A Pioneer and An All-Time Great

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 25, 2007

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Just two years ago, longtime Cleveland Browns guard Gene Hickerson was named to the 2007 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The former University of Mississippi joined an illustrious list of former Brown offensive and defensive lineman enshrined in Canton.

Among the first of several Cleveland standouts to be chosen to pro football’s ultimate fraternity was also a pioneer that helped integrate college and professional football. Bill Willis was one of the first blacks to play professional football and by the end of his career, he proved to be one of the game’s all-time greats.

Born in Columbus, Ohio on October 5, 1921, Willis attended Columbus East High School where he both ran track and played football. His older brother, Claude, was an All State fullback at the school. However, Bill carved his own niche as an offensive lineman and received All-State honors in his senior year.

Willis would eventually attend Ohio State University in 1941, but he didn’t his football career with the Buckeyes immediately. At the time, head coach Francis Schmidt refused to play black ballplayers. Also at his size of 202, some considered Willis too small to play college football.

Willis would focus primarily on track during his freshman year. Much like in his high school days, the young Willis excelled in the 60-yard and 100-yard events. But it would take a major coaching change at Columbus that would change Willis’ career forever.

Ohio State would fire eventually Coach Schmidt and hire a coach that changed the Buckeyes’ and Willis’ fortunes. New OSU head coach Paul Brown had no problem playing black ballplayers and he also favored quickness over size. Willis eventually became a starter as a sophomore in 1942.

That year the Buckeyes would win the Big Ten Conference and were eventually voted national champions by the Associated Press. Before the 1943 season, the Ohio State team was decimated by inductions into the war effort.

Willis volunteered for the army, but was declared 4F. However, it didn’t hurt him on the field as he was a first team All-Big Ten selection. A year later, the Buckeyes completed an undefeated season, and Willis was named to the UPI’s and Look Magazine’s All-America teams. He would also play in the 1944 College All-Star Game at Chicago.

Much like when he graduated high school, Willis faced prejudice at the end of the collegiate career. In 1945, the NFL hadn’t allowed a African-American to play since 1933. That year, Willis served as athletic director and head football coach at Kentucky State University, a historically black university.

But Willis was still a player at heart. He considered playing in Canada in 1946 when he heard about a rival football league that was being formed in the U.S., the All-American Football Conference.

Most importantly his college coach, Paul Brown, was to be in charge of the Cleveland team, the Cleveland Browns. He wrote to Brown asking for a tryout. Without a formal invitation, Willis’ official status was a walk-on.

During his “tryout”, he lined up as the middle man on a five-man defensive front. The extremely quick 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 coach Brown made a personal check and found that his recruit hadn’t been offside at all, just exceptionally fast and agile in his defensive charge.

Willis would eventually make the team, and a few days later the Browns also signed African American fullback Marion Motley. The pair became the first modern-day black football players to play professional football a full year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Willis and Motley would face numerous racism along the way. The pair were forbidden by law from competing against white players in Miami, and were required to sit out their game against the Miami Seahawks.

Coach Brown would give both men an extra $500 in their checks, and told Willis he would take care of the problem. The following year, Miami disappeared from the league.

On the field, Willis began with the Browns by playing both offense and defense, but changes in substitution rules soon allowed him to concentrate on the defensive middle guard position.

As a pro, Willis weighed between 210 and 215 pounds but was listed at 225 as a psychological ploy. The Browns won their league title every year they played in the AAFC, and Willis was named as an All League player after three of those four years.

When the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, Willis was still a dominant force. He was selected for the Pro Bowl in during his first three seasons (1950-52) in the league. While he played both sides of the line, it was at the middle guard position that he earned most of his acclaim.

Lightning quickness was Willis’ constant trademark, but opponents remember he was a solid blocker and devastating tackler as well. One of his most memorable moments was a 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.

Willis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. That same year, he was inducted as a charter member of the Ohio State Varsity Hall of Fame. Six years previously, Willis inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Ohio State retired Willis’ No. 99 jersey at halftime of their November 3, 2007 game against Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Willis went to the emergency room after suffering a massive cerebral stroke on Thanksgiving 2007, then died a few days later with his family at his bedside.

Not only was he a pioneer in his sport, Willis set the standard for versatility and dominance in it as well. He overcame prejudice and racism and became one of the game’s greatest players.

NOTE: The Pro Football Hall of Fame contributed to this article.