Prior to the Rams move to Los Angeles and the Dons formation
there, professional football was a whites-only league. Despite the
presence of teams at all-black collegiate schools like Grambling and Southern
University, the National Football League had remained the playground and
business for whites only. No one of African-American descent had
played in the NFL since 1933, when Joe Lillard was released by the Chicago
Cardinals. The black press across the country claimed that Lillard had
been "Too Good For His Own Good" and that the "color of his skin had driven
him" out of the league. In 1935, Lilliard's former head coach in
Chicago admitted that an unwritten rule barred blacks from the game for
their own protection. Lilliard had been the victim of racism.
Most major colleges weren't allowing blacks to play for their football
teams, either; some were not yet integrated, and many of the ones that
were did not allow blacks to play.
Perhaps do its location away from the older and
more established racial boundries back East, Los Angeles was a little more
progressive when it came to integrating football and the races. At
the collegiate level, UCLA sported three terrific African-American athletes
on their squad --Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson.
Robinson was a year behind Strode and Washington in school, but the most
accomplished athlete UCLA has ever seen, lettering in an unprecedented
four sports. The sports papers were filled with quotes from writers
and coaches who marvelled at his athleticism. Strode was an accomplished
two-way player, with tremendous size for the time (220 pounds). Washington,
however, was the most renowned. He was the team's star half-back,
and finished as the school's all-time leading rusher and passer.
Robinson called him "the greatest footbal player I ever saw," and he was
not alone in that heaping that praise on Washington, as both fans, coaches
and media from around the country marvelled at his ability.
Together with Robinson, they media dubbed them the "Goal Dust Twins".
However, Washington was only voted to the All-Americans second-team.
Furthermore, like Robinson and Strode, he was not drafted by the NFL.
Somewhat surprisingly, both Washington and Robinson
were both invited to various all-star games to play against NFL teams in
exhibitions. Robinson travelled to one highly publicized game
in Chicago, and Washington stayed home to compete in several others.
Both players received extensive local coverage in the white press, although
the subject of their inability to play in professionally was only discussed
by a few columnists and radio men, and never reported on the front page.
Shut out of the NFL, the only place for blacks to turn to besides these
sorts of exhibitions were the minor-leagues. Los Angeles at this
time was the centerpiece of the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL), which
featured integrated teams such as the Los Angeles Bulldogs and Hollywood
Bears. "Negro League" football teams did not have the following of
their baseball counterparts, although some were in existence back East.
Robinson played one game for the Bulldogs after leaving school in 1941,
and then he left Los Angeles to go to Hawaii, where he played for the local
minor-league Honolulu Bears. Washington, Strode, and other black
players from local colleges stuck around and played i the PCFL. When
World War II broke out, they entered the military. Robinson came
home in 1944, played one game for the Bulldogs, and then headed East --
he signed a contract with minor-league baseball's Montreal Royals; three
years later he would become the most famous African-American in history
when he broke major-league baseball's color line.
Washington came back to Los Angeles and played the
1945 season with the Bulldogs. Other black players returned from
the war around this time and resumed playing ball with the Bulldogs, Bears,
and Los Angeles Mustangs of the PCFL. By January of 1946, however,
two big-time football teams were setting up shop in Los Angeles.
The Rams moved from Cleveland, and the Dons of the new All-American Football
Conference were here as well. Both teams wanted to play in the Los
Angeles Coliseum. Neither team had plans to integrate their all-white
rosters with local black talent. At that a Coliseum Commission
meeting to discuss the matter of who would receive playing dates at the
stadium, local black writers, including Halley Harding of the Los Angeles
Tribune and Herman Hill the west coast correspondent of the Pittsburgh
Courier, pointed out that the Coliseum should not let organizations that
practice racial discrimination use the Coliseum. With the NFL and
AAFC continuing their whites-only policy, the Rams and Dons were faced
with not being allowed to play at the only suitable professional football
stadium in Los Angeles
discrimination. The Rams, followed by the Dons, then announced
their intent to sign black athletes and the Coliseum Commission allowed
both teams to use the stadium. The Rams signed Kenny Washington,
who at age 27 had suffered a knee injury and was not the quick athlete
he once was. A Rams coach admitted that Washington was signed so
the Rams could obtain the right to play at the Coliseum. Washington
also could attract local black fans out to the stadium at a time when the
Rams desperately needed to sell as many seats as they could. Woody
Strode was sooned signed as well, even though his best days were behind
him as well. The signings were hailed in the black press and despite
precluding Jackie Robinson's efforts with the Dodgers by a few years, they
did not receive much national attention. On the field, Ram coach
Adam Walsh's concerns over quarterback existing quarterback Bob Waterfield,
Walsh mentioned to reporters that he was even considering giving Washington
a shot at the quarterback position. Washington impressed Walsh was
his arm and athleticism, but in the end the coach with Waterfield and Washington
continued to play halfback, leading the Rams in rushing the following year
in 1947 despite his bad knee. It would be another twenty years before
an African-American could finally start a game at quarterback, and thirty
years before one would get a shot as a regular starter.
The Dons hadn't been in a rush to sign Washington
or Strode, althoug they agreed to sign black athletes to receive access
to the Coliseum. They did not follow up on that pledge, however,
until their second year of existence in 1947. They were hampered
their first year because another AAFC franchise, the Miami Seahawks, would
not play against any integrated teams. With pressure from the local
black press especially heavy, and the Seahawks out of business by 1947,
the Dons agreed to sign Ezzert Anderson, John Brown and Bert Piggott, who
had been playing in the PCFL. The Cleveland Browns, the dominant
team in the AAFC (winning all four championships), lacked the Dons qualms
over signing black players, and signed the massive Marion Motley over the
objections of his star quarterback Otto Graham, whose racism was no secret.
Motley would go on to the NFL Hall of Fame.
With the color line now broken, both leagues began
to integrate, and the Rams led the way. Desperate to win games and
fans, the Rams sought out black players who could help them. They
signed Paul "Tank" Younger from Grambling in 1949 to play both fullback
and linebacker. Younger was only twenty at the time, and took it
upon itself to set an example to and help pave the way for other black
The following year the Rams added the equally large (230 pounds) Deacon
Dan Towler, a former divinity student from USC. Towler led the team
in rushing in 1951 through 1953, Younger would go on to lead the team in
rushing in 1954. Several seasons later he would go on to become the
first black to play in the NFL All-Star game. Younger was also considered
the greatest single-platoon player in Rams history (players who played
both offense and defense). In 1952, they signed rookie Dick "Night
Train" Lane, who stole 14 interceptions that year, a record that has never
been broken. These players, like several others the Rams signed over
the years, came from one of three places; West Coast schools like USC or
UCLA, southern Black schools, or from the military. Most colleges
in the American south were still not integrated, so naturally there were
no black players on those squads. Other schools limited the number
of blacks on a roster. Nonetheless, World War II had a tremendous
impact in changing racial attitudes by whites towards blacks in the United
States, and the war between the Dons and Rams was just as beneficial.
Harris had played his collegiate ball at Grambling, where head coach