Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson began with a question. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an effective ban on Black players in the N.F.L.
Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is a Los Angeles native, though he played college football at U.S.C. long after Washington and Strode were standouts on the same 1939 U.C.L.A. team as Jackie Robinson.
Yet Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of the four Black players to break the N.F.L.’s color barrier. He did not even know that N.F.L. owners had struck a gentlemen’s agreement to not sign Black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams into signing Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the same year.
Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the N.F.L. had done to celebrate the players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the players’ families at its annual enshrinement ceremony.
It would not have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for the honor and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the N.F.L. Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021.
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the effects of the N.F.L.’s racist past and the impact of giving the four pioneering players their due.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Keyshawn, you wrote that you did not know about Washington or Strode even though you played college football in the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did when they attended U.C.L.A.
KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or Black schools, there’s only four Black people talked about in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no real deep dive into the history. And when we get to college, it’s rinse and repeat all over again. They’re going to teach us all about white history.
So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was in my own backyard, within blocks of where I grew up. I had no knowledge about it because it just wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I just don’t ever remember seeing it, and I go to a lot of games there.