Books

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier’ by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber

c.2021, Grand Central Publishing
$28
335 pages

This weekend, your team is going to win.

You can see it already, the way they’ve been playing so far this season, and you’re sure they can take it all the way to February. For now, though, this weekend’s a must-see and everybody looks good; as in “The Forgotten First” by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber, some even play on the shoulders of giants.

If you’re a baseball fan, you surely know the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first Black ballplayer in the major leagues. What you might not know is that four Black men integrated pro football a year before Robinson’s history-making at-bat.

Abandoned by his mother and raised by a paternal uncle because his father had other interests, Kenny Washington, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946, was first drawn to baseball but the truth was, he could play any sport. Having battled rickets as a young boy, he suffered deformities in both his legs, but that didn’t matter — Johnson and Glauber report that Washington was fast.

So was Woody Strode, who signed up with the Rams not long after Washington. Strode’s mother was Native American; his father was Black, and though Strode had a modeling career as a young man (he’d once posed nude for a Nazi artist) and he’d served in the Army Air Corps, his life always circled back to football.

When he was a child, Marion Motley grew to be so much larger than his peers that when he was at football practice, other kids’ parents begged for him to wear more padding so that collisions with him “wouldn’t hurt quite so much.” Much later, Motley played for the Cleveland Browns, along with Bill Willis, who almost didn’t take up football because he didn’t think he could play as well as his brother, Claude.

Within mere months, these four men broke the color barrier in pro football. And, say the authors, “That history is not told enough…”

Another thing that’s not told enough: what happened before these four men signed on with their respective teams, and how their first year proceeded. It’s infuriating, it’s astounding, and it’s all laid out here inside “The Forgotten First.”

And yet, getting to it might not be so easy.

Authors Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber are a former pro-baller and an NFL columnist, respectively, and the tale they tell speaks to the heart of the fan with deep knowledge of mid-twentieth-century football teams, players, coaches, and college ball. It’s a wide story that encompasses decades and dozens of peripheral people who had a hand in integrating the sport generations ago, from secondary education on up. Then it brings readers full-circle to reveal the inside of the game as it is today.

And all this will be irresistible if you’re a fan. If you’re not a history-minded, live-for-football-season, paint-your-face fan, you may be in well over your head with this book. If you’re obsessive about the game, though, “The Forgotten First” is a big win.

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