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OL/DL Bill Willis (National Champion, OSU HOF, CFB HOF, NFL HOF, R.I.P.)


Loves Buckeye History
Staff member
'16 & '17 Upset Contest Winner
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Bill Willis
Lineman 1942-44

Considered one of the all-time great athletes ever to play for Ohio State, Bill Willis, has the unique distinction of belonging to the Ohio High School, the College and the Professional Football halls of fame. He also is a member of The Ohio State University Athletics Hall of Fame. Willis was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes between 1942 and 1944, playing both offense and defense. A willowy 6-2 and 215 pounds, he was a devastating blocker on offense and a punishing, relentless tackler on defense. Willis earned All-America honors in 1943 and 1944, becoming Ohio State’s first African-American All-American. He went on to a distinguished career with the Cleveland Browns following college. A native of Columbus, he is generally considered the first African-American starter in professional football. After his pro career ended, he returned home and served as director of the Ohio Youth Commission.


Former Browns honored by Senate
By Jeff Walcoff, Staff Writer
July 20, 2006

Bill Willis played for the Browns from 1946-53.

Two former Browns and members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame were honored by the U.S. Senate due to their pioneering contributions to professional football.
Passed by Unanimous Consent, Senate Resolution 533 commemorates the 60th anniversary of the permanent racial integration of professional football in 1946 by four players, two of whom were members of the Cleveland Browns.

Bill Willis, an All-America tackle at Ohio State, was a three-time All-AAFC and four-time All-NFL middle guard for the Browns from 1946-53. He earned a spot on the roster after he baffled coaches with his speed, power and agility at his first tryout practice. The Columbus, Ohio native was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Marion Motley joined the team shortly after Willis, continuing the integration of the sport pioneered by the Browns. The three-time All-AAFC selection and one-time All-NFL selection racked up 4,720 yards on 828 carries (5.7 avg.) in nine professional seasons. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.

The other two players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, signed with the Los Angeles Rams the same year as Motley and Willis joined the Browns.
The integration of Willis, Motley, Washington and Strode took place a full year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African-American in professional baseball.

Willis is the only surviving member of the four. The NFL will commemorate him and the anniversary during the 2006 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, August 6, 2006 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton. Ohio Senator George Voinovich, a co-sponsor of the resolution, will honor Willis during a halftime ceremony.

bengals.com (from 2003)

6:15 a.m.

For Bill Willis, still as dignified as the day he broke pro football’s color line in Paul Brown’s training camp, it sounded pretty familiar.

Mike Brown hired the Bengals’ first African-American head coach last week, and 110 miles away in Columbus, Ohio, and 57 seasons after revolutionizing defensive line play with his hair-trigger quickness, Willis knew what had happened.

Marvin Lewis had not been hired by the NFL office, or pressure groups, or $250-per-hour lawyers. From what Willis could see, Lewis had been hired by the same motivation that spurred Paul Brown to call Willis in the summer of 1946 and convince his All-American nose tackle from their Ohio State days together to put off taking that job coaching the line at Kentucky State and come play both sides of the line for the inaugural Cleveland Browns.

Paul Brown then needed no convincing to present Willis into the Hall of Fame on the steps of Canton some 30 years later.

“Paul thought I was one of the best players and Mike Brown is a lot like his father in many ways,” Willis said Monday. “He’s going to do what he wants to do. Nobody is going to tell Mike Brown what he’s going to do. He found a guy he wanted to lead his program and he hired him because he thought he was the most qualified guy just like his father did.”

Willis is 81 now and not as quick, but his mind is still jagged-edge sharp. The hiring of Lewis, the eighth African-American to ever coach in the NFL, left Willis ecstatic.

“Frankly, I feel like there should be more Black head coaches,” Willis said.
“Look at how many are assistants who come up through the ranks and pay their dues. I think this is great because Marvin is the guy who can turn this around. He will really do this team proud. Marvin is a top-flight guy and
I think it’s going to be a turning point for the Bengals.”

Lewis might have paid his dues, but it was guys like Willis who came through with the down payment of some memories you’d rather not have.

“You call them the good old days, but sometimes the old days weren’t that good,” Willis said. “You tend to remember just the good times and forget the bad times. I’d rather not get into any of that stuff.”

But he does remember traveling out of town with the Ohio State track team once and not being allowed to stay with his teammates in a hotel. Instead, he and the other African-American runner had to spend the night in a boarding house where rooms were rented by the hour.

“I was in a bad situation,” is all Willis will say. “You could say you always call a person that can help you in a situation like that. I called Paul Brown.”

In 2003, all this is hard for us to believe. Lewis sits in Paul Brown Stadium now planning for the season ahead that includes a training camp in Georgetown, Ky., and the only race factor is the 40-yard dash.

“I had some embarrassing moments, but never when I was on a team with Paul Brown,” Willis said. “You hear about what a great organizer he was.

You have to know what situations you might have to face if you brought your football team out of town. You would have to scout the situation and anticipate the embarrassment that might be caused and I never saw any of that.”

Willis never heard Brown talk about Black and White. There was no Great Experiment as in baseball with Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.

In the summer of ’46, Brown slyly and quietly arranged through a third party for Willis to swing by the Browns’ training camp on his way to a tryout in Canada. When Willis showed up near the end of practice, he heard Brown holler across the field, “Do you still think you can play?” and the next thing he knew he was in uniform. And it didn’t even dawn on him that he was the only Black guy.

“You could be talking with Paul Brown,” Willis said, “and he just didn’t see guys as white guys or black guys. That’s just the way he was. Could you help his team was all he wanted to know.”

Willis’ high school coach back in Columbus had played at the University of Illinois and urged him to go there. But he had second thoughts with Brown the coach at Ohio State in Willis’ hometown.

“He thought playing for Paul at home would be better for me,” Willis said. “I think now it was because he knew of Paul’s reputation for being fair (with Black players) and playing the best players. I think that had something to do with it.”

Of course, Willis had something to do with it, too. He had as much to do with integrating the game as Brown with his immense dignity and All-Pro talent. But he knows he and Brown are from another era. They are just two guys who didn’t make a big deal about it.

But Willis thinks the hiring of Lewis is a big deal. Along with Ohio State winning the national championship, this has been one of his best months ever.

Willis has never met Lewis. But he knows people who do and he has read the newspapers and the internet about him.

“Marvin is the kind of guy that can talk to the modern player,” Willis said. “And they do speak a different language than we did.”

But Willis knows what Paul Brown would say to him would be understood in any locker room in any era.

“He would tell Marvin he had faith in him doing the job and he was 100 percent behind him,” Willis said. “He knew that he has gone through the ranks and Paul would tell him he was the best qualified guy for the job.” Kind of like the day on a practice field 57 seasons ago. Sometimes, the biggest changes aren’t really changes at all.
I'm one of the BuckeyePlanet old farts--born in 1950. So Bill Willis was before even my time. But when I talk to my dad about the Buckeye greats of old, Bill Willis is invariably one of the first names he mentions, even before Cassady, Janowicz, and Harley. He is a legend among legends.
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I'm one of the BuckeyePlanet old farts--born in 1950. So Bill Willis was before even my time. But when I talk to my dad about the Buckeye greats of old, Bill Willis is invariably one of the first names he mentions, even before Cassady, Janowicz, and Harley. He is a legend among legends.

As for old fart, you go down that road alone HB :slappy:

But, as for that memory, it was the same with my father. Jim Parker, Bill Willis, Hopalong Cassady -- they stood as Buckeye legends in his mind.
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Color him bronze

Sunday, July 30, 2006

[FONT=Verdana, Times New Roman, arial, helvetica, sans-serif]By Joe Frollo Jr. Repository assistant sports editor[/FONT]

The shouts came from the most unusual places.
Buffalo, Chicago, Brooklyn. Willis heard it everywhere from everyone.
Men and women, young and old, heaped verbal abuse on Willis and Cleveland Browns teammate Marion Motley in 1946, the year both helped to break pro football’s color barrier.
Aug. 7 marks the 60th anniversary of Willis signing his first Browns contract.
An All-America tackle under Paul Brown at Ohio State, Willis turned down a guaranteed contract with Montreal of the Canadian Football League to try out with the Browns.
“When I got to (training) camp, Paul saw me, walked up to me and asked if I thought I could still play football,” Willis said. “I nodded, and he said, ‘Go get dressed.’ ”
His first assignment was lining up opposite Mo Scarry, a veteran NFL center brought over to the All-America Football Conference startup team.
“As he centered the ball, I watched his hands,” Willis said. “As soon as he flexed his fingers, I charged. I was fortunate to get to Mo at the same time he snapped the ball.”
Willis drove Scarry into quarterback Otto Graham, knocking both down.
“Bill was 6-foot-2, but he came in so low on me, he beat the hell out of me,” Scarry said. “When I moved my fingers, he hit me and I landed on top of Otto.
“I thought he was offside, so we lined up again and told the coaches to check for it. Bango, he hit me again back into Otto.”
Willis pushed Scarry into Graham two more times before Brown yelled, “Enough.” The rest of the Browns had seen enough, too, to know they had something special.
“That incident broke the ice,” said Bill Lund, a backup defensive back on the 1946 Browns. “Paul just ignored all the stuff that came after (because of race), so all the guys did, too. Everyone saw what (Willis) could do on the field, that he was as good as everyone and better than most.”
fighting back his own way
Willis grew up with racism in Columbus, and he experienced it in college. While running at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Willis and another black member of the Ohio State track team had to stay with family after being turned away from the team hotel.
He knows, though, that things could have been much worse if it weren’t for Brown.
“The atmosphere around a football camp is reflective of the coach,” Willis said. “Everybody knew that Paul treated me the same as any other player. I never had any problems at all with my teammates, and that was a relief.”
Players on other teams — that was a different story.
Football is a rough enough game, but Willis took extra elbows and knees after the whistle had blown.
“I learned that the play was never over until the next play started,” he said. “You might be walking back to the huddle, and somebody would come past you and give you a shot. That first year was a little rough in the sense that some players would call you names. Some just to rile you up. Some because they truly meant it.”
As the season progressed and teams found out about Cleveland’s middle guard, Willis received fewer and fewer dirty shots. The racial slurs from opposing players also slowed as time went on, though it often was Willis’ teammates who lost their cool more than Willis himself.
“We’d start in on them, but Bill would say he’d take care of his own,” Scarry said. “The second time around, nobody said anything. People had too much respect for how he played.”
No control over the crowd
Off the field was a different matter. Though the AAFC included almost exclusively northern cities, Willis heard things from fans he still refuses to repeat.
“In Buffalo, where you would expect it to be like Cleveland, some of the fans were ... ,’ Willis said. “Let’s just say in order to get off the field, you had to walk real close to the stands. Close enough to hear everything being said. You’d be surprised who was yelling what.”
During Week 15, the 1946 Browns were scheduled to play in Miami, their only scheduled trip south of the Mason-Dixon line. Some players heard about violence planned against Willis and Motley. The coaches received death threats.
Brown kept Willis and Motley home. Cleveland won, 34-0.
“Paul did not want to, but he decided it was best to make other arrangements for Bill and Marion,” said Brown’s widow, Mary. “Paul always felt a coach was reflected in the type of players he chose to sign. By keeping Marion and Bill in the forefront for their skills instead of their skin color, Paul opened the door for these men to be recognized for their athletic ability.”
not about the headlines
A year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, Willis and Motley joined Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams in doing the same for pro football — though with not nearly as much fanfare.
That was fine with Willis.
“I never thought about publicity while I was playing,” he said. “I felt I could show I was a better football player than the other guy without calling out names or getting into slugfests. Paul used to say the worst thing you could do to a man is beat him in a way he knew you were a better man than he was.
“The thing foremost on my mind was being the best player I could be. Paul was looking for that in me, too. Think about anything else, and you get hurt.”
On a team with seven future Hall of Famers, former middle linebacker Lou Saban said nobody could outwork Willis.
“Playing right there in front of me, I always walked away thinking I just saw something special,” said Saban, who went on to become a college and NFL head coach. “I don’t think there was a weak sister on the whole defensive line, but Bill was one of the most outstanding athletes I’ve ever seen.”
Scarry loves to tell the story about how Willis beat him up that first day in training camp. Scarry credits Willis with making him a better player than he thought imaginable.
Scarry also loved it when Willis made other centers feel miserable.
“Everyone had the same problem with Bill,” Scarry said. “I’d never run into a guy that big, that strong and that fast before, so I learned to put the ball further out to give me some room. Other guys had to learn that every week. There were weeks teams didn’t have a good snap all game.”
‘a fortunate man’
Willis played eight seasons with the Browns, helping Cleveland win all four AAFC titles and the 1950 NFL championship. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, a year before Motley.
But Willis knows how easy it would have been for his career to never have happened.
“When I first went to college, I never dreamed of playing pro ball,” Willis said. “There were no blacks playing pro ball that I knew of. I wanted to be a coach. ... When I look back on my career, all I can say is I was a more fortunate man than many at that time.”
Willis was deciding between a coaching position at Kentucky State and heading to Canada when he heard Brown was interested in bringing him to Cleveland.
It was because of Brown that Willis landed at Ohio State. It also was because of Brown again that Willis decided to give professional football in the states a try.
“Paul understood the culture of the day,” Willis said. So did Willis. He lived it, and in the end helped to change it. Reach Repository Assistant Sports Editor Joe Frollo Jr. at (330) 580-8564 or e-mail: [email protected]
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Hall of Famer shares story of breaking color barrier with Browns
Player recalls tough times
Bill Willis, who started in '46, to be honored
By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal staff writer

CANTON - His knuckles were studded with gold and diamonds. Bill Willis' left hand glimmered with a commemorative 1942 Ohio State national championship ring that bears a huge No. 1 atop the red stone. His right hand sported well-worn jewelry celebrating the Cleveland Browns' 1950 NFL title and his 1977 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But in 1946, those knuckles had another purpose. They defended Willis from the bigotry and racism he encountered as an African-American playing professional football.

The Columbus native didn't believe in fighting.

The two-way player who excelled as a middle guard on defense listened to the catcalls and slurs. He took the elbows while he lay in a pile and felt the shots to the back of his head on his way to the huddle. He retaliated by ``laying wood.''

``If you're going to tackle a guy, you can really lay wood to him,'' he said. ``If you're blocking, you can lay wood to him. If I tackled a fella, I could get on top of him and look right in his face and let him know, `I can slug you, but I'm not going to. Let's get up and play the game, boy.' ''

Sixty years ago, Willis, Marion Motley, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington signed pro football contracts, breaking a color barrier that dated to the end of the 1933 season. Willis and Motley played for the Browns of the All-America Football Conference, Strode and Washington for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams. It was a year before Jackie Robinson's historic debut with baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Willis, 84, is the only living member of the groundbreaking quartet. To celebrate the men's trailblazing efforts, Willis will be honored at halftime of Sunday's Hall of Fame Game in Fawcett Stadium. One day shy of the anniversary of his signing with the Browns, he will receive Senate and congressional resolutions from Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre.

While he's enjoying his time in the spotlight, Willis has been reluctant to talk about his travails. He suffered a stroke eight years ago and lost Odessa, his wife of 53 years, three years ago. But Willis opened up Friday after a news conference at the Canton Marriott so young football fans will gain a better understanding of the game's history.

One of the worst incidents Willis experienced came in his first game as a Brown, a 1946 exhibition against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Rubber Bowl. Willis said the Dodgers were particularly ugly in their treatment of running back Motley.

``Motley made a couple for good yardage and they all piled up on Motley,'' Willis said. ``I ran over and said, `OK, the play is over.' I picked up a guy who was about 5-foot-5. He said, `Get your blacks hands off of me.' He's right here in my face. That was kind of hard to take. But I did have sense enough to put my hands on his shoulder but to hold my chin back so if he swings, he wouldn't hit me.''

Willis said during the regular season, they played each team in the league twice and by the second time, the physical and verbal abuse was less vicious.

``The second time around, I guess the word got around the league that `here's a couple guys who can take it as well as dish it out,' '' Willis said.

Willis was grateful that coach Paul Brown, whom he also played for at Ohio State, brought in Motley to be his roommate shortly after he made the Browns. They bunked together for Willis' entire Cleveland career from 1946 to 1953. And except for one year when he stayed in the YMCA, Willis lived with Motley and his family during the season.

The racism they experienced was lessened by Brown, who believed everyone had the same right to opportunity and expected the other players to treat the pair as he did.

When Willis was a member of the OSU track team, he and another black teammate weren't allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the Buckeyes when they went to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays. But he said that rarely happened with the Browns. Willis said Brown called hotels before they arrived and made arrangements so ugly scenes would be averted.

``I remember my dad saying they went to Miami one time and when they got to the hotel, the manager said Bill and Marion couldn't stay there,'' Mike Brown said. ``My dad said he'd called and this was all set up. He said, `This is the way it has to be or we all go.' The guy backed down and they all stayed.''

But Willis said Paul Brown once left them home on a trip to Miami.

``Paul told Motley and myself that we'd had a great year and he was going to give us a bonus. He wasn't going to take us to Miami,'' Willis said. ``... I didn't find out until later that there was a threat that bodily harm would come to a whole lot of people if we played in that game.''

Mike Brown used to sneak up to Motley and Willis' room and play hearts during training camp and said the two ``have been my heroes forever.'' Brown is thrilled that Willis is finally getting his due.

``It's odd how he and some of the others were overlooked,'' Brown said. ``I'm all for the Jackie Robinson story, but this was actually before that. It should be known. It deserves to be known.''

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Hall of Famer Bill Willis acknowledges the crowd during halftime of Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game. Willis helped to re-integrate pro football when he signed his first contract with the Cleveland Browns, 60 years ago today.

Hall of Famers, politicians turn out to appreciate Willis
Monday, August 7, 2006 By DON DETORE Repository sports editor

CANTON - Bill Willis stood in the center of the makeshift stage Sunday night, his sons on one side, representatives of his country on the other.

He only shook his head as he watched the Hall of Famers parade onto that stage at Fawcett Stadium.

Sixty years ago today, Willis signed his first pro contract with the Cleveland Browns, helping to break permanently pro football’s color barrier.

Hall of Famer Marion Motley of the Browns and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams followed, becoming the first four blacks to play professional football in more than 15 years.

Willis spoke little during Sunday’s halftime ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, but the million-watt smile said more than any words or proclamation could.

“I’d like to thank the Hall of Fame and the others here for making this day special,” Willis said, after receiving a proclamation from both the United States Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. “It’s a great feeling to know what we did played a small part in making professional football the great game it is today.

“On behalf of Marion Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, I accept this award,” Willis said.

The 84-year-old Willis, the last surviving member of the four pioneers, received proclamations from Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. Willis, enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1977, was joined by his three sons, Bill Jr., Clem and Daniel, at the ceremony.

“ ... It’s an honor to present this to Bill Willis,” Voinovich said, “for breaking the color barrier in professional football.”

“Many of you know him as an outstanding player at Ohio State. Many of you know him as an outstanding player with the Cleveland Browns,” Regula said. “But thousands of men got a second chance because of him as the chairman of the Ohio Youth Council. He rebuilt the lives of many young people.”

The ceremony was particularly special for Carl Eller, one of 16 Hall of Famers who stood on stage.

“It was important to be here to show him how much this means,” Eller said. “He deserves to be recognized for what he has done. He’s a trailblazer, a part of history we should respect.”

Other Hall of Famers who participated in the ceremony include Willie Lanier, Dave Wilcox, Joe Perry, Ted Hendricks, Mel Renfro, Lem Barney, Lou Creekmur, George Blanda, Jack Youngblood and Joe DeLamielleure.

John Pepper, CEO of the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center, also attended the ceremony.

Video tributes from several NFL figures played on the scoreboard, including Shaun Alexander, Jim Brown, Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp.

“This is such an important part of our history,” Eller said. “It was because of men such as Bill Willis who played a big role in the diversity we see in the game today.”

You can reach Repository Sports Editor Don Detore

at (330) 580-8344 or e-mail: [email protected]

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A Browns legend awes Bengals

By Tom Archdeacon

Monday, September 18, 2006

CINCINNATI ? He's the one guy all the Bengals flocked to in the postgame dressing room. He'd made the afternoon possible.
It was not Carson Palmer, who threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns, running back Rudi Johnson, who'd bulldozed for 145 yards and two more scores, or any of the other Cincinnati players who were a big part of the 34-17 rout of the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The guy ? an 84-year-old man leaning on a cane with an old lineman's hand that sported NFL championship and Pro Football Hall of Fame rings ? was bigger than all that.
Bill Willis is the NFL's version of Jackie Robinson ? actually, he came before Jackie ? and one of the greatest Cleveland Browns ever. He's the All-Pro middle guard whose story Bengals' coach Marvin Lewis told his team Friday ? even reading them a poignant 60-year-old letter from Willis to Paul Brown, thanking the Browns' coach for giving him a chance ? and that stirred everyone, said tackle Willie Anderson.
Thanks to Paul Brown, Willis first reintegrated Ohio State football in 1942 and the Brown-coached Bucks promptly won the national title. In 1946, again due to Brown, Willis and Marion Motley joined Cleveland and toppled the segregation fence that kept blacks from the pros for nearly 15 years.
On Friday, an exhibit featuring Willis ? put together in part by the Bengals staff and narrated by Lewis ? opened at Cincinnati's Freedom Center.
Before Sunday's game, a tribute to Willis ? the boyhood hero of Bengals' owner Mike Brown, Paul's son ? was played for the crowd.
Later in private, Brown told how as a kid when his dad was the Cleveland coach he'd join Willis and Motley for card games in one of their training camp rooms at Bowling Green while white players went into town: "I never saw them as black or white, they were just my friends....
"I love (Bill) to death and I think he played a real significant role in American racial relations. No one seems to know it and they should."
Thanks to Brown and Lewis, Bengals players now do. And if they were excited to meet Willis, he was just excited to meet them
As Willis was brought into the dressing room in a wheelchair, Brown asked: "Who you want to see?"
"All of them," he said emphatically.
As his chair was guided toward Rudi Johnson, Willis stopped it, pulled himself onto his cane and offered a hand to the bruising back.
"I told him to 'keep on keeping on,' " Willis beamed.
Johnson later grinned: "He told me his two greatest teams were in Ohio. ... Guess who they were? ... Ohio State and the Cincinnati Bengals ? us!"
Defensive line coach Jay Hayes brought his two sons to meet Willis. Other Bengals assistants brought over young players.
'"We've got to see a man like this to know where we came from," Anderson said. "You have to know who paid the dues. Imagine the pressure a guy like him and Jackie Robinson went through and handled with dignity. It might sound cliche, but they are the reason we're here."
And now that they are here, Willis is impressed by them.
"I think this is their year," he said of the Bengals.
Brown squirmed and held up a cautionary hand: "Be careful ... I've got to get you away from these guys."
He meant the two sportwsriters with them, not the players.
There's no getting the Bengals away from Bill Willis now.
They've bonded.
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Bill Willis a trailblazer with stories

Enlarge By Greg Sailor, For USA TODAY
Bill Willis starred on Cleveland Browns teams that won championships in the All-America Football Conference before entering the NFL.
Indiana halfback George Taliaferro, the first selected in the NFL draft, in the 13th round by Chicago. He signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference.

Willie Thrower, the first quarterback to play in the NFL in the modern era, relieving George Blanda for Chicago in a loss to San Francisco. The Michigan State star played the next four seasons in the Canadian Football League.

Lowell Perry, the NFL's first assistant coach, with Pittsburgh.

The NFL's last all-white team integrated, when running back Bobby Mitchell was traded to Washington by Cleveland.

Field judge Burl Toler, the first game official in the NFL.

Buddy Young, the first to work in the NFL front office, as director of player relations.

Former New York Giants defensive back Emlen Tunnell, the first inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

James Harris, the first quarterback to start an NFL playoff game. He is now vice president-player personnel for Jacksonville.

Doug Williams, the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl, for Washington vs. Denver in XXII.

Johnny Grier, the first NFL referee.

Art Shell, first head coach in the NFL's modern era, with the L.A. Raiders.


Michael Vick, the first quarterback selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, by Atlanta.

Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome, the first general manager.

Warren Moon, the first quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sources: Pro Football Hall of Fame; National Underground Railroad Freedom Center; USA TODAY research
--Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

swapContent('firstHeader','applyHeader');By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
COLUMBUS, Ohio ? He is hobbling around his dining room, careful to hang onto the edge of the table, such a contrast to the days when Bill Willis built a Hall of Fame career with his uncanny quickness in the trenches.
It's still the left knee.
The knee he hurt in college ? not the color of his skin, he insists ? was his biggest concern when Willis made history with the Cleveland Browns 60 years ago as one of the four players who broke pro football's color barrier.
The knee tells the vibrant 85-year-old grandfather of four when it's chilly outside. Arthritis set in years ago. His equilibrium hasn't been the same since a stroke about 20 years ago.
"When I'm walking, I have to be careful that I walk straight and not let my leg bend to one side or another," says Willis, who lives alone in a ranch-style house a few miles from where he spent his childhood.
Sitting at the table, he taps his left knee and says, "This knee here, I'm always afraid that I'm going to step the wrong way. And when the weather is bad, it acts up."
Willis might sound like the parent of so many baby boomers, dealing with challenges that come with age.
Yet to an NFL where about 70% of the players and seven head coaches are African-American, he is a patriarch of a different sort. Willis starred on a Browns team that won championships in all four seasons it played in the All-America Football Conference before entering the NFL and winning divisional titles in its first six seasons.
He made his mark as a middle guard, the position that is now middle linebacker, and he made it for racial integration. "Young guys should know about him," Cincinnati Bengals tackle Willie Anderson said earlier this year. "Guys like him gave me a start. He paid a price. It humbled me to learn some of the things he went through."
When Cincinnati plays Cleveland on Sunday ? teams Willis is connected to ? a flag with his and Marion Motley's uniform numbers atop Cleveland Browns Stadium will be one more way to mark the re-integration of pro football.
In September, the Bengals honored Willis during halftime of their home opener.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame (which inducted Willis in 1977) saluted him during this year's enshrinement ceremonies. Resolutions in his honor were passed by the Ohio General Assembly in May and the U.S. Senate in July. There's also a special exhibit, through Dec. 15, at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Willis is the only survivor among the four who re-integrated pro football a year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Willis and fullback Motley (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968) were enlisted by Paul Brown to play in the new AAFC, merged into the NFL in 1950. Running back Kenny Washington and wide receiver Woody Strode (who later became an actor) broke in with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, the first to re-integrate the NFL.
"Everybody knows the Jackie Robinson story. This story is almost unknown," said Bengals owner Mike Brown, son of the legendary coach who signed Willis and Motley. "But it wasn't much different."
A 'small part' of integration
Willis had to endure insults, taunts, cheap shots and other indignities on and off the field during an era when discrimination was often upheld by law, and the U.S. armed forces were segregated.
"The worst things were said rather than done," says Willis, who played eight pro seasons. "When someone hits you from behind and you know it's intentional, you'll get over the physical sting.
"But if someone gets this far in front of your face," he adds, holding his palm about an inch from his nose, "and looks you dead in the eye and calls you a black son of a bitch and you can't do a thing about it, then you know you've restrained yourself."
For 12 years before 1946, African-Americans were barred from the NFL by an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" among owners that historians contend was inspired by Dixie-loving Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.
Willis became the first African-American at Ohio State to earn All-America honors, in 1943 and '44 ? he attended Saturday's OSU-Michigan game ? and played on the 1942 national championship team. But he says he never even considered he would be allowed to play in the NFL. Washington led the nation in yards from scrimmage (1,370) for UCLA in 1939 but had to play in a semi-pro league before the NFL.
"It did not make me feel resentful," Willis says. "That's just the way things were."
Brown says: "It was a different time. It had to change, and it did change. But it was part of America, among a series of events that were part of the civil rights movement."
Even so, Willis doesn't feel like anybody's Rosa Parks. "I'm proud of the role I played, but it was a very small part," he says. "I'm appreciative of the people who permitted me to play that role. I still get nice, thoughtful letters, saying that I had a part in how the entire fabric of professional football ? management, players, everything ? has moved ahead."
When he looks at the NFL today and sees African-American quarterbacks such as Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb and head coaches such as Marvin Lewis and Tony Dungy, he feels a connection.
"When Romeo (Crennel) was named head coach of the Browns, I felt especially kin to him because it was the Browns," Willis says. "When Art Shell became coach the first time (in 1989), I felt like going up to Al Davis and hugging him. Al Davis was like another Paul Brown in that regard."
After football, Willis worked as assistant commissioner of recreation for the city of Cleveland and eventually became director of the Ohio Youth Commission. His wife of 56 years, Odessa, passed away in 2003. Two of their three sons still live in Columbus. That they are successful family men tells Willis he did something right.
Knocking down barriers
Willis had just graduated from high school and was apprehensive when he met Paul Brown, then the new coach at Ohio State. A few years earlier his brother Claude, nicknamed "Deacon," an all-city fullback, tried to get a scholarship at Ohio State. But he wound up elsewhere after he was told, Willis says, "You'd be better off at a black school."
Willis was considering an offer from Illinois, but Brown gave him an option.
A few years later, in early 1946, Willis itched to play again following a year as head coach at Kentucky State. Shortly after Brown landed with the Browns, Willis drove to see him in Cleveland. Brown said he saw nothing in the new league's constitution that banned African-Americans.
"He said he'd get back to me," Willis recalls. "He never did."
Even so, Willis tabled an offer to play in Canada and came uninvited to the Browns' training camp that summer in Bowling Green, Ohio ? after a sportswriter bet him a Stetson hat Brown would give him a chance to make the team. The next morning Willis was in pads, lined across from center Mo Scarry on his first snap. Future Hall of Famer Otto Graham was the quarterback.
"The first time he hit me, I fell over backwards into Otto and Otto fell down, too," Scarry recalls from his home in Fort Myers, Fla. "Otto said, 'What the hell happened?' "
It was Willis' explosive first step.
"Then we put (Frank) Gatski at center," Scarry says of another future Hall of Famer. "Same thing. Then we tried a guy named Mel Maceau. Same thing. ... Everybody got knocked down. We used to just line up over the ball and snap it. With Willis, though, you had to put the ball as far as you could out in front of you, to get as far away from him as you could. He changed the whole way we snapped the ball."
Brown quickly told Willis he was on the team ? but forbidden from revealing it. "He said, 'I'll let it be known in due time,' " Willis says.
Willis signed Aug. 7, with a starting salary of $4,000. Three days later, Motley ? who played under Brown on a military team ? signed. An instant bond was formed.
"Brown told me, 'He's as tough as nails, and he'll be your roommate,' " Willis says. "I had never even heard of Marion Motley. But I said, 'Oh, yeah. That's great!' That was really a welcome sound, you know."
Scarry says, "It didn't make any difference to me if they were black, white, pink, blue or whatever."
Willis says he never encountered racially motivated issues with teammates ? in part because Brown wouldn't tolerate it. But it was still 1946. Willis and Motley missed the December game that year at Miami, which had Jim Crow laws typical of the South. Death threats, which Willis only learned of later, were enough for Brown to keep them home.
"All Paul said at the time was, 'I don't want you to be subjected to any kind of foolishness. Next year, they won't be in the league.' The next year, they weren't in the league."
Restraint often the key
Willis is proud he never lost his cool in a game. He was certainly tested. He remembers receiving many elbows to the head and having his hand stepped on. Punches were thrown and body parts were twisted at the bottom of the pile, often after the whistle.
"You could hear a lot of, 'Get that black son of a bitch,' " Willis recalls.
Mike Brown says: "There's an old story that says Branch Rickey watched Bill and Motley contain themselves in a contact sport, and that showed him Jackie Robinson could do likewise in baseball. (Rickey) was aware of what was going on."
Although he habitually looked behind him to see who would cold-cock him as he walked to the huddle, the 6-2, 210-pound Willis learned to protect himself. Sometimes that meant charging offside to strike blows of revenge. Help often came in the form of Lou Rymkus, a 245-pound enforcer of a tackle. Willis can still hear Rymkus' booming yet comforting voice:
" 'Where are they, Willie? If they play you dirty, don't say anything to them. You come back and tell me. We'll take care of it.' "
Comparing his low-keyed demeanor to the fiery Motley, Willis says, "Of course, Motley cursed a little bit more than I did. Otherwise, he handled himself extremely well. And you could always see what was happening to Motley because he was out in the open. On the line, you can't see nothing."
Willis and Motley became the best of friends. They remained roommates into the season in Cleveland and were virtually inseparable off the field.
During training camps they never ventured into Bowling Green's downtown because African-Americans were not welcomed at the bars and restaurants. They stayed in the dorm where a young boy routinely sneaked up to their second-floor room to play their favorite card game, hearts.
The boy was Mike Brown.
"Mike was a seemingly shy little fella, but he took to us," Willis says. "And he took great delight in passing the queen of hearts to Motley ? who would get so upset."
Willis laughs a lot as he relives flashbacks from his football glory days. His tone is somber, though, as he remembers how it all started.
He would have never made the gridiron if not for the attention his big brother got as a high school star. Willis just wanted to be like "Deacon." He thinks his brother would have starred in the NFL if not for the color barrier:
"He would have been more acclaimed than I ever was."
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A Trailblazer On and Off the Field
Bill Willis - Ohio State Football


Ohio State's Bill Willis endured a tough but successful stint in professional football, which helped paved the way for many African-Americans.

Feb. 13, 2007

A year before Jackie Robinson famously donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Bill Willis' passion for football conquered the barriers of discrimination and changed the course of the game forever.

The world knows the story of the baseball legend as the desegregation of professional sports, but outside of football circles, the history of the former Ohio State standout and NFL Hall of Famer is far-reaching but almost unknown.

Raised by his grandfather and mother in Columbus, Ohio, the future all-around football star was more interested in track than football when he attended Columbus East High School.

"I had a brother, Claude, who was about six years older than me," Willis said. "He was an outstanding football player, a fullback in high school and I was afraid I would be compared with him."

When he did finally decide to give the sport that would become his destiny a hearty try, he became a three-year starter and won honorable-mention All-State honors as a senior.

But Willis was skeptical of a future in football. Claude had tried to play in college but was told to look elsewhere, a "black school." After taking a year off to work, Willis enrolled at Ohio State in 1941 and new head football coach Paul Brown took note.

The two-way tackle with track-star speed quickly earned his way into the lineup as a sophomore for the 9-1 Buckeyes, who went on to win the 1942 Western Conference championship and were named the best team in the nation by the Associated Press.

Cont'd at:

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60 Bill Willis Class of 1977
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Born Oct. 5, 1921, in Columbus.

Between the lines Willis was Ohio State's first black All-American, twice earning first-team honors. He played for Brown's 1942 national championship team. He was barrier-breaking pioneer in pro football. In 1946, only four blacks were on AAFC or NFL rosters, following a stretch when blacks hadn't been in the NFL since the 1920s.

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This is worth noting in Willis's thread. By "guys", it's safe to assume that JT meant players.


Woody Hayes Athletic Center
OSU has shrine to sweat in
Renovated facility includes bow to football tradition
Sunday, July 22, 2007 3:50 AM
By Tim May



The hall also provides a trip down memory lane. It has bays with displays dedicated to coach Woody Hayes, to the current coaching staff, to the 31 Big Ten championship teams, to the seven national championship teams the school recognizes, to major award winners and first-team All-Americans, to academic All-Americans, to the players who have gone to the NFL.

About halfway down the hall is the Archie Griffin media suite, where interviews will take place. A three-man memorial in the hall stands out.
"We thought the three most prominent guys in Ohio State football were Bill Willis, Archie Griffin and Chic Harley," Tressel said.

Cont'd ...
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