The Ralph Hay Pioneer Award, which has only been presented nine times previously, was established in 1972 and is presented in recognition of “significant innovative contributions to professional football.” The award is named after the former owner of the Canton Bulldogs who hosted the NFL’s formal meeting in Canton in 1920.
Hall of Famers Fritz Pollard and Duke Slater integrated pro football in 1920 and 1922, respectively, but it was Motley, Strode, Washington and Willis who reintegrated the sport.
Motley (Class of 1968) and Willis (1977) are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who began their careers in 1946 with the Cleveland Browns, while Washington and Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams in ’46.
Strode, an end, played but one pro season for the Rams, but might well be the most recognizable name. Having starred at UCLA along with Robinson and Washington on the 1939 Bruins football team, Strode would also find gridiron success in the Canadian Football League. He served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II and later went on to have a successful career as an actor. Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in SpartacusStrode had nearly 100 roles in TV and film from 1941 through 1995. He also did his share of professional wrestling and the iconic character of “Sheriff Woody” in Toy Story is named after him.
Washington, a halfback, played only three seasons in his pro career due to knee injuries. The UCLA product averaged 6.1 yards per carry for his career, finishing with 859 career yards.
Motley and Willis were integral players in the Browns’ dynasty, each of them part of four All-America Football Conference championships and one NFL Championship.
A phenomenal fullback who was twice an All-Pro and once a Pro Bowler, Motley was a power runner – and a power blocker for the Otto Graham-led passing attack – who twice won rushing titles. Motley finished his career with 4,720 yards rushing, 31 touchdowns and a spot on the Hall of Fame’s All-1940s Team.
A spot on the All-1940s Team was also reserved for Willis, a three-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler who played guard and defensive guard.
All of the “Forgotten Four” will be recognized posthumously.
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