Updated: Mar 25, 2021
By Yena Choe and Natalie Kim
Since President Gerald Ford’s decree in 1976, Black History Month has been observed every February in the United States. The month has been used to promote education of the crucial, yet often underrepresented history of African Americans, as well as to spotlight the stories of African American heroes and figures.
Black athletes have especially been highlighted throughout history for their talent. One of the most widely followed sports franchises of the US, the National Football League (NFL), has undoubtedly been one of the largest stages highlighting black excellence in sports.
Following Kenny Washington’s signing with the Cleveland Rams, now relocated and known as the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, credited today with breaking the color barrier of the NFL, the field has become increasingly integrated, with over ⅔ of the NFL being made up of black players.
In this piece, we look at the pioneers and modern icons of black history in football.
When Kenny Washington was signed by the Rams in 1946, the NFL was experiencing a “color barrier” following World War II. Despite no rules prohibiting the signing of black players, no team had signed a black player in about thirteen years. The Rams agreed to allow African American players on the team after local black newspapers and the city’s stadium commission pressured the team to integrate, successfully breaking this barrier and signing the first black NFL player in the postwar era.
Washington faced numerous injustices in his three seasons playing for the NFL, facing threats from the media and public, and being targeted by fellow players. However, a standout halfback from the UCLA Bruins, Washington was unstoppable on the field. While his career was relatively brief due to knee injuries, his career was nothing short of distinctive. Washington was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1958, and went on to pursue a notable career with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) following his football career.
Doug Williams was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978 as the 17th overall pick, making history as the first black football player to be selected in the first round. Williams led the team to three playoffs and its first NFC Central Title. Following five seasons in Tampa, he left to play in the United States Football League (USFL). When the USFL disbanded in 1986, Williams returned to the NFL, signing with the Washington Redskins. In Washington, Williams put up impressive stats, starting the playoffs with a 94.0 starter. Williams led the team to Super Bowl XXII, defeating the Denver Broncos and becoming a champion.
Williams made history as the first African American quarterback to start and play in the Super Bowl, as well as the first black Super Bowl MVP. Williams helped dispel the dogma that black players could not play quarterback through his unmatched understanding of offensive plays. After retiring in 1989, Williams went on to pursue a successful coaching career at the high school and collegiate levels.
Selected to join the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, Russell Wilson has risen to be considered as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today. Wilson led his team to a 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XLVIII, giving the Seahawks their first Super Bowl win in history. Wilson then continued to win more games than any other NFL quarterback in his first seven seasons, with a total of seventy five wins, and has the second highest NFL career passer rating of all time.
Wilson’s plan to rise to the top started with his former North Carolina State head football coach telling him “Listen, son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You’ve got no shot.” Disregarding those words, Wilson persevered and the night of the Super Bowl XLVIII, Wilson became the second African-American starting quarterback in NFL history to win a championship.
Patrick Mahomes was selected to join the Kansas City Chiefs during the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. While only having four years of experience, Mahomes garnered numerous accomplishments. He was awarded as the NFL’s most valuable player in 2018, and won the ESPY for the best NFL player in 2019. During the 2019-20 playoffs, Mahomes led the Chiefs to the Super Bowl LIV, giving them their first Super Bowl appearance in fifty years. Their victory over the San Francisco 49ers gave them their first Super Bowl victory since 1970, making Mahomes just the third black quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
Although the Chiefs lost the SuperBowl last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes has been established as a favorite to win NFL Most Valuable Player honors for this year's season. During the regular season, he threw for 4,740 yards and made 38 touchdowns, and during Super Bowl LV, completed 26 of 49 passes for 270 yards, and is rising as the football star of the next generation.
From the mid 1900s to the present, black athletes continue to make history in the National Football League and break the boundaries set by race. The impact of black athletes on shaping not only football, but nearly all mainstream sports in both the United States and across the globe is profound, and their histories must be spotlighted.
Research by Serine Jang