Remembering Black Athletes

Sports figures that helped blaze a trail
Posted on 03/01/2023
Image of Serena Williams on the wall during Black History Month


by Jaycee Pope

The month of February is utilized to honor African Americans that helped black people in our nation be heard. Some important people to recognize are the athletes who also gave a voice to black people playing in professional sports.  

Jackie Robinson was the first African American to break major color boundaries in the major leagues. He was a steppingstone in sports history for black athletes. He showed that African Americans have the right to play major league sports. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he excelled at baseball, basketball, football, and track. After Robinson was discharged from the army, he started playing for the “Negro” League. Later, in 1946, he entered the Canadian Minor League and played on the Montreal Royals. He was then moved up to Major League Baseball (MLB) and played for the Dodgers in 1947. He broke records and broke down color barriers that white people had kept in place for a long period of time. Jackie Robinson is an icon of the MLB. The MLB retired his jersey number in 1997. In honor of Jackie Robinson’s success, they have put his number (42) in every MLB stadium. He is an amazing second baseman and his story will carry on for years to come. 

Another important person to mention about the NBA that broke color barrier is Earl Lloyd. Lloyd was the first African American to be a part of the NBA. He was able to keep peace and gracefully manage the hatred of racists and segregation practices. Not only was he the first African American who had been introduced to the NBA, but he was also the first African American to win an NBA championship. Lloyd was an amazing athlete, scoring 4,682 points (8.4 Points Per Game) and 3,609 rebounds (6.4 Rebounds Per Game) as a small forward for the Detroit Patriots. He also had an APG (Assists Per Game) of 1.4 and an field goal percentage of 35.6. 

Willie Eldon O’Ree went through a lot of adversity as a black athlete. O’Ree played shortstop and second base while playing baseball. He was so good, he was asked to go and tryout to be in the MLB. At the time, there were not a lot of black people to have the opportunity to tryout. Originally, he thought it was a bad idea, but he went against his instincts. O’Ree faced major criticism and got cut. He was not mad about this matter, either. O’Ree was tired of the racist comments on the field and headed home up North. He then shifted most of his attention to hockey, which was his main sport. One of his teammates, Kent Douglas, hit a heavy slapshot to his face. This broke his nose, slashed his eye, cracked his cheek, and shattered his retina. Within five weeks, he was out practicing after the doctors said he could never play hockey again. There was one problem O’Ree faced: He was blind in his right eye. That did not stop him. That is when he got the call to come up the National Hockey League (NHL). On January 18, 1958, Willie Eldon O’Ree started playing for the Boston Bruins. In that season he had 4 goals and 10 assists, scoring 14 points. He was an amazing hockey player who faced major adversity which proved that nothing should stop you from chasing your goals. 

There are five African Americans who helped take down the color barriers before Jackie Robinson in the National Football League (NFL). Those amazing athletes are Fritz Pollard, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley. Fritz Pollard played football at Brown University where he became the first African American to go to the Rose Bowl in 1915. Fritz was the first ever African American to go pro as well, which was in 1919. He played for the Ohio League. The team that he was on was the Akron Indians. In addition, he won the first NFL championship and was still involved in the NFL by playing and coaching until 1926. He was the second African American to be inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1954 and introduced to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.  

Both Kenny Washington and Woody Strode played for the Los Angeles Rams and joined in the same year (1946). Kenny Washington played football at UCLA, and later in his football career he was the first African American to ever sign a contract with the NFL. Although Kenny Washington only played for three seasons, he had 7.5 rushing yards per attempt. He is still the only person for the Rams that made a 92-yard rushing touchdown, which is a team record. Kenny was honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1958. The reason he stopped playing was because he wanted to pursue a new career as a police officer. Woody Strode’s time in the NFL was also short, only playing for one season. Strode went into the Canadian Football League for a couple of years. After that, he got involved in wrestling. Then, he found that acting was the right path to follow. Strode was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1960. Although their careers were short, they created a steppingstone for athletes to follow.  

Like Washington and Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley played on the same team, the Cleveland Browns in 1946. Prior to Bill Willis joining the Browns, he went to Ohio State University. He was a versatile player with his speed and moved swiftly. He played defensive tackle. Willis would be known as the modern terminology of a linebacker. Willis had eight successful seasons, which allowed him to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Marion Motley originally played football for the University of Utah. Later, he went into the military but found his way back to the field in 1946. Motley was 240 pounds and he used this to his advantage by running through people like they were nothing. Motley played for nine seasons, making 4,720 yards, 85 receptions, and 5.7 yards per carry. Originally, Motley became the addition to the team to give Willis a roommate. They worked amazingly together, leading the Browns into five consecutive championships. Willis and Motley did not back down from a fight. They knew what hatred they would face, and they put them in their place. Willis knew that he did not have to play dirty to beat his opponents; he had his agility on his side. Motley found that when they were too busy calling them slurs, he was running for a touchdown, while Willis took them down. Motley was introduced to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. It is safe to say that Bill Willis and Marion Motley were phenomenal football players that worked well together. 

You might ask, “Why are these people important?” Everyone that was listed in this article and many more helped affect the civil rights movement. They allowed others to see how black people are great athletes and should have a chance, just like everyone else. They broke down color barriers within these sports and paved the way for other athletes to come. If it were not for these players, it would have been a longer process to recognize that everyone deserves a chance.