Bengal Morning Takes: Paul Brown's legacy

CINCINNATI -- They were fathers, sons, husbands, movie actors, police officers, football players.

And pioneers.

When Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley walked onto fields in Los Angeles and Cleveland in the fall of 1946, they became the first African-Americans to play professional football in the post-World War II era. That was important, because 13 years prior, due to a "gentlemen's agreement" at the 1933 NFL owners meetings, African-Americans had been effectively barred from playing the game, just as they had been a half century prior in baseball.

With the civil rights movement on the horizon and Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball still nine months away, September 1946 was a pivotal time in the direction of America's future.

What does any of it have to do with the Cincinnati Bengals? More than you might think.

On Tuesday night, the Bengals and the EPIX movie channel hosted a screening of a new EPIX original documentary called "Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football." The documentary was produced by Emmy award-winning producer Ross Greenburg, and chronicled the stories of Washington, Strode, Willis and Motley. Washington and Strode played in 1946 for the L.A. Rams, who had just moved that year from Cleveland. Willis and Motley were members of the Cleveland Browns, which had just joined the All-America Football Conference.

That was the same Browns team coached by the venerable Paul Brown, the man who later founded the Bengals and who the Bengals' stadium is named after.

Brown's son, Bengals president Mike Brown, makes several appearances in the film. Once he said of his late father: "It never occurred to him that anyone shouldn't have a chance."

While much of the documentary is about the sacrifice and courage that it took for the four to break one of the many societal constraints that divided the country at the time, it also has a heavy dosage of Paul Brown.

It was Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who used the term "enabler" in the film to describe Paul Brown, applying it in the same context that is used by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. On the actual Underground Railroad system that enslaved African-Americans took in the 19th century to escape the South for free states like Ohio, there were people along the way known as "enablers." They were whites who wanted to see slavery end, and who had the social capital to aid the formerly enslaved by either hiding them from slave captors, or helping them get to other stages of their journey north.

In the march for pro football integration, Paul Brown was the "enabler" Willis and Motley needed to have a chance to play. He apparently enabled former Bengals assistant Jim Anderson, who was hired by Paul Brown as the Bengals' first African-American coach in 1984.

"The words you heard those people say about Paul Brown," Anderson said after the screening, "were the same words he said to the Cincinnati Bengals. I could really see the footprint of Paul Brown on these guys."

Willis and Motley played integral roles in all four of the AAFC championships the Browns won between 1946-49. Motley, an Ohio native who played college football at Navy for Paul Brown, was the team's leading rusher each of those seasons. Even after Cleveland joined the NFL in 1950, he led the franchise in rushing two more times. Both he and Willis were later enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Washington and Strode are not in the Hall of Fame. The main reason appears to be that Strode, battered physically and mentally by abuse he received from teammates, only played one season. Washington lasted just three seasons before knee issues forced him to retire. Age may have played a hand in that, too. His first season came six years after he had graduated from UCLA, where he played with Strode and the eventual baseball pioneer Robinson.

As well-regarded as Paul Brown is as an innovator of the technical side of football -- the offensive draw, the West Coast offense and helmet radios are just some of what he's credited with bringing to the game -- this is one part of his legacy that has gone overlooked.

It's why one Cincinnati resident after the screening said to the crowded theater: "This is why the name on our stadium should never change."