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Presidents Day namesakes made their own history

What better time to remember Kenny Washington and Keith Lincoln?

Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.

In honor of Presidents Day on Monday, this is a special sports salute to certain athletes named Washington and Lincoln.

Kenny Washington is a personal favorite for this tribute, and not just because, in the 1930s in Los Angeles, he attended Abraham Lincoln High. He may be largely unknown today, especially among younger sports fans. But Kenny Washington deserves to be remembered as a historic figure. What better time to do so?

Talk about history. On the UCLA football team in 1939 and 1940, Washington starred in the same backfield as Jackie Robinson, who of course in 1947 went on to become the first African-American to play major-league baseball in the modern era, and Woody Strode, who became the second black player to sign with the National Football League, in May of 1946, two months after Washington had become the first.

Kenny Washington's NFL career was modest — three seasons, all with the L.A. Rams — but he had his moments. In 1947, he rushed 60 times for 444 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and five touchdowns, including a 92-yard run that remains a Rams franchise record.

Keith Lincoln is another former football star perfect for this Presidents Day tribute, and another who is largely forgotten today — except by old American Football League fans. He starred for the San Diego Chargers in the early and mid-1960s, but his 1963 season, and especially his performance in the '63 AFL championship game, deserve particular mention.

For the Chargers in '63, Lincoln rushed 128 times for 826 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He also caught 24 passes for 325 yards and three TDs, averaging 13.5 yards per catch. But it was in the AFL title game against the Boston Patriots that Lincoln had one of the greatest games in pro football history. He rushed 13 times for 206 yards and one touchdown, and he caught seven passes for 123 yards and a TD in the Chargers' 51-10 rout. That's 329 yards of total offense.

Athletes named Washington who had Bay Area connections include Herb Washington, a college track star who became one of Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley's novelty acts when, in 1974, he was used exclusively as a pinch runner. No at-bats, no time playing a position in the field. The results were mixed: 29 steals and 29 runs scored in 92 games, but he was thrown out attempting to steal 16 times. In the ALCS that season, he was thrown out both times he tried to steal; and in the World Series, he had no steals and was picked off once — in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 2, the A's only defeat. The experiment ended early the next year.

Also for the A's in 1974, Claudell Washington out of Berkeley High made his major-league debut at 19. The outfielder's 17-year big-league career included two All-Star selections, 312 stolen bases and stints with seven teams.

There were two wide receivers named Gene Washington, and for part of their NFL careers they were contemporaries.

The Gene Washington out of Stanford played nine seasons (1969-77) with the 49ers. In 1970, he led the NFL in receiving yards (1,100). In 1972, he led the league in receiving touchdowns (12), and in 1974 in yards per reception (21.2).

The Gene Washington out of Michigan State played six of his seven NFL seasons (1967-73) with the Minnesota Vikings, and was first-team All-Pro in 1969 as a key member of a Vikings team that went 12-2 and played in Super Bowl IV.

Heavyweight boxer Amos “Big Train” Lincoln was a top-10 contender seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough after he knocked out Elmer Rush at San Francisco's Civic Auditorium in 1966, but his career never recovered from a KO by Thad Spencer at the Cow Palace in 1967.

Lincoln Kennedy once morbidly joked that his name represented two assassinations. Well, Lincoln Garfield McKinley Kennedy would be worse. The offensive lineman was born Tamerlane Kennedy on Abraham Lincoln's birthday but legally took the name Lincoln before beginning an 11-year NFL career that included eight with the Raiders, with whom he earned Pro Bowl selections three times and first-team All-Pro honors in 2002.

Kermit Washington had a solid NBA career as a defensive-minded forward, but he's remembered for throwing a near-fatal punch during a Lakers-Rockets game in 1977, shattering the face of Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich. “The Punch: One Night, Two Lives and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever” by John Feinstein might not be as historically important as Washington's Farewell Address or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but it's a must-read for any serious sports fan.

You can reach Robert Rubino at robertorubino@comcast.net.

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