner, George Preston Marshall, and paving the way for Jackie Robinson a year later.
Playing in both the All-America Football League and then the NFL, Willis and Motley helped win five straight championships in Cleveland for Paul Brown — who was the Branch Rickey of football, only more so. Washington and Strode toiled less effectively on the West Coast, where the Rams were more or less coerced by the Los Angeles Coliseum into signing them and isolated those two players on and off the field.
“It’s important for the kids of the day, people of my generation, to learn more about the history of football,” said Donovan McNabb, a pioneer black quarterback in his own right and a supporter of the enlightening documentary, “Forgotten Four,” to premiere Sept. 23 on Epix. “We hear so much about Jackie Robinson, how he broke the color barrier, about the NBA, how it’s changed. We’ve seen the change in soccer and other sports, but in the No. 1 American sport, our game, we need to learn more about it.”