Bill Willis was a legendary defensive lineman, but his contributions to society were equally if not more enormous. Even before Jackie Robinson suited up with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Bill Willis helped to pave the way by being one of two Pro Football players to break the color line, staring in the 1946 season, along with fellow Brown (and fellow future Hall of Famer) Marion Motley.
That was the inaugural season for the All American Football Conference (AAFC) a rival league to the NFL. Coach Paul Brown knew Willis, who starred for him at Ohio State and was part of the 1942 national championship team. Willis graduated from Ohio State in 1945 but was not eligible to play in the NFL because of his race. Accordingly, he spent a year coaching at Kentucky State University before being invited to play for the new Browns and his former coach.
More from Browns All-Time Lists
- Top 10 all-time best Cleveland Browns players since ’99
- Cleveland Browns top 10 quarterbacks in franchise history
- Cleveland Browns: 12 best UDFAs since 1999
- Cleveland Browns: Best 5 draft picks of the past 5 years
- Cleveland Browns 5 worst draft picks of the past 5 years
1946 was also the year that the Cleveland Rams, displaced by the new, better-financed Browns, moved to Los Angeles. The Rams also introduced two additional African American players in Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, a few weeks after the Browns’ regular season had begun. Thus Pro Football established itself as a racially integrated sport a year before Major League Baseball, though for some reason the significance of integrating Pro Football does not receive the attention that it should. Perhaps it was because four individuals broke the color line in the same season, while Jackie Robinson was the sole focal point in 1947 with the baseball Dodgers.
Apart from the huge societal impact of Willis and Motley, they were both incredible ballplayers. Motley led the AAFC in rushing yards in 1948 and also led the NFL in rushing in 1950 and was selected to. But Willis was equally, if not more outstanding.
He played defensive line for eight years and was first or second-team All-Pro every year that he played. He, like several other Browns including Otto Graham and Jim Brown, elected to retire at the top of his game, though he could certainly have played at a high level for several more years. Willis was one of the top defensive stars of his generation.
Like Otto Graham and Motley, Willis was in the title game every year that he played.