African American Public Relations Corporation

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Bill Willis, 1921 - 2007
Hall of Famer With Cleveland Browns Helped Break Modern Pro Football's Color Barrier

From Times Staff and Wire Reports
November 29, 2007

Bill Willis, a Hall of Fame guard with the Cleveland Browns and one of four black players to break modern professional football's color barrier in 1946, has died. He was 86.

Willis, who was also Ohio State University's first black football All-American, died Tuesday at Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, of complications from a stroke.

Playing both offense and defense for the Browns from their inaugural season of 1946 until 1953, Willis won acclaim as a defensive middle guard on a five-man front. Recognized as the first black full-time starter in the sport's modern era, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

"Bill Willis is one of the true heroes in the history of pro football," Hall of Fame President Steve Perry said in a statement. "The courage and leadership exemplified by him while leading the cause to break down racial barriers is a model for all of us all to live by."

Willis and fellow Hall of Fame teammate Marion Motley broke into the All-America Football Conference in 1946, the same year Woody Strode and Kenny Washington of the Los Angeles Rams first played in the National Football League. Willis had been the last surviving member of the group, which helped re-integrate pro football a year before Major League Baseball had its first black player when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Starting with Fritz Pollard, 13 African Americans played in the NFL from 1920 to 1933, according to the Hall of Fame. But historians suggest that an unwritten agreement between league owners kept black players off rosters from 1934 until after World War II.Willis was a key part of Ohio State's 1942 national championship squad and an All-American in 1943 and 1944. He was a devastating blocker on offense and a punishing, relentless tackler on defense, despite his 6-foot-2, 213-pound frame.

Paul Brown, his coach at Ohio State and Cleveland, later said Willis "had the quickest defensive charge after the ball was snapped of any defensive lineman I ever saw."

"Paul made a difference," Willis told a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch earlier this month. "There were only two or three other blacks in the whole league at the time, but I hardly noticed. Paul treated me the same as everyone else."

After leaving Ohio State, where he also ran track, Willis coached the football team at Kentucky State, a historically black college, for one year. But at age 24 he wanted to play football, not coach, so he agreed to a deal with Montreal of the Canadian Football League.

Before heading north, Willis attended a tryout for a new team called the Cleveland Browns, who were led by his old college coach. He performed so well that Brown quickly signed him to a contract for $4,000.

Next to sign was Motley, who had played for Brown on the Great Lakes Naval Station football team during World War II but wound up working at a steel mill.

Willis and Motley became teammates and lifelong friends.

They endured taunts, racial slurs and dirty play from opponents on the field, and Brown kept them home from a game at Miami in 1946 because of death threats.

But their teammates welcomed them."Bill had the respect of everyone on our team, no exceptions," Dante Lavelli, a Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Browns, said in a story on the team website Wednesday.

Willis helped the Browns advance to the league championship game in each of his eight seasons.

The Browns won the AAFC title all four years of the league's existence, 1946-49.

After the upstart league was absorbed into the established NFL, the Browns won the 1950 NFL championship game against the Rams. They were league runner-up the next three seasons.

Willis was named to the Pro Bowl three times in the early 1950s.

William Karnet Willis was born Oct. 5, 1921, in Columbus. After his football career ended, he worked with the Cleveland recreation department and became director of the Ohio Youth Commission.

Willis, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971, had his No. 99 jersey retired at halftime during the Wisconsin-Ohio State game Nov. 3 at Ohio Stadium.

"He was to football what Jackie Robinson was to baseball, and he did it before Jackie Robinson," Ohio State's current football coach, Jim Tressel, told reporters before that game. "I'm not sure we have talked enough about Bill Willis."

Willis' survivors include sons Bill Jr. and Clem of Columbus and Dan of Atlanta and four grandchildren. His wife of 56 years, Odessa, died in 2003.


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