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Andy Wittry | | April 14, 2023

Jackie Robinson's football career at UCLA hinted at greatness to come

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Before Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in Major League Baseball and embarked on a Hall-of-Fame MLB career, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, where he competed in baseball, basketball, football and track and field. Robinson arrived at UCLA after graduating from Pasadena Junior College in 1939 and it was clear from the jump the Bruins were getting a special athlete.

Here's a closer look at Robinson's 1939 football season with UCLA.

Robinson became an All-American football player who set the UCLA record for yards per carry in a season at 12.2 yards per attempt on 42 carries in 1939. He led the country in punt return average in 1939 and 1940. Robinson starred in a UCLA backfield that featured a future Hollywood actor (and inspiration for a "Toy Story" character) and he made a critical goal-line tackle in front of more than 103,000 fans in a scoreless tie against eventual national champion Southern California in the Los Angeles rivals' regular-season finale. archives are filled with anticipation of Robinson's arrival to UCLA's Westwood campus:

  • The Santa Ana Register's Eddie West dubbed him the "Pasadena Flash" due to his "tremendous speed and shiftiness around the ends."
  • The L.A. Times said Robinson "makes greased lightning look like slow motion."
  • "Speaking of coordination...Jackie Robinson has it more than any athlete (longtime newspaper reporter and basketball official Frederick) Buford has seen in a long time," wrote the California Eagle's Almena Davis in March 1939.
  • The Los Angeles Daily News' Earle O'Day noted that Robinson was the "nation's top scoring back last season," at the time of his addition to UCLA's roster.
  • "Before they can say 'Jack Robinson' trouble in copious quantities is apt to break out for opponents of the University of California at Los Angeles on gridirons some of these fine fall days," the Los Angeles Times' Paul Zimmerman wrote, below.

Robinson was listed at 6-feet tall and 180 pounds when he enrolled at UCLA at 20 years old, according to the L.A. Times, and he joined a UCLA backfield that the Wilmington (Calif.) Daily Press Journal said "will start the season with one of the greatest array of backs in the country." Robinson joined a UCLA program that was coming off of a 7-4-1 season and he would play for first-year coach Babe Horrell. With a manageable 10-game schedule that only featured two road games — back-to-back trips to Washington and Stanford to start October, followed by seven consecutive home games — UCLA had an opportunity for a major turnaround, with Robinson in tow.

Robinson managed to live up to the hype in his debut with the Bruins, which defeated the TCU Horned Frogs 6-2, and Robinson got name-checked in the subheadline of the Oakland Tribune's game recap. "The game brought out a new U.C.L.A. star, Jackie Robinson...who slashed off long gains and lived up generally to his advance ballyhoo as about the fastest thing on cleats on the Pacific Coast," reported the United Press.

After TCU's Jack Odle fumbled at UCLA's 29-yard line, Robinson ran for 12 yards around the left end, then he hit that side again for 21 more. Two plays later, Robinson had another 12-yard gain to the left. UCLA fullback Bill Overlin punched the ball in for the game-winning touchdown and the Bruins' defense later forced a turnover on downs with TCU's offense stranded two feet from the UCLA end zone to preserve the win.

Perhaps Horrell, the new UCLA coach, was playing coy, but despite Robinson's accolades, prior to the game, the L.A. Times reported, "It seems pretty well established that neither Jackie Robinson nor Leo Cantor, the backfield new bloods, will be anywhere but on the bench until Horrell is able to see how the land lies."

Yet it was Robinson who picked up 45 of the 71 yards UCLA gained on its game-winning drive.

"He's the only football player I ever saw who can do a complete pivot without losing speed," UCLA assistant coach Ray Richards told the Santa Cruz Evening News in the preseason. Soon, UCLA's offense was based around Robinson. "They've 'simplified' their offense by running almost every play from the same formation — but the variations which this set-up can produce is what confuses the opposition," wrote the Oakland Tribune's Bill Tobitt after UCLA's 2-0 start to the season, following a 14-7 win over Washington. "It's a single wing with the right half, Jackie Robinson (the fastest back on the coast), stationed just outside right end. He's the man in motion."

In the win over Washington, Robinson was involved in a play Oakland Tribune sports editor Art Cohn described as "that one multiple-pass" — perhaps a double reverse or some sort of trick play? — that "involved two halfbacks, a guard and a tackle — Kenny Washington to Jackie Robinson to John Frawley to a gent named Jack Cohen — and went for 52 yards!"

Robinson played the role of savior against Stanford, which led UCLA 14-7 before Robinson intercepted a Stanford pass and returned it 49 yards to set up the game-tying touchdown. "Jackie swiped the ball on his own 30 and high tailed it up the pasture with all the zest of a runaway streamliner on a downhill straightaway," wrote the L.A. Times' Al Wolf.

It only took four games into UCLA's 1939 season for the L.A. Times to send a reporter and photographer to practice to figure out how, exactly, Robinson does what he does. The paper's Dick Hyland wrote, "I had a hankering to get in front of...Robinson myself and see whether he could apply handcuffs, if so, why; if not, why."

Robinson was far from the only star on the team. Teammate Woody Strode later became a Golden Globe-nominated actor who appeared in "Spartacus" and later inspired the name of the "Toy Story" character Sheriff Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks.

UCLA, unranked in the preseason, cracked the AP poll by the third edition of the poll, debuting at No. 19 on Oct. 30, following the Bruins' 4-0-1 start after back-to-back wins over Pacific Coast Conference opponents Montana and Oregon. While 1939 was still relatively early in the sport's history, it was the first time UCLA's football team had ever been ranked.

However, the very next day, Robinson suffered a knee injury in practice prior to UCLA's 20-7 win over California, forcing him to miss that game and the Bruins' next, against No. 14 Santa Clara in a matchup of top-15 opponents, which played to a scoreless tie. After missing two games, Robinson returned for UCLA's game against Oregon State — another tie, this one 13-13 — and he had a pair of 31-yard runs, "the first dash was largely responsible for UCLA's initial touchdown," reported the Hanford (Calif.) Morning Journal.

In UCLA's penultimate game, the Bruins ran past the Washington State Cougars 24-7 behind Robinson's game-high 148 yards on 10 carries, as he outgained all of Washington State's backs by himself. They managed just 96 yards.

Robinson scored on a 26-yard touchdown reception from teammate Kenny Washington and he ran for a 34-yard touchdown moments later. His last play before being taken out of the game was a 32-yard run that set up another touchdown.

UCLA's 1939 season culminated with a clash with crosstown rival Southern California. The Trojans were ranked No. 3 in the country, the Bruins No. 9. Neither team had lost all season and Southern California was just two weeks removed from a road win over No. 7 Notre Dame. A bid to the Rose Bowl was on the line. A crowd of 103,300 gathered for the occasion.

Robinson was involved in one the biggest plays of the game, when he and teammate Ned Mathews tackled Southern California's Grenny Lansdell just shy of the goal line in the first quarter, shown below in a picture from the L.A. Times, which called it a "certain touchdown" had Lansdell not fumbled. UCLA recovered the ball in the end zone.

While Robinson later deflected credit on the play, telling reporters he couldn't hit hard enough to force a fumble, "finally the business of stopping the Trojan score was pinned on Robinson and Mathews," wrote the L.A. Times' Paul Lowry. "They accomplished such a smashing job of it that the ball shot out of Lansdell's grasp as if it was propelled from a cannon and the Trojans never got close again."

Below, you can watch highlights from the game, courtesy of Southern California. "It was a terrific football game," said then-Southern California quarterback Doyal Nave in the video. "Even to this day, I can reflect back of the great players they had, when you think of Kenny Washington, Jackie Robinson. They had a great football team."

Reportedly, with UCLA facing 4th and goal from Southern California's 5-yard line, five UCLA players wanted to kick a field goal and five wanted to go for the touchdown, leaving Mathews, the quarterback, as the deciding vote, according to the L.A. Times. He wanted to go for the touchdown. Washington's fourth-down pass was batted down with ease in the end zone by Southern California's Bobby Robertson, ending what the L.A. Times described as UCLA's greatest scoring threat in the game.

Since both Southern California and UCLA finished the season unbeaten — the Trojans tied two conference opponents, compared to the Bruins' three, however — the Pacific Coast Conference was forced to hold a vote among its members to decide which school would go to the Rose Bowl. The PCC's president, Oregon State professor C.V. Ruzek, told the L.A. Times that Southern California received the majority of the votes but he wouldn't divulge the specifics of the final tally.

However, the Bruins were ready to play the Trojans again, in an all-L.A. Rose Bowl matchup.

"Why give that $100,000 to some Eastern team?" Robinson asked, according to the L.A. Times. Tennessee, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, was ultimately selected as Southern California's opponent.

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