The day Jackie Robinson captivated Husky Stadium
In 1939, a 13-year-old Boy Scout saw a UCLA player help defeat Washington. Less than a decade later, that player would change the face of another sport forever.
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Don Duncan, a longtime Seattle Times reporter and columnist, recalls his favorite Husky Stadium memory, one that dates back to a day in 1939 when an African-American running back from UCLA played UW.
Back in the fall of 1939, when our nation was still mired in the Great Depression and most of us wouldn't know where Pearl Harbor was for another two years, I was a 13-year-old Boy Scout ushering my first game at Husky Stadium.
Washington was playing UCLA and it was a game I will never forget. Nor will anyone else who was there that day.
I went to the game that day mainly because I wanted to watch Byng Nixon, a Husky lineman, who was the son of one of my mother's friends. The Seattle Times had written a lot about Byng and another Husky lineman, Glen Conley, who were dubbed "the birdcage twins," because the Huskies coach, Jimmy Phelan, had devised metal "bird cages" for their helmets so they could play football while wearing eyeglasses.
The "bird cage" of the 1930s would morph into today's face mask, a must for every football player.
But what made the game so memorable that I still talk about it 72 years later was not the "birdcage twins" but a remarkable running back for the UCLA Bruins.
To set the scene: I was assigned to usher in the closed-horseshoe end of Husky Stadium, which seemed to be made entirely of wood. There were no upper levels. What we would later call (Harvey) Cassil's Castle, on the south end, would be built after World War II. The upper level of the north end — the one that collapsed during construction — would not be completed until the 1980s.
As a consequence, Husky Stadium probably didn't hold much more than 20,000 fans back in 1939.
Although an occasional black football player appeared on the roster of some of the major-college football teams in the North, the Huskies would have none during Phelan's tenure as coach, even though some outstanding black high-school athletes played in the Seattle area.
UCLA, the Huskies' opponent that day, had three black players — Woodrow "Woody" Strode, a lanky end (today's wide receiver), and two great running backs, Kenny Washington, who pounded the ball inside, and a four-sport athlete named Robinson, who ran mostly outside. Robinson was not only fast and tough, but had the moves of a ballet dancer.
The Huskies played well, but lost 14-7 to a Bruins team that went undefeated with a couple of ties. Ties were common back then.
Robinson was a will-o'-the-wisp all afternoon. It was impossible to take your eyes off him. One moment, he was running through a tackle; the next, he was dancing around like Fred Astaire and players found themselves tackling the empty space where he had been.
As I walked out of the stadium, everyone was talking about "that Robinson fellow." One man said, "Unbelievable. And I understand he plays baseball, too."
Indeed, he did play baseball. For "that Robinson fellow" I saw play football that day — the one who was NCAA long-jump champion, and an all-conference hurdler and basketball player — was Jackie Robinson.
And he would change the face of baseball forever.
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