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Bill Willis


Bill Willis – Middle Guard

Bill Willis wasn't just a great football player but also a historical figure in the advancement of African Americans in sports and society while playing middle guard, the equivalent of middle linebacker in today's game, for the Browns from 1946-53. He and teammate Marion Motley, a fullback and a fellow Hall of Famer who was signed to serve as Willis' roommate, are credited with permanently breaking the color barrier in pro football when they appeared in the Browns' first game ever on Sept. 6, 1946, the season opener against the Miami Seahawks at Cleveland in the new All-America Football Conference. It marked the first time that an African American had appeared in a pro football game since 1933, and preceded by more than six months Jackie Robinson's much-celebrated breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Willis, one of just two defensive players among the 15 Browns players enshrined in the HOF, was an anchor on Cleveland teams that made it to the league championship game in each of Willis' eight seasons, winning five times. With his excellent quickness helping him to overcome the fact he was just 213 pounds, he was named all-league in three of his four NFL seasons while going to the Pro Bowl twice. However, his most lasting legacy may be the fact he refused to fight back against the many racial taunts he received, knowing that if he did so, it would have hurt the cause of African Americans in sports and elsewhere. Willis' decision to be different as a teenager set into motion his journey into history. Not wanting to be compared to his older brother, Claude, who had been an all-state fullback at the school a few years earlier, Willis opted to play defensive line at Columbus (Ohio) East High School and went on to become honorable mention all-state himself. He went to college just a few miles away at Ohio State, and although he was but 202 pounds at the time, he had a coach in Paul Brown who favored quickness over size and gave him the chance to play. As just a sophomore, he helped lead the 1942 Buckeyes to the school's first national championship, and in 1944, he was an All-American.

Realizing that there were no African Americans in the NFL when he left Ohio State, he pursued a coaching career by being named head coach and athletic director at Kentucky State in 1945. By then, Brown had been hired as head coach of the Cleveland team that would begin play in the AAFC the following year. When training camp opened in 1946, Brown got word to Willis that it would be worth his while to try out for the team. He did and easily made the squad after repeatedly blowing past offensive linemen, including HOF center Frank "Gunner" Gatski, in practice sessions and crashing into Otto Graham, irritating the HOF quarterback. Willis' greatest moment as a player came in the Browns' first year in the NFL in 1950 when he somehow chased down speedy New York Giants running back Charlie "Choo-Choo" Roberts from behind at the Cleveland 7 in a special American Conference playoff game. The Giants didn't score on the possession, and the Browns ended up winning 8-3 to advance to the league title game, in which they edged the Los Angeles Rams 30-28.

– Steve King