(Jackie Robinson #28, UCLA)
Today is April 15, Jackie Robinson Day (it probably is not when you are reading this). On this day more than any other day I try to watch as much baseball as I possibly can to see the iconic 42. For me, there is not a single historical figure that makes me feel a combination of pride, anger, happiness, sadness, and fear. If you are reading this, you probably already know who Jackie Robinson is. With that said, I am still going to take this opportunity to talk about my thoughts on the man because there is no possible way to overpraise Jackie Robinson. Don’t worry, we will get to the football. After we will talk about Robinson the prospect, where he fits in the 1940 NFL Draft class, and where he would fit into the 2022 Draft class.
I grew up in a small town in West Virginia where almost everyone looks like me, white. The only thing I learned about Jackie Robinson in school was that he was a good ballplayer as they glossed over black history month. It was not until in college that I scratched the surface of the impact Robinson had on civil rights. The people I grew up around still to this day look at someone with a different skin tone and make unreasonable assumptions without knowing anything about them. Even if they turn out to enjoy their company, they would call them “one of the good ones.” If I am honest with myself, there was a part of my youth where I, too, was racist. I felt uncomfortable around people who looked different. Then, the people who told me our race was “the good race” committed crimes to continue funding their illegal vices. It was that moment where it hit me, one's skin color does not make someone a bad person, their actions do. Even with that said, it took time and some great people to help me understand that even though we sometimes talk differently, we were saying the same things.
Not only did it take being surrounded by incredible people, but it also helped to learn what Jackie had to endure helped me understand the different playing field we stood on. Jackie had to be twice as good as any other player just to stand on the same field as them. He had to represent every black baseball player alone, and if he failed, every white writer would have written “this is why they don’t play in the big leagues.” He had to stand with that pressure and just thinking about how he took it all while never losing his cool makes my misty eyes. We are here 75 years after Robinson broke the MLB color barrier and we as a country, still have a long way to go.
Jackie Robinson, UCLA, RB
I know, I know. You are here to read about football. So let’s talk about Jackie Robinson, the NFL prospect. Jackie Robinson was the first person to letter in 4 different sports at UCLA from 1939 to 1940. At 5’11” Jackie Robinson was a Bruins Forward in basketball. If you search 1939 UCLA basketball, you will see the tape of Robinson boxing men out to get rebounds. As a track athlete, Robinson won the 1940 NCAA championship in the Long Jump with a 24 foot 10 and a fourth-inch jump. He was a candidate for the US Olympic team had World War II not been in full swing. Baseball might’ve been Jackie’s worst sport. He was praised for his defense, although he batted an atrocious .092. He did steal home twice that season. Robinson was a complete athlete and excelled on whatever field/court he played on, nevertheless, Robinson’s best sport might have been football.
Jackie Robinson was a backfield player for the 1939 UCLA Bruins. The Bruins used an option running style that featured Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson known as the Gold Dust Gang. Robinson was a dynamic athlete who would have transitioned to a Running Back in the league. Robinson used his thick build to run through athletes when he needed to, however, made most of his hey in space. Robinson was the team's primary kick/punt returner. Stats were not tracked in 1938, with that said, Robinson is said to have averaged 30+ yards on his kick returns.
Jackie Robinson was one of the fastest players on the field every time he got on the field. He led the majors in stolen bases in 1947 and 1949. Speed may not be the only component for base stealing, but it’s certainly a major variable in the equation. Robinson’s speed on the football field is best displayed on this tape in his game against Washington State where he beat the entire Washington State defense to the corner and turned upfield and continued to run away from the entire defense. Playing in UCLA’s option run offense gave Robinson plenty of run blocking experience. Robinson shows he can run through defenders as well. With that said, Robinson's best skill is to make players miss in space. He excelled as a punt/kick returner because of his ability to win one-on-one with most defenders in his way. A lot of 1939 football is option runs and short passes, nevertheless, Robinson showed that he can pluck the ball out of the sky with several key catches in this USC game. Two other skills Robinson showed off in his tape is the ability to pop a ball carrier from the safety position. He has a game-changing forced fumble in the USC vs UCLA game to stop a charging USC offensive attack. Jackie Robinson got to put his arm on display from time to time as seen on this highlight reel.
The biggest area of improvement Jackie Robinson has is his ball carrier vision. He struggled to see the available lane through traffic on runs in between the tackle. It was clear that UCLA leaned on Jackie for runs to the outside and utilized Kenny Washington for the inside run game. The few times Jackie Robinson had to pass protect were mostly unsuccessful. Although Jackie got open, he has had a couple of concentration drops.
Jackie Robinso had the skill set to be a 3 down back in the NFL. Robinson has the 2nd gear to take any ball to the house and he can shed one-on-one defenders on the open field. He would be best utilized in a committee early as he continues to develop as an in-between the tackles runner.
Where Does Jackie Get Drafted?
The 1940 NFL Draft
So before we talk about when I think Robinson should be drafted in 1940, let's point out that only 10 players were picked in the 1st (including 2 Hall of Famers: George MacAfee and Bulldog Turner). And 5 were selected in the 2nd. We also need to address the elephant in the room. In 1940 we were still 23 years before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on DC, 15 years before Rosa Parks bravely stood her ground on the bus in Montgomery, and 7 years before Jackie himself broke the color barrier for the MLB. In 1920, Fritz Pollard was the first African-American to play in the NFL. However, after Fritz’s departure, the NFL owners imposed a “gentleman’s agreement” preventing the signing of more black players. (NFLPA.com, 2022). It was Jackie’s teammate from UCLA, Kenny Washington, who finally broke that agreement. Hell, it was still only 77 years after it was still legal to keep African-Americans as freaking livestock! The point is, Jackie would not have been drafted, however, I am going to treat this as if it were a fictional world where Robinson’s skin color has 0 impact on his draft position. In 1940, teams threw the ball in less than 25% of plays. The running game was key. The first overall pick was a FB, the following 4 were HB. (Fascinating fact: those players accumulated 12 TDS and 30 Ints in their careers). Football was played North to South and not East to West. Robinson’s ability in space would have been sought out later, and he would have most likely spent most of his career as a return man.
Round Grade: 7-10th round (in a 22-round draft so a late day 2 early day 3 player).
2022 NFL Rookie Draft
The NFL is played a little differently nowadays. There are a lot more offensive coordinators getting their weapons the ball in the open field. Robinson could've been dangerous in the open field with his breakaway speed and ability to shed defensive backs. I think Robinson would excel in a Shannahan offense. He will still need time to develop into a 3-down back, but the potential is definitely there.
Round Grade: 3rd. I would expect a team to pull the trigger with a late 3rd round compensatory pick or an early day 3 pick.
Even though I have Jackie Robinson going later in the process, I still think Jackie turns into a top RB in the league. Very few humans have displayed their will and determination the way Jackie Robinson did. There is no way he ever settled for anything less than greatness. Now, I did get some criticism from someone close to me who thought that my scouting was clouded because Jackie Robinson is my hero. After thinking it through, I do not think so. Jackie Robinson was undeniably nearly the best athlete on every field he stepped on from the time he started playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. I believe with the advancements in weightlifting and dieting, Robinson's playing weight would have been 10-15 pounds heavier and my analysis is not even considering that. Robinson was a special athlete and person, and I think he would have had a serious impact on the National Football League.