A year prior to Jackie Robinson's historic 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a quartet of Black football players broke down the race barrier in professional football that had been erected since the early 1930s.
Known as the "Forgotten Four," Marion Motley, Woody Strode, Kenny Washington and Bill Willis reintegrated pro football in 1946, and have now been selected to share the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Ralph Hay Pioneer Award during enshrinement week.
Enshrinement week includes the enshrinees' gold jacket dinner on Friday, Aug. 5, and the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class enshrinement on Aug. 6, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
"The selection of these four men as the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award winners could not be more fitting," Hall President Jim Porter said in a statement. "Individually and collectively, they made one of the most profound cultural shifts in pro football history when they broke pro football's color barrier, thus ending years of racial segregation. Their pioneering role not only opened the door to opportunity for generations of NFL players to come, but it also changed the game forever."
The Ralph Hay Pioneer Award, which has been presented only nine times previously, was established in 1972 and is presented in recognition of "significant innovative contributions to professional football." The award is named after the former owner of the Canton Bulldogs who hosted the NFL's formational meeting in Canton in 1920.
Hall of Famers Fritz Pollard and Duke Slater integrated pro football in 1920 and 1922, respectively, but it was Motley, Strode, Washington and Willis who reintegrated the sport.
Motley (Class of 1968) and Willis (1977) are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who began their careers in 1946 with the Cleveland Browns, while Washington and Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams in '46.
Strode, an end, played but one pro season for the Rams, but might well be the most recognizable name. Having starred at UCLA along with Robinson and Washington on the 1939 Bruins football team, Strode would also find gridiron success in the Canadian Football League. He served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II and later went on to have a successful career as an actor. Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in Spartacus, Strode had nearly 100 roles in TV and film from 1941 through 1995. He also did his share of professional wrestling and the iconic character of "Sheriff Woody" in Toy Story is named after him.
Washington, a halfback, played only three seasons in his pro career due to knee injuries. The UCLA product averaged 6.1 yards per carry for his career, finishing with 859 career yards.
Motley and Willis were integral players in the Browns' dynasty, each of them part of four All-America Football Conference championships and one NFL Championship.
A phenomenal fullback who was twice an All-Pro and once a Pro Bowler, Motley was a power runner -- and a power blocker for the Otto Graham-led passing attack -- who twice won rushing titles. Motley finished his career with 4,720 yards rushing, 31 touchdowns and a spot on the Hall of Fame's All-1940s Team.
A spot on the All-1940s Team was also reserved for Willis, a three-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler who played guard and defensive guard.
All of the "Forgotten Four" will be recognized posthumously.
PREVIOUS RALPH HAY PIONEER AWARD WINNERS
|2016||Joe Browne||Worked for over 50 years at the NFL, turning it into the most popular sport in the world.|
|2012||Art McNally||Devoted his entire professional career to officiating, pioneered numerous innovations for the NFL including instant replay.|
|2007||Steve Sabol||President of NFL Films and honored filmmaker.|
|2004||City of Pottsville, Pennsylvania||Loyal support of the NFL, undying spirit and pride in the history of the defunct Pottsville Maroons of the 1920s.|
|2001||George Toma||NFL’s longtime head groundskeeper known as the “God of Sod.”|
|1992||David Boss||Vice President and Creative Director for NFL Properties, noted photographer.|
|1986||John Facenda||Legendary voice of NFL Films.|
|1975||Arch Ward||Chicago Tribune sports editor who initiated Chicago All-Star Game that featured NFL champions vs. College All-Stars.|
|1972||Fred Gehrke||L.A. Rams halfback who devised idea of logos on helmets and painted horns on Rams helmets in 1948.|