Countdown to 2020: Best Cleveland Browns player to wear No. 36

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 8: A detailed view of a Cleveland Browns logo against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 14-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 8: A detailed view of a Cleveland Browns logo against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 14-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The best No. 36 for the Cleveland Browns is a trailblazing Hall of Famer

The countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 36 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 36: Marion Motley.

Marion Motley is truly one of the great football players in the history of the sport. Motley’s primary jersey number during his professional playing career was 76, but due to the Browns retiring that number for fellow Hall of Famer, Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza, he was this countdown’s entry for number 76. However, there is no way Motley could be left off any list involving the Browns’ all-time greats. Even though he only wore the number for two seasons, Motley is the best Browns player to ever don the number 36.

Motley was born in Leesburg, Georgia on June 5th, 1920. However, his family would move to Canton, Ohio when Motley was just a toddler and that is where he would grow up. Canton was a fitting place for Motley to realize his athletic excellence considering it would also be the place he would later be forever immortalized.

Motley’s relationship with future Browns’ head coach Paul Brown would go through many twists and turns throughout the years. Their relationship began as rivals, as Motley played high school football for Canton McKinley while Brown was the head coach of Massillon Washington high school. Their football journeys would collide once again during World War II, as Motley, who enlisted in the Navy, played for Brown during his service time as the Great Lakes Naval Station head coach.

After the war, Motley went on to work at a steel mill, while Brown began preparations to be the inaugural head coach of the newly formed Cleveland Browns in the All-America Football Conference. Even though Motley would be denied a tryout initially, he would finally get his opportunity after Brown decided that his Browns would be among the very first professional teams to break the color barrier. Along with his Browns’ teammate Bill Willis, Motley would be among the first four African American players to break the archaic racial barrier that had been in place up until 1946.

Once on the field, there would be no denying Motley’s greatness, as the immensely talented all-around fullback would prove to have no peers. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 232 lbs. at a time when that size alone would have made him an offensive lineman, Motley displayed speed and athleticism that had never been witnessed at his position before. Coach Brown used Motley’s deceptive speed as a weapon and developed trap blocking schemes that would give the bruising rusher running lanes.

During the Browns’ dominance of the AAFC, that saw the team from Cleveland crowned champions all four years of the league’s existence, Motley was the league’s preeminent rusher. When the league folded after the 1949 season, Motley was the AAFC’s all-time leading rusher with 3,024 yards. What gets lost in all of Motley’s accomplishments is the fact that he was a two-way player, as he was also one of the best linebackers in the AAFC.

Motley’s dominance spilled over into the NFL when the Browns franchise was absorbed by the league in 1950. As it often did, Motley’s success mirrored the Browns, as they won the NFL Championship their first year in the league. The fullback led the NFL in rushing in 1950 with 810 yards, despite only averaging 12 carries per game.

By this point in his career, the passing game of Otto Graham had become just as deadly as the Browns’ devastating rushing attack. To compensate for the shift in offensive philosophy, coach Brown invented the draw play to give Motley the opportunity to catch defenders off guard. The play worked like a charm, as it is still a staple of every team with a successful passing attack.

After sustaining a knee injury during training camp in 1951, Motley’s usage declined as did his rushing statistics. As it is in most sports, the last thing a player loses is their power, and that adage proved to be true for Motley. Even though his days of sprinting past would-be defenders who believed they had the angle were in his rearview mirror, Motley still possessed the ability to lower his shoulder and force defenders to make business decisions.

After a 1953 season that saw his playing time and usage become glaringly sparse coach Brown decided to move on from Motley. Being told that he would not make the team in 1954, Motley decided it would be better to walk away than be cut. Still owning his player rights, coach Brown decided to trade Motley to the Pittsburgh Steelers for fullback Ed Modzelewski in 1955. Motley played eight games at linebacker for the Steelers in 1955 before being released.

With his playing career behind him, Motley wanted to continue in football as a coach. However, Motley was rejected at each turn and believed racism to be each team’s motivation for not hiring him. Sadly, his theory was right on the money, as African Americans at that time were welcomed as players but not yet as coaches.

Motley was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. He was the second African American inducted into the Hall, the first was a year prior when Emlen Tunnell was enshrined. Motley was named to the NFL’s 1940 All-Decade Team, as well as the NFL’s top 100 players of all-time. The legendary fullback is also in the Browns Ring of Honor and their Legends Program.

Next. Best Browns player to wear 37. dark

It would be impossible to correctly tell the story of the NFL and leave Motley’s name out of the discussion. Marion Motley is among the greatest to ever play the game and he is definitely the best player to ever wear number 36 for the Cleveland Browns.