Donovan McNabb on the Importance of 'Forgotten Four' Football Players Who Broke the Color Barrier

Donovan McNabb - H 2014
AP Images

Donovan McNabb - H 2014

Before Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis changed the game

One year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, four African-American athletes ended a 13-year whites-only policy in professional football. But their stories have remained largely unknown, until now.

The new Epix documentary Forgotten Four shows how Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis re-integrated professional football in 1946. While professional football was integrated in the early 20th century, in 1933 an agreement was made at the NFL owners meeting not to sign African-American athletes, historians and sports journalists explain in the documentary. But after World War II, a more accepting society and the establishment of the All-America Football Conference helped pave the way for four successful college athletes to finally break the color barrier. Washington and Strode signed to the Los Angeles Rams and Motley and Willis joined the Cleveland Browns.

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Forgotten Four was executive produced by former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg and is narrated by actor Jeffrey Wright. Former NFL quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Donovan McNabb also served as a creative consultant, telling The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted to be a part of telling what has been a largely untold story.

And he feels the issues the documentary addresses are still significant now.

"It's a strong message, not only for the African-American community but for everyone, every race out there to understand how hard it was and the adversity they had to overcome," McNabb says.

McNabb says he was familiar with the players featured in the documentary but he thinks Forgotten Four's interviews with their family members provide a fuller sense of who they were.

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"You're seeing their kids. You're seeing their nieces and nephews get interviewed and just talking more about them as a person, not just who they were as a player, but who they were as a father and a role model," he explains.

Although the Redskins were the last team to be integrated and former owner George Preston Marshall is singled out in Forgotten Four as the force behind the unofficial "whites only" policy in the league, McNabb explains that that didn't bother him during his season in Washington, and he felt a responsibility that other African-American quarterbacks have now to serve as an example.

"Guys have carried the torch, and I felt like I was handed the torch and I needed to carry the torch as well for the younger generation that are playing today," he says. "When I was in high school, I had a chance to watch Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham and the guys that are playing today watched me while they were in grammar school or they were early in high school and wore No. 5 because I wore No. 5. It was things like that that will continue to be passed on."

Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football, directed by Johnson McKelvy and written by Aaron Cohen, airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Epix.