Family members of Bill Willis and Marion Motley, two legendary Browns alumni and Pro Football Hall of Famers who were among the first African Americans to reintegrate the then-segregated ranks of pro football in the 1940s, will be at SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI on Sunday for a special pregame moment commemorating the legacy of Willis and Motley's historic careers.
Bill Willis Jr., Clem Willis and Tony Johnson Motley will join family members of Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, two of the other first African American professional football players, on the field before kickoff for a moment of recognition after the NFL invited each of them to the game. Willis Jr. and Willis are the sons of Bill, who passed away in 2007, and Motley is the grandson of Marion, who passed away in 1999.
The moment will certainly be powerful, one that the trio of family members hopes will amplify the importance and awareness of what their relatives meant for the game.
"We're all very excited," Willis Jr. said. "We've talked to members of the other families, and we know they are elated and extremely proud to be a part of what they feel is a historical moment. We just hope the spirit of our fathers and grandfathers are with us as we take this journey and do them proud."
Willis was a defensive lineman who played eight seasons with the Browns from 1946-53. He was nominated to the Pro Bowl in three of his last four years with Cleveland and was an All-Pro player in his last three seasons.
Ten days after Willis signed with the Browns in 1946 to officially break the sport's color barrier, legendary coach Paul Brown signed Motley, a fullback who spent eight years in Cleveland and earned All-Pro honors in 1948 and 1950. Motley is seventh in rushing yards in franchise history and third in league history with 5.7 yards per attempt.
Excelling at the game of football was far from the biggest challenge Willis and Motley faced, though. Both men fought through constant acts of racism on and off the field, such as dirty plays that referees did not call as penalties, discrimination at hotels during road trips and receiving death threats in the mail.
Willis and Motley didn't let those acts stop them from showing the world what they can do. As they proved to the rest of the league that they were among the best players at their positions, professional teams slowly began to look beyond skin color when it came to building rosters.
"(My dad's) mantra was 'lift as we climb'," Clem Willis said. "So as he climbed the ladder, he would lift other people with him both in the game and in the community. That's the way he lived his life."
Willis Jr., Willis and Motley are all pleased that they'll get to share the recognition Sunday with family members from Washington and Strode. Washington was the first African American to sign an NFL contract in 1946 when the league re-integrated — Fritz Pollard was the first African American to play in the NFL in 1920, although the league didn't have another Black player for another two decades after he and eight other Black players were removed from the league in 1926. Strode joined Washington on the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 and became the second African American player to sign an NFL deal.
Willis and Motley originally joined professional football in 1946, too, although the Browns were a part of the All-America Football Conference. They later joined the NFL in 1950.
Family members from the quartet of trailblazers were last together in-person when the documentary "Forgotten Four" was filmed and released in 2014. The story of the four players was also told in a book called, "The Forgotten First," released by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber last September.
The Willis and Motley relatives were last together Jan. 9, when they were honorary Dawg Pound captains for the Browns' Week 18 game against the Bengals, and the trio is proud that the league is bringing them back together — including the Strode and Washington families — for its biggest game of the year.
"We've never been on a stage such as this," Motley said. "This is like the top of the mountain, so to speak. It doesn't get any better than this, and it's totally awesome and gratifying that we all have an opportunity to share it together."
The Willis brothers and Motley all expressed wishes, though, that the recognition and remembrance of Bill Willis and Marion Motley doesn't stop after the pregame moment. Their impact on the sport will always be worthy of more attention as new generations grow into the game, but showcasing their legacies in front of a Super Bowl audience will certainly ensure that all generations of football fans will have a moment to recognize how they changed football for the better.
"I think history is important because it helps us to understand what's in the past and forge better ways for the future," Clem Willis said. "It's a work in progress, but many strides have been made over the years, and they will continue to do so. Hopefully something like this will help to catapult change in the future so it can happen more exponentially.
"It's a story that needs to be told."