UCLA Bruins left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON hauls in a forward pass opposite the California Golden Bears during the Pacific Coast Conference game at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on October 15, 1938. Two weeks earlier, against the Oregon Ducks on the road in Eugene, the dynamic junior out of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles had caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from right halfback Merle Harris. In addition to leading the Bruins in passing yardage during each of his three varsity seasons, Washington also had multiple pass receptions in each of his three NCAA campaigns, as well, catching a total of nine passes for 128 yards (14.2 avg) and one touchdown over the course of his distinguished collegiate career.
Continuing on with a thorough statistical review of the nine major All-America backfield candidates for the 1939 NCAA season, it is important to bear in mind that seven of the nine players in question were, in fact, the primary passers for their respective teams with right halfback George McAfee of Duke and fullback John Kimbrough of Texas A&M being the two execptions. However, one of the great hallmarks of Single Wing football in the years between the two World Wars was the bygone aspect that any of the four backfield players could be inclined to a forward pass at any given time and, of course, any of the four backfield players might also be the intended pass receiver, as well. During this particular era of limited substitution football, there can be no doubt whatsoever that versatility (i.e., the ability to run, pass, catch, tackle and even punt or kick) was an extremely valuable commodity.
229 yards … 10 pass receptions … 3 tds …… McAfee, Duke
110 yards ….. 4 pass receptions … 1 tds …… Harmon, Michigan *
51 yards ……. 2 pass receptions … 0 tds …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
39 yards ……. 5 pass receptions … 0 tds …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
23 yards ……. 1 pass reception ….. 1 tds …… McFadden, Clemson
0 yards ……… 0 pass receptions … 0 tds …… Kinnick, Iowa *
0 yards ……… 0 pass receptions … 0 tds …… Cafego, Tennessee *
0 yards ……… 0 pass receptions … 0 tds …… Lansdell, USC
0 yards ……… 0 pass receptions … 0 tds …… Christman, Missouri
(* asterisk indicates 1939 Consensus First Team All-America as recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association … final receiving totals include statistics from Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games played on January 1, 1940)
It should not be forgotten that, as a junior, Duke’s McAfee also caught three passes for 45 yards against the USC Trojans in the legendary 1939 Rose Bowl contest despite missing the Blue Devils’ first seven games of the 1938 NCAA campaign due to injury. Blessed with breakaway speed in addition to a reliable set of hands, factor in the ability to effectively return kickoffs & punts and it is not very hard to figure out why the Philadelphia Eagles would have chosen the Duke senior right halfback with the second overall pick in the first round of the 1940 National Football League Draft. As it was, McAfee easily finished among the NCAA’s top ten players having accumulated 825 total yards from scrimmage rushing and receiving in 1939 :
978 yards rushing & receiving … 13 tds …… Harmon, Michigan *
862 yards rushing & receiving ….. 5 tds …… Washington, UCLA
825 yards rushing & receiving ….. 7 tds …… McAfee, Duke
742 yards rushing & receiving ….. 9 tds …… Lansdell, USC
666 yards rushing & receiving … 12 tds …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
503 yards rushing & receiving ….. 5 tds …… McFadden, Clemson
452 yards rushing & receiving ….. 1 tds …… Cafego, Tennessee *
436 yards rushing & receiving ….. 7 tds …… Christman, Missouri
374 yards rushing & receiving ….. 5 tds …… Kinnick, Iowa *
On the subject of versatility, there is also absolutely no question that the ability to excel in the fine art of running back kickoffs and punts had a certain influence on many of those voting not only for the various All-America teams but also the Heisman Trophy, itself, as well.
After returning a combined total of seven kickoffs in his first two varsity seasons for the Iowa Hawkeyes, undersized left halfback Nile Kinnick fielded more than twice that many during his highly decorated senior campaign in 1939 and was officially recognized as the NCAA leader based on total yards gained :
377 yards … 15 kick returns … 25.1 avg ……. Kinnick, Iowa *
178 yards ….. 4 kick returns … 37.0 avg …… Cafego, Tennessee *
132 yards ….. 5 kick returns … 26.4 avg …… Harmon, Michigan *
111 yards …… 5 kick returns … 22.2 avg …… McAfee, Duke
107 yards ….. 6 kick returns … 17.8 avg …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
14 yards …….. 1 kick return …. 14.0 avg …… McFadden, Clemson
For whatever reason, UCLA star left halfback Kenny Washington was much more effective as a kick returner in his sophomore and junior seasons for the Bruins, averaging more than twenty-three yards per return in each of his first two collegiate seasons; altogether, Washington returned a total of 19 kickoffs for 428 yards (22.5 avg) during his three years with the Westwood varsity.
UCLA left end WOODY STRODE (# 27), who led the Westwood gridiron warriors with 15 pass receptions for 218 yards as a senior, was lauded as an Honorable Mention All-America by the Associated Press in 1939. Bruins junior right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON (# 28) was cited as an Honorable Mention All-America by both the AP as well as the Newspaper Enterprise Association in addition to be named “Additional Backfield” (what amounted to Third Team) All-America by Life Magazine that same year. During the 1939 NCAA season, UCLA left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13) tossed a pair of touchdown passes to both Strode and Robinson.
It was, of course, none other than UCLA right halfback Jackie Robinson who led the entire nation in 1939 by averaging 16.4 yards per return after running back 18 punts for 295 yards in his first gridiron season with the Bruins following his transfer from Pasadena Junior College in early January of that year; based on total yards gained, it was Abisha “Bosh” Pritchard of Virginia Military Institute, the 170-pound sophomore right halfback in his first term with the Keydets after transferring to V.M.I. from Georgia Tech, who was formally recognized as the NCAA leader in 1939 with 583 yards on 42 punt returns (13.9 avg) :
365 yards … 37 punt returns ….. 9.9 avg … 0 tds …… McAfee, Duke
253 yards … 19 punt returns … 13.3 avg …. 1 tds …… Cafego, Tennessee *
227 yards … 19 punt returns … 11.9 avg …. 0 tds …… Kinnick, Iowa *
18 yards …….. 1 punt return ….. 18.0 avg … 0 tds …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
11 yards …….. 2 punt returns ….. 5.5 avg …. 0 tds …… Harmon, Michigan *
8 yards ………. 5 punt returns ….. 1.6 avg …. 0 tds …… McFadden, Clemson
Unfortunately, the punt return statistics for the 1939 NCAA season of USC Trojans senior quarterback Grenville Lansdell are not available for display here. But it will be noted for the record that the player whom the New York Giants made the tenth overall pick in the first round of the 1940 NFL Draft logged no less than two touchdowns on punt returns as a junior for Southern Cal in 1938. Lansdell, yet another product of Pasadena Junior College, ran one boot back 82 yards for a touchdown versus the Ohio State Buckeyes and returned another punt 71 yards to register six points against the Washington Huskies.
The one and only punt return touchdown in the collegiate career of Tennessee Volunteers left halfback George Cafego, whom the Chicago Cardinals made the first overall pick in the first round of the 1940 NFL Draft, came at the expense of little Sewanee : The University of the South, who were, to be succint, perennial doormats of the Southeastern Conference throughout the 1930s.
Of course, football was still a two-way game with players going both ways on offense and defense at the time that Kenny Washington was starring for the UCLA Bruins. During the Single Wing era, the fullback played at linebacker while the other three backfield players were deployed in the defensive secondary. At that time, no one bothered to keep track of individual tackles for statistical purposes, but contemporary newspaper writers, naturally, noted which players were the most influential on defense — one thing is certain, throughout the course of his collegiate career for UCLA, Washington was constantly praised for his ferocious tackling and his tendency to be involved in a high number tackles, as well.
As far as pass defense was concerned, it was left halfback Hal van Every of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the the first round pick (# 9 overall) of the Green Bay Packers at the 1940 NFL Draft, who led the entire nation by intercepting nine passes during the 1939 NCAA season :
8 int … 52 yards … 0 tds …… Kinnick, Iowa *
5 int … 59 yards … 0 tds …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
4 int … 56 yards … 0 tds …… McAfee, Duke
3 int … 98 yards …. 1 tds …… Harmon, Michigan *
3 int … 29 yards …. 0 tds …… McFadden, Clemson
1 int … 28 yards …. 0 tds …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
1 int ….. 0 yards …. 0 tds …… Lansdell, USC
0 int ….. 0 yards …. 0 tds …… Cafego, Tennessee *
If there was one particular facet of the game that Iowa’s Kinnick truly excelled at over the course of his entire collegiate career, it was pilfering forward passes thrown by the Hawkeyes’ opponents. The 1939 Heisman Trophy winner registered no fewer than 18 interceptions during his three varsity seasons for the Hawkeyes, a figure that still stands as the school record to this very day. Eight interceptions in a single season is also happens to be yet another feat which has never been bettered by any other Iowa player before or since.
Ironically enough, the interception that Michigan’s Harmon hauled back for a touchdown in 1939 was the spectacular 95-yard return of a pass thrown by Iowa’s Kinnick during the Wovlerines’ 27-7 romp over the Hawkeyes on the second Saturday in October of that year.