"Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football" premieres on EPIX at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
* * * **
No number in professional sports is more revered than the one that graced Jackie Robinson's jersey. It's a symbol of racial progress and change -- not just in the sporting world, but in America, as well. Yet, there's another number that should be remembered alongside 42.
And that number is 46.
As in 1946. For it was in that year that four brave African-American men -- Kenny Washington (Los Angeles Rams), Woody Strode (Los Angeles Rams), Marion Motley (Cleveland Browns) and Bill Willis (Cleveland Browns) -- signed contracts and re-integrated professional football ... a year before Jackie Robinson did the same in Major League Baseball.
How is it possible that four men broke the color barrier in professional football before Robinson did the same in baseball, yet almost no one (aside from diehard football historians) remembers their names? That's exactly what the EPIX original documentary "Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football" seeks to explain.
The film, narrated with pitch-perfect gravitas by actor Jeffrey Wright ("Boardwalk Empire," "Casino Royale"), tells the stories of these four men from college to the pros, using interviews with their surviving family members as the narrative spine while filling in the gaps with insightful takes from historians, journalists and football luminaries (like legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, who was a Browns teammate of Motley and Willis).
I talked to Ross Greenburg, the producer of the film, prior to the screening and asked him why this story needs to be told today.
"This film is the root of (the racial tensions we still see in sports)," Greenburg said. "This was the initial struggle."
Struggle indeed. As the movie details, the troubles for these men stretched far beyond the gridiron.
Even at college, these guys were crucial members of powerful squads: Washington and Strode were part of UCLA's undefeated 1939 team, Motley was one of the nation's top fullbacks at Nevada, and Willis won a Big Ten title and national championship under Paul Brown at Ohio State. However, as soon as they stepped off the field, they were treated like castoffs simply because of the color of their skin. They couldn't live on campus or join fraternities, and often had to eat and engage in recreational activities in separated areas.
On the field at the professional level, they were underutilized and endured constant verbal attacks -- as well as frequent physical assaults. They'd get their hands stepped on and eyes gouged, yet they still soldiered on. As Washington once told a Rams teammate, "It's hell to be black."
The film paints a painful picture of this racial "hell" in America during the 20th century, and it doesn't miss a beat with how it specifically impacted the lives of these men. While Washington became arguably the most talented back in America (at any level) during his time at UCLA, he couldn't play professional football upon graduation, thanks to a "gentleman's agreement" among owners in 1933 that had banned men of color. It wasn't until after the conclusion of World War II that these four even got a chance. Washington, Strode, Motley and Willis took that chance and forever changed the landscape of pro football.
In the end, this film is as important as it is entertaining, and one that can be enjoyed by everyone, from football fans to historians to general moviegoers.
"I just want people to tell their kids and grandkids about these four men, so that their lives and courage will live on forever, and the story will never die," Greenburg told me.
With "Forgotten Four" set to premiere on Sept. 23, hopefully, as UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said while introducing the film, these four men will be "forgotten no more."