Summer of 2016 – Time to remember Cleveland Browns Bill Willis

Sep 21, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns helmet on the field before a game against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns helmet on the field before a game against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Browns legend Bill Willis was more than just a Hall of Fame player.

I initially demurred when my Dawg Pound Daily editors asked me to write about Bill Willis.

Call it a post-Cleveland Cavaliers hangover, Cleveland Indians binging or just mid-summer laziness – I wasn’t motivated to reminisce about a player who retired in 1953, the year after I was born. I never saw Willis play, he was just another legendary Cleveland Browns player that my late dad talked about – but not nearly as much or in as glowing terms as others I was too young to see: Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Dante Lavelli.

Then when deep-diving into an overstuffed drawer looking for paper clips, I stumbled on a team photo of the All-American Football Conference Champion Browns from 1946, the year it all began. As only one of two black players of those 37 inaugural Browns in the photo, Willis was easy to spot – and in this summer of racial tension – he merits special recognition.

Recruited for his speed to Ohio State by then head coach Paul Brown (before he moved on to Great Lakes Academy), Willis was All-Big Ten in 1943 and earned All-American honors for the undefeated 1944 Buckeyes – as a 202-pound nose guard lined up across from center. That’s not a typo: 202 pounds, about half the weight of current Browns’ nose tackle Danny Shelton.

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But it wasn’t his weight that kept Willis from moving right from college to pro football – it was his skin color.

In a league that is now about 70 percent African-American, it’s hard to believe that there were no black players in the NFL in 1945. With that door closed, Willis was about to coach all-black Kentucky State University until a Columbus sportswriter suggested he reach out to Brown, who was now running the Cleveland franchise in the fledgling All-American Football Conference, a post-World War II competitor to the NFL.

Willis wowed his old coach at his initial tryout, made the team and broke American pro sports’ color barrier in 1946 – a full year before baseball’s Jackie Robinson did it with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League and Larry Doby with the Indians.

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Willis, later joined by black teammates Motley, Len Ford and Horace Gillom, helped lead the Browns to championships in all four years (1946-49) of the AAFC.

Those players were mainstays of the 1950 NFL champion Browns – and while Dawg Pound Daily readers know that Graham led the drive and Lou Groza kicked the winning field goal against the Los Angeles Rams to win the 1950 NFL Championship – the Browns wouldn’t have even played for a title if it weren’t for Willis’ legendary speed.

In the Eastern Conference playoff, Willis ran down New York Giants Gene “Choo-Choo” Roberts on a breakaway fourth quarter reception, preserving the Browns’ 8-3 victory. Three more NFL title game appearances from 1951 through 1953 and Willis was rightly inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. As a 202-pound nose tackle – a forerunner to today’s Monster Back. Or more appropriately, think of J.J. Watt, Ronnie Lott, Brian Urlacher and Alan Page in a single player.

As great a player as Willis was – his dignity overcoming prejudice and discrimination – his breaking of pro football’s color barrier nearly two decades before passage of the Civil Rights Act stands as a greater achievement.

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And one of the reasons why Condoleezza Rice, Henry Aaron and millions of football fans of every race remain loyal Browns fans to this day.