“Some of the things we still deal with in today’s society. They paved the way. That’s cool.”
Bill Willis’ death recalls to life some heavy sports history with a strong Canton imprint. Willis, from Columbus, and Marion Motley, from Canton, were among four men who did in pro football what Jackie Robinson did more famously in baseball: Broke a color barrier. Blacks played during the early NFL in the 1920s but were phased out amid racist gentlemen’s agreements. Years passed before the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, who had won an NFL title as the Cleveland Rams three months earlier, signed black halfback Kenny Washington on March 21, 1946. The Rams added a black end, Woody Strode, on May 7. The Cleveland Browns of a new rival league, the AAFC, signed a black middle guard, Willis, on Aug. 6. Motley, a black running back, joined the Browns three days later. Willis and Motley became Hall of Fame players on the premier dynasty in Cleveland sports history. Both played for the Browns from 1946-53. The team reached a league championship game in all eight of those seasons. Willis died Tuesday in Columbus, a few months after attending Gene Hickerson’s Hall of Fame induction in Canton. He was 86. Willis attended Motley’s funeral in 1999. In life, when pressed, Motley told stories of coping with racism. In the inaugural season of 1946, there were death threats prior to the Browns road game against the Miami Seahawks. Against warnings not to play, Motley and Willis helped the Browns to a 34-0 victory. In the Browns’ 27-10 win over Houston on Sunday, all 11 defensive starters were black. One of them, Shaun Smith, said: “Guys like (Motley and Willis) paved the way. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them. All the names they were called. People looking at them crazy. “Some of the things we still deal with in today’s society. They paved the way. That’s cool.” The early Browns had a black punter, Horace Gillom, who also was a talented pass-catching end. Gillom, inducted as a Browns “Legend” in 2007, played for Massillon against Motley in high school. Before Wednesday’s Browns practice, wide receiver Braylon Edwards thanked the black pioneers. “It had to be terrible,” he said of playing conditions back then. Edwards said Willis delivered a humble speech to the Browns in 2006. “He said, ‘Play for yourself. This is the 2006 Cleveland Browns. Be the 2006 Cleveland Browns,’ “ Edwards said. Browns Head Coach Romeo Crennel said the Browns plan to wear a jersey patch in honor of Willis. “He blazed the trail for guys like myself to be able to be sitting here talking to you today,” Crennel said. “We are more than appreciative of everything that he’s done.” Hall of Fame Executive Director Steve Perry counts himself among blacks who are where they are partly because of Willis. “Bill Willis is one of the true heroes in the history of pro football,” Perry said. “The courage and leadership exemplified by him while leading the cause to break down racial barriers is a model for all of us to live by.” Willis was the center of Paul Brown’s great Cleveland defenses. He had an Adonis build, a lineman’s strength and sprinter’s speed. He earned All-America honors at Ohio State in 1943 and ‘44. Current Buckeye Head Coach Jim Tressel said Willis made a “profound impact” on the sport. “Even as recently as this fall, Mr. Willis was serving as a powerful role model for our players and coaches,” Tressel said. “No. 99 will be missed greatly, but we will draw strength from his life.” Reach Canton Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.