The Cleveland Browns celebrate Black History Month, in part, by holding a panel discussion in conjunction with the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Thursday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The discussion, which will be moderated by Pro Football Hall of Fame President and Executive Director Steve Perry, will include former Browns greats Bobby Mitchell, John Wooten, Paul Wiggin and Greg Pruitt. ClevelandBrowns.com will provide have complete follow up coverage of the event.
The early Browns teams made the kind of history both on and off the field that people are still talking about more than a half-century later.
In their first 10 years of existence from 1946-55, the Browns went to an unprecedented 10 straight league championship games. Yes, that’s right, they played for the title every single year.
They won seven championships during that span – all four that were handed out in the short existence of the All-America Football Conference (1946-49) and then three more in the NFL (1950, ’54 and ’55).
In 1948, they fashioned a perfect 15-0 record en route to winning the AAFC crown. They are one of just two teams in modern pro football history – the other being the 1972 Miami Dolphins -- to finish with a perfect record and win a league championship.
But as good as they were on the field – and they were obviously off the charts in that respect – the early Browns were even better off the field. Indeed, what they did there was much more important in the big picture for it greatly affected society, it continues to affect it now and it will keep doing so for generations to come.
And during Black History Month, this is the perfect time to tell the story again.
When two Pro Football Hall of Famers in middle guard Bill Willis and fullback Marion Motley were in the starting lineup in the first regular-season Browns game ever played, a rousing 44-0 victory over the Miami Seahawks on Sept. 6, 1946 before a then pro football-record crowd of 60,135 at Cleveland Stadium, they permanently broke the color barrier coming out of World War II not just in pro football, but in pro sports overall.
But wait a minute. The history books tell us differently. They don’t even mention Willis and Motley. Rather, it is stated that the distinction of being the person to permanently break the color barrier after the war goes to baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947.
That was a little more than eight months after Motley and Willis debuted with the Browns. So what’s the story?
Unlike now, baseball was a much bigger sport than pro football in the United States at that time, and just like now, New York was a much, much bigger media market than Cleveland. Robinson was playing the most popular sport in the country, and doing so in one of the buroughs of the country’s biggest media market, while Willis and Motley were playing a less-popular sport in a smaller market. Add to that the fact that in the history of this country, a mere eight months is like a veritable blink of an eye, and it’s easy to see why Robinson got placed onto the front page while Willis and Motley were pushed to page 2.
But the importance of what Willis and Motley did comes with the realization that when Robinson got called up from the Dodgers’ Class AAA team in Montreal, he called Willis and Motley for any pointers they could give him since they had already been through the challenging experience he was about to undertake. That is, Willis and Motley were the real pioneers.
Hall of Fame head coach and general manager Paul Brown was the person who had the courage and foresight to bring Willis and Motley into pro football. He judged people not by their color, but rather how they should be judged – that is, simply by their ability to do the job.
Brown had some history with Willis and Motley when he signed them. Willis, from Columbus, Ohio, had played for Brown at Ohio State in 1942 as he coached the Buckeyes to their first national championship. Before Brown went to Ohio State, he coached at Massillon (Ohio) High School, and Motley had played against Brown’s teams while at Canton McKinley, the Tigers’ arch rival.
But Brown didn’t stop there, once again reaching into his background a year later in 1947 to sign punter/tight end Horace Gillom, a Cleveland Browns Legend who had played for him at Massillon. Brown would later call Gillom “the greatest high school athlete I ever coached.”
In 1950, the Browns’ first year in the NFL after the AAFC went out of business, Brown added another standout African American in HOF defensive end Len Ford. On and on it went, Brown signing one African American player after another while a number of teams in the league had yet to integrate themselves.
And even after Brown left the Browns, their progressive efforts in diversity continued. In 1969, a year after he had retired as a Cleveland Browns Legend running back, Ernie Green was hired as running backs coach. As such, he became one of the first African American coaches in NFL history. The man who hired Green was head coach Blanton Collier, who was an assistant under Brown from 1946-53 when he was signing all those African Americans. So Collier had seen first-hand how being open-minded can benefit a team.
In 1972, the Browns added another African American assistant when they hired Al Tabor as their first special teams coordinator. Even then, three years after Green’s arrival, there were not many African American coaches in the NFL.
Paul Warfield is known mostly as a HOF wide receiver with the Browns, but he became one of the highest-ranking African Americans in NFL management when he was named assistant to Browns owner Art Modell in 1981. Warfield, from Warren (Ohio) Harding High School and Ohio State, had been working with the Browns as assistant director of pro personnel under Allan Webb. His new duties included working in player relations and in league matters.
Finally, in 2005, Romeo Crennel was hired as the first African American head coach in Browns history. There are many, many teams that have not done that yet, eight years later.
Cleveland has always been a leading city when it comes to placing African Americans into prominent positions. HOF outfielder Larry Doby was the first African American player in the American League when the Indians signed him in July 1947, less than three months after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers.
Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of a major American city when Cleveland voters elected him in 1967.
In 1975, the Indians hired Frank Robinson as the first African American manager in major league baseball history.
And it all began 67 years ago when Paul Brown signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley to play for his first Browns team in 1946, and at the same time provided yet another reason why they call him “The Father of Modern Football.”