In 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson signed with baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, four players smashed pro football's race barrier. The trailblazers were Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who signed with the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference, and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who signed with the National Football League's Los Angeles Rams. Injuries ended Washington's career after three seasons, while Strode played just the 1946 season.
Motley and Willis, however, went on to have Hall of Fame careers. Motley joined the Browns as a 26-year-old rookie. Browns' coach Paul Brown was already familiar with Motley, having coached the big fullback at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station during World War II.
He also knew Motley from his high school playing days in Canton, Ohio. Paul coached football at neighboring Massillon High School. Motley, with his powerful running on Cleveland's famed trap and draw series, made the Browns' ground game go, but he is also credited with vital contributions to the Cleveland passing attack, because his blocking for quarterback Otto Graham was exceptional.
At 6-1 and 232 pounds, Motley was an imposing figure. The constant threat of him hurtling up the middle kept the defenses honest. Marion was the AAFC's all-time rushing leader and also led the NFL in ground gaining in his initial season in the league in 1950. That year, in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the powerful Motley rushed for 188 yards on just 11 carries for a 17.1 yards-per-carry average.
In his nine professional seasons, he amassed 4,720 yards on 828 carries for an amazing 5.7 yards-per-carry average. When he retired Marion held a host of Browns' club records. In addition to be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1968, Motley was named in 1994 to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He once again made history when he became the second black player to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall in 1968.
After retiring as a player, Motley struggled to find his way back into professional football as a coach at a time when black coaches were rare. He occasionally served as a scout for the Browns and Washington Redskins. He went on to work in a post office and was a supervisor for the Ohio Lottery.
Motley died on June 27, 1999 at the age of 79, but his legacy will always be remembered.
The University of Nevada, Motley's alma mater, commemorated the 40th anniversary of his Enshrinement into the Hall during the 2008 football season. An image of Motley was shown on the scoreboard during a football game against Boise State. The school also put together a series of features on Motley on its official website to share his story with Wolf Pack fans and honor the legacy that Motley left on the Wolf Pack and professional football. A local sports bar and grill also renamed a menu item the "Motley Burger" as part of the tribute to Motley.
The Cleveland Browns created the Marion Motley Scholarship Program to honor Motley's legacy. The scholarship helps local high school students pursue their dreams of a college education. The team also inducted him into their Ring of Honor in 2010.