Lincoln legacy: How one L.A. community amplifies the story of NFL trailblazer Kenny Washington

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Randy Rodriguez was in search of answers after being named head football coach of Lincoln High School in 1984.

He grew up several miles from the historic East Los Angeles campus, where Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus became the first female principal of a major urban California high school in 1916, and where Chicano students participated in the 1968 East Los Angeles walkouts to protest racial and educational discrimination in public schooling.

However, his knowledge of the school -- and the community immediately surrounding it -- was superficial, at best. So he made it his mission to glean as much information as possible by reading annals and articles and speaking to staff and alumni.

"If I was going to stay there a long time, I had to find out what it was all about," he says today, 30 years after leading the Tigers for nine seasons. "These kids really, really love the Heights, which is what the area is known as. There are kids that have been born and raised there and have never left. You have two and three generations of families that have gone through the school. I wanted to bleed orange. Some guys just come and go, but if I was going to last, I had to learn everything I could. I had to figure out just where these kids were coming from and where they were going."

Lincoln Heights, which sits just beyond the long shadows of downtown Los Angeles, is recognized as the city's first suburb. At the time of the high school's founding in 1913, the neighborhood was largely comprised of Italian, Irish, German and Russian immigrants, many of whom filled industrial jobs along the Los Angeles River. The community gradually transitioned into the overwhelmingly Latino population it is today -- and what it was on that summer afternoon in 1984, when Rodriguez's expedition took him to a storage closet on the main campus.

There, amid a bunch of boxed artifacts, he found a large, broken trophy that was covered in dust. He couldn't believe his eyes. He had heard of the Kenny Washington Trophy, named after the Lincoln High School alum who broke the modern NFL color barrier in 1946, but he had never actually seen it. If not for photographs from the day Washington received the hardware in 1948, at halftime of his final game with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, it would have been easy to doubt it ever existed.

Washington donated the trophy to his high school alma mater with an expectation that the annual MVP of the varsity team would have his name engraved on the base. But when Rodriguez wiped away the dust, the last name listed was from 1960. Incredulous, Rodriguez shook his head at the idea of the trophy being forgotten or misplaced for more than two decades, leaving a void in both the school's history and Washington's legacy. But he also smiled with excitement at an opportunity to repair and restore it, not to mention revive the memory of one of Lincoln's iconic figures.

Rodriguez noticed a sticker beneath the base which showed where the trophy had been made. He wasn't sure if the business would still be around 36 years later, but thankfully it was. An employee even remembered the trophy being made. Before dropping off the pieces to have the precious artifact restored, Rodriguez went to the school library and identified every missing MVP, so the names could be engraved on the base. Then he committed to learning as much about Washington as he could, so he could pass along that history to his players.

Kenny Washington was a two-way star for the Lincoln High School football team. (Courtesy of the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation)
Kenny Washington was a two-way star for the Lincoln High School football team. (Courtesy of the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation)

Among the things he learned: Washington played baseball and football in high school and college, leading Lincoln to its last city championship in football in 1935, then becoming the first All-American football player in UCLA history in 1939, having led the nation in total offense as a running back. Some considered him the best collegiate player in America, but he could not join the NFL because of its de facto ban on Black players from 1934 through 1945. So he joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where his uncle worked, and played semi-pro football until the Rams signed him on March 21, 1946.

"I decided to tell the kids who Kenny Washington was, what he accomplished with the Rams, what he did at UCLA, where he was their first All-American in football," says Rodriguez, who coached the Tigers from 1984 through 1992. "I didn't know about Kenny before I got to Lincoln. I first heard about him when I was coaching with the B team and I would go to the varsity award banquet. They would say, 'This is the Kenny Washington Award winner,' but they didn't talk about him and all the things he did. It didn't faze me until I became the head coach and I found the trophy. Legends come and go, and you only keep them alive if you talk about them, if you find out about them, who they were and things like that. You just don't let the memory of a guy like that die. You keep the legend going."

Washington's legacy has never really had its rightful place in history. Why wasn't he celebrated as a pioneer and trailblazer like Jackie Robinson, his football and baseball teammate at UCLA who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier a year after Washington did the same in the NFL? Some argued that Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the true pioneers, having first played in the NFL in 1920. Washington was viewed as the first to reintegrate pro football, following an unofficial 12-year ban. Others pointed out that Washington was among four Black players to play pro football in 1946; UCLA teammate Woody Strode joined the Rams two months after him, while Marion Motley and Bill Willis of the Cleveland Browns integrated the All-America Football Conference, which launched that year without a color barrier.

Washington carried Lincoln High School to the Tigers' last undisputed city championship in 1935. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
Washington carried Lincoln High School to the Tigers' last undisputed city championship in 1935. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

Still, someone had to be the first to sign with the NFL in '46, and Washington was that person. Members of the Lincoln Heights community are fiercely protective of that distinction and have taken steps over the last decade to ensure his place in history -- and his importance to the Heights -- is neither forgotten nor diminished. In fact, it is not a stretch to say Washington's legacy is stronger now than it was in the 1940s or at the time of his passing in 1971, thanks to individuals such as Rodriguez and Stephen Sariñana-Lampson, president of the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation.

Sariñana-Lampson is a third generation Lincoln alum who is widely recognized as the de facto historian when it comes to Washington. He first heard of the athletic prodigy as a child. Sariñana-Lampson's grandfather, who grew up a block or two from where Washington lived, would tell stories about a young boy who used to dominate the local sandlot Catholic football league, and how people would line up to see Washington play. Later, other stories would be recounted at the neighborhood barber shop, where photos of Washington hung.

Sariñana-Lampson took in the information, but it was like background noise because he never really locked in on the details. That changed 11 years ago, while he was standing on the sideline for a Lincoln football game. The field was in such poor condition that he and other alums decided to form the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation to help raise money for refurbishment. But if Sariñana-Lampson was going to use Washington's name, he felt it was imperative he learn as much as possible about him. So, like Rodriguez, he began doing his homework. And the more he learned, the more he believed a disservice had been done to Washington's legacy.

"We had two missions in mind with the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation," Sariñana-Lampson recalls. "The first was to get the athletic field squared away -- and in 2020, we got $4 million toward that goal. And the other was to bring back his legacy for all the kids who play varsity football and beyond, so they will know who he was and how much of a seminal sports icon and civil rights icon he was. As someone who has a lot of pride in his school and still lives in the community, I think it's important that those of us who have an opportunity to give back to our school give back."

During his time at UCLA, Washington (far right) played football and baseball with Jackie Robinson (far left). (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
During his time at UCLA, Washington (far right) played football and baseball with Jackie Robinson (far left). (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

With the football world gathering in Los Angeles this week for Super Bowl LVI, members of the Lincoln Heights community know stories will be told about Washington. They also know the people telling those stories will move on to the next subject as soon as the week is over. Sariñana-Lampson and other community members accept that reality. What they will not accept is Washington's legacy being forgotten or minimized within the Heights. It's why they have taken steps to keep his memory alive with the trophy that bears his name, an annual football game that highlights his time at the school, and a street square that is named after him.

The importance of each, and the impact of each, is best understood through the words of those who know firsthand.

THE TROPHY

Dakota Ridgeway, a former wide receiver and cornerback for Lincoln High School, won the Kenny Washington Award for Football Excellence in 2014 after catching 45 passes for 916 yards and a single-season school record 12 touchdowns. Playing under head coach Woody Carrillo, the longest-tenured coach in school history (2003-2016), Ridgeway was voted Northern League Offensive MVP and named third-team all-state by CalPreps.com. He went on to play football at Azusa Pacific University.

The first time I probably heard of Kenny Washington was at my introductory practice at Lincoln. The stadium was named after him, and someone asked who he was. I was on a knee in front of Coach Woody and his staff, and Coach brought up a little bit about his past and what he meant to the community and the school. There were a lot of stories during my four years, especially the one about how he was the first All-American football player at UCLA and the first African-American to sign in the NFL. That was always my dream -- to play in the NFL -- so hearing he was the first made me think about how he paved the way for so many other African-Americans to play in the league. It probably would not have happened in the same way if it were not for Kenny Washington.

We have a Kenny Washington Game at Lincoln every year, and during my time there, there was a big No. 13 hanging under the scoreboard. Every time our team would come out of the locker room, we would point to the No. 13 to honor him and thank him for what he did for Lincoln. It's been so long since Kenny Washington has been alive, but I honestly believe, if you go and ask anybody who plays football at Lincoln, they will know who he is and what type of impact he had on the school and the community. He is important to our school.

Honored during his final game as a Ram in 1948, Washington donated the trophy to Lincoln High School. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
Honored during his final game as a Ram in 1948, Washington donated the trophy to Lincoln High School. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

It was a goal of mine to win the Kenny Washington Award from the moment I stepped on campus. To my knowledge, I was the first African-American award winner in about 20 years. Going to Lincoln, there are probably 1 or 2 percent African-Americans, so it meant a lot to me. I still have the individual replica trophy in bubble wrap today. It's an honor to get chosen for the award because it's not only about football -- it's about character and what you do in the community. I held it dear to me because it showed what the community and our coaching staff and administration thought of me. It was a big deal.

After graduating and going to college full-time and playing football myself, I would go back to Lincoln and coach for Coach Woody for free during my free time. Coach Woody always reminded us how Kenny Washington gave back and what type of man and football player he was -- and what it meant to be a Lincoln Tiger. I went back because of the lessons I learned about him. He really loved his community. As one of the few Black kids in my high school, I felt like the community accepted me. So I was like, Once I have the power and ability to come back and help the way Kenny Washington did, I will come back and help. It's a big honor to play for the same high school as he did.

KENNY WASHINGTON MEMORIAL GAME

Stephen Sariñana-Lampson was among a group of Lincoln alums, coaches and community members who created the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation and organized the inaugural Kenny Washington Memorial Game in 2011.

When we started the Kenny Washington Memorial Game in 2011, we had no idea there would be a second one. It was just going to be this sort of kickoff to introduce the idea that we were forming the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation to fight for a new playing surface and to bring Kenny Washington's spirit and memory back, front and center. It ended up being above and beyond anything we ever imagined. There were over 1,500 in attendance. Jim Tunney, who became known as the "Dean of NFL Referees," his father was Kenny Washington's coach at Lincoln and he attended the game. We had coverage from every local channel. There was a satellite truck from every one of them and a reporter from every one of them. We had a state senator, the state assemblywoman, a city councilman -- everyone attended the game.

We did some advertising to get the word out, but it was kind of pre-social media, so it was all done with print. With the help of a couple of friends who were in the media, I wrote a press release and sent it to all the media not knowing what I was doing. Actually, I faxed it. We invited the Kenny Washington family, and they came. We also said we were going to dedicate the field in Kenny Washington's name, which we did. We had a big No. 13 jersey fall from the side of the gymnasium and focused lights on it.

Lincoln High School wore throwback jerseys in the inaugural Kenny Washington Memorial Game in 2011. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
Lincoln High School wore throwback jerseys in the inaugural Kenny Washington Memorial Game in 2011. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

Our athletes were in throwback jerseys resembling the 1935 jerseys the Tigers wore when they won the city championship with Kenny Washington. We then heard that it was the first time a California high school outfitted their teams in throwback jerseys. The next day, we kind of looked at each other and said, That was unbelievable. We've got to do it again. That's how we had Game No. 2. And a Game No. 3. Then we went to Roman numerals.

The Kenny Washington Game is typically the highest-attended football game of all the home games each season, and that game typically funds the entire athletic budget of Lincoln High School for the year -- boys and girls. If I'm proud of anything, it's that we've made the game an event at Lincoln High School. We've found that it's an older alumni base that comes; it's people coming back because they know of Kenny Washington and his legacy. As Jorge Sanchez, our current dean of discipline, recently said, the game became the glue of the Lincoln High School community.

KENNY WASHINGTON SQUARE

Ron Chico is a 1981 Lincoln graduate and former assistant coach, as well as a Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation board member. He's credited with developing the concept for Kenny Washington Square, a street intersection adjacent to the school that bears Washington's name. Dedicated in 2014, it is said to be the only street in Los Angeles named after a Rams player.

When I was attending Lincoln, we all knew about the trophy, but we didn't know who Kenny Washington was. My father had gone to Lincoln, my uncle had gone to Lincoln, and all they said was, "Oh, he was a guy that went to the NFL." That was it. So when I became a coach at Lincoln in early 2000s, I said there has to be something special about this guy for us to be giving out an award with his name attached to it.

I started to research and began to understand that this man was greater than just the trophy itself. He came from our community, he came from Lincoln Heights. He grew up in the same area where I went to elementary school. In fact, he went to that school. So I felt an attachment to him right away. But it wasn't only that. It was that he was like me, a minority who faced adversity. I'm Latino and had a somewhat-difficult time growing up because of who I was -- because I'm Latino, because I'm Mexican-American. My connection to him grew from there. I said, "I'm going to start telling his story and why it's so honorable to have his award."

I started telling his story to anybody and everybody around me. The original concept was to get the football players to know who he was and why it was a great honor to receive that award, which comes with so much prestige. The coach would let me tell Kenny's story prior to the award being given out so that there was a better understanding among the parents as well as the players. From that point, it became a mission for me to get him honored in the community by having a street named after him.

A regular at Lincoln High School games for decades, Washington often sat on the sidelines with the players. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
A regular at Lincoln High School games for decades, Washington often sat on the sidelines with the players. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

I started with city council. I talked to our representative. I wanted to get the street that separates the football field and the high school named after him. But after some consideration of how long it would take to get that done, I decided it would be better to focus on getting the intersection outside the school named after him. I was jumping through every hoop that the city councilman at the time asked me to jump through, and nothing came of it.

I put about three years into it. I went through every committee that existed in Lincoln Heights. I went through the neighborhood councils, I went through the chamber of commerce, I met with local cultural groups. There were about six or seven organizations I had to go through, and once I got their approval, it was still months before I would receive their letters of support. When I did finally get all the letters and gave them to the city councilman's office, it was like they were just sitting on them. Maybe it was because it was just me; there was nobody behind me. It was like, Take the letters and put them over there. It wasn't until the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation was formed that the push became greater, and then we had a new councilman in our district, which helped elevate it.

Before that, it was heartbreaking. I felt frustrated, mostly because this man was important -- important for a lot of reasons. To know that he was just being discarded again and again and again as just another football player, just another guy from the community, it really hurt me. I took it personally. At that time, Lincoln Heights was a community that was not well-served, and to honor somebody that has done something significant is a way to rally the community behind a positive message. I felt that this man had accomplished so much, had struggled for so many things. There was a game as a Ram where he ran for a few yards and the defense kept shoving chalk in his face. One of the players asked him in the huddle, "Man, why do you do this?" He said, "It's hard to be the hero." That stayed with me when I was doing my research. He fought for a lot of things beyond football. He was an activist, and he was proud of his school.

From left to right: Stephen Sariñana-Lampson, Ron Chico, Karin Washington Cohen (Kenny's daughter), Kysa Washington (Kenny's granddaughter) and councilmember Gilbert Cedillo at the Kenny Washington Square dedication in 2014. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)
From left to right: Stephen Sariñana-Lampson, Ron Chico, Karin Washington Cohen (Kenny's daughter), Kysa Washington (Kenny's granddaughter) and councilmember Gilbert Cedillo at the Kenny Washington Square dedication in 2014. (Courtesy of the KWS Foundation)

When the street sign finally went up in 2014, I was elated. I got goosebumps when they actually raised it. I couldn't believe that we actually got it done. I thought of Kenny and the kind of man that he was. From the research I did, I got the impression that he was humble; he probably would have been more than humbled to have something like that in his name. I think he probably would have suggested something else, or nothing at all. To see it go up was inspiring to me. This was someone who played a physical sport where racism and hatred could be forced on him each time he got the ball. He rose above it. He transcended it. He made a good life for himself. That story resonates in our community because we're marginalized. I would give this speech to the kids every year that the percentages are not in your favor, just like they were not in Kenny's favor. But if he could go through it and rise above it, you can too. We can excel ourselves.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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