Jackie Robinson is a sports and civil rights icon who’s forever celebrated for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
What tends to be overshadowed is how accomplished and well-rounded Robinson was outside baseball. He also starred in football, basketball and track and field at both Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. He even dabbled in golf and tennis tournaments before he spent two years at UCLA as the only Bruin to letter in four sports.
The student body was under 1% African American and there wasn’t a black faculty member when Robinson arrived on the Westwood campus in 1939, but he helped UCLA become one of the more integrated teams in major college football with four black players on the roster. Robinson, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington formed a decorated backfield trio, and Ray Bartlett was a reserve.
FCS college football, the lower half of Division I since 1978, is known for having some of the nation’s more celebrated HBCU programs, but while Robinson and UCLA didn’t face any of them in his two seasons, they played the Montana Grizzlies – today one of the more storied programs in the FCS – in 1939.
In fact, UCLA’s Bruins nickname is partially due to Montana. Beginning in 1923 for five seasons, the football program went by ”Grizzlies,” not Bruins, but because Montana (1925) preceded UCLA (1928) to membership in the Pacific Coast Conference and held rights to the nickname, UCLA switched to Bruins.
Given the size of the two football programs, it’s not surprising UCLA won the seven all-time meetings between 1929 and ’46.
Montana was coming off a 6-0 shutout of Montana State when it faced UCLA on Oct. 21, 1939 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. An estimated crowd of 20,000-plus sweated through 95-degree temperatures as the Bruins improved to 3-0-1 with a 20-6 victory.
An excellent account of the game on lvironpigs.wordpress.com describes how UCLA overmatched a Montana lineup that was undersized and dealing with injuries.
Robinson, who started at right halfback, wore jersey No. 28, not the No. 42 that is retired across Major League Baseball and celebrated annually on April 15, when all players wear the number.
As a junior, Robinson earned All-America honorable mention honors after he led the nation in punt return average (16.4 yards on 18 returns) for the first of two straight seasons, and he rushed the ball 42 times for 512 yards. While he starred the week before the Montana game at Stanford, including a late interception deep in UCLA territory to help preserve a 14-14 tie, it was Washington, the left halfback, who dominated the Grizzlies with 164 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries.
Robinson didn’t have a carry, but he returned a punt 33 yards to the Montana 24 to set up Washington’s second TD and was noted for his blocking in the game.
“The Montana game was probably the best I saw Kenny play in 1939,” Robinson was quoted as saying in the book “The Forgotten First,” co-authored by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber, and chronicling the breaking of the NFL’s color barrier.
Montana scored its lone touchdown in the fourth quarter. Left halfback Donald “Red” Bryan completed a 38-yard pass to end Neil Johnson to set up Ed “Butch” Hudacek for a one-yard run.
After another victory, UCLA moved into the Associated Press college football rankings for the first time, eventually finishing at No. 7 with a 6-0-4 record under coach Babe Horrell. Montana, under coach Doug Fessenden, rebounded from the UCLA loss to post a 13-0 win at Idaho, but dropped its final four games for a 3-5 finish.
Robinson was a 1945 Negro Leagues All-Star for the Kansas City Monarchs before he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. He was named Rookie of the Year that season, won the NL batting title and the MVP award in 1949 – the first of his six consecutive All-Star seasons – and twice led the league in stolen bases. He helped the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series in his second-to-last season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jackie Robinson was 53 when he died in 1972.
(More on the Griz: It wasn’t UCLA football, but Montana owns a major FBS win over a Pac-12 team)
Jackie Robinson photo provided by UCLA Athletics; Montana vs. UCLA program cover from lvironpigs.wordpress.com.