Bill Willis, at 6-2 and 210 pounds, was small by pro football standards in 1946, yet he performed in a class by himself, particularly on defense. In the eight years he played for the Cleveland Browns from 1946 through 1953, he was a first-team All-League selection seven times and a second-team choice once. He also played in three NFL Pro Bowls.
Willis, an African American, came to his first pro training camp as a comparatively small man seeking a job in a big man's sport that had, for about 15 years, been a whites-only game. Lined up as the middle man on a five-man defensive front, Willis overwhelmed the center four straight times, each time crashing into quarterback Otto Graham.
Willis' charge was so quick that the coaches felt he had to be offside. But head coach Paul Brown, who had coached Willis at Ohio State, made a personal check and found that his recruit hadn't been offside at all, just exceptionally fast and agile in his defensive charge. That very night, Brown signed Willis to his first pro contract, helping to permanently break pro football's "color barrier" a full year in advance of Jackie Robinson doing the same in major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Willis played both offense and defense for the Browns but it was at the middle guard position that he earned lasting admiration and acclaim. Lightning quickness was his constant trademark but opponents remember he was a solid blocker and devastating tackler as well. It was Willis' touchdown-saving tackle in a playoff game against the New York Giants that enabled the Browns to continue their quest for the 1950 championship their first year in the NFL after four dominating seasons in the All-America Football Conference.
The former guard retired from the game after the 1953 season. After he hung up his cleats, Willis became the director of the Ohio Youth Commission.
He received the highest honor in football when he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Browns Ring of Honor. His alma mater, Ohio State University, retired his number during halftime of a game and presented him with a replica of the 1942 Ohio State championship ring.
Willis died on Nov. 27, 2007 at the age of 86.