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The Untold Story of the Integration of Pro Football

(The Forgotten Four (clockwise from top left): Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode)

The story of how Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is the stuff of legend. But there’s another story about the desegregation of a professional sport that hardly gets told.

A year before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, four black football players broke the football’s color barrier. Kenny Washington and Willie Strode played for the Los Angeles Rams and Marion Motley and Bill Willis played for the Cleveland Browns. And it’s their journey to the NFL that’s the focus of the new documentary Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football.
Last week, the film premiered at UCLA with a screening of the documentary and a panel discussion about race and sports in America. 

Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, Forgotten Four tells Washington, Strode, Motely, and Willis’ story through interviews with family members, former teammates, and historians, as well as historical footage. These four men were stellar athletes, but also courageous and exceptional men. They had to endure discrimination and intimidation, even when it was life threatening, as well as face racism by turning the other cheek.

But the film also focuses on the friendship of four men who, together, broke the NFL’s color line. In 1946, Washington and Strode were teammates on the Rams, but they also played together at UCLA. (They even crossed paths with Jackie Robinson. In 1939, Robinson was also on the school’s football team.) Forgotten Four points out that these two men were such close friends that they considered themselves brothers. 

That same year, Willis and Motley had each other’s back on the Browns.  Cleveland’s legendary coach, Paul Brown, was more concerned about a player’s talent rather than the color of their skin. And in Willis and Motley, he got great players. They not only integrated the team, they helped the Browns win four AAFC Championships in a row and the NFL Championship in 1950.  Today, they’re both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Most sports fans know Jackie Robinson’s story. But few can name who the Jackie Robinson of football is. This film changes that. As UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said at the premiere, “The Forgotten Four will be forgotten no more.”

Executive Producer Wesley Smith said that Forgotten Four began when he met Bill Willis. The pioneer shared his stories with Smith, who was fascinated by them. Smith told SI Kids that he is a student of the game and yet heard little about Willis’ and the other players’ experiences. So he decided that he needed to share these stories with the rest of the world.

“It is important to respect and recognize the people that went before and recognize those who have gone a long time with out recognition,” Smith said.

Former NFL star quarterback Donovan McNabb agreed. He was part of the post-screening panel and said it was important to recognize the game’s history.

“Someone had to open the door to give us opportunities to fulfill our dreams and goals,” McNabb said. “The Forgotten Four are the ones that have done that for us.”

Thanks to this film, these four players will finally get the recognition — from both football and sports fans — that they deserve. 

Forgotten Four premieres on the EPIX cable network on Tuesday, September 23 at 8 p.m.

Photos: Courtesy EPIX (players), courtesy Max Ferregur (McNabb)

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