Countdown to 2020: Best Cleveland Browns player to wear No. 30
The best player to wear 30 for the Cleveland Browns can be found in Canton
The countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 30 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 30: Bill Willis.
The story of Bill Willis is one that can not be overlooked in the history of the NFL. His story began in Columbus, Ohio where Willis was raised since he was a toddler. Willis went on to play football at Ohio State where he found glory and success as a member of the Buckeyes.
Willis was a key piece of the Buckeyes’ 1942 National Championship where he was a two-starter. An All-American in both 1943 and 1944, Willis was the first African American to reach that level of achievement at Ohio State. A powerful blocker with unapparelled speed for a lineman, Willis, who was as equally devastating on defense, was simply better at football than everyone he faced.
After college, Willis went on to be the head coach at Kentucky State, as the professional ranks of football had yet to break the color barrier in 1945. That all changed the following year when the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference came into existence. Head coach Paul Brown, who also coached Willis at Ohio State, was not bound by the same archaic views as the more established league.
Coach Brown did not officially invite Willis to training camp, but instead, Willis received an informal invitation to the Browns’ first training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio from a sports writer. However, once he arrived in Bowling Green, Willis showed up and he showed out. Coach Brown offered Willis his first contract the night of the first practice. With that stoke of Willis’ pen, the color barrier had been shattered in professional football. Days later, Marion Motley also joined the Browns.
Willis was immediately a two-way starter for the Browns playing at right guard on offense and at middle guard on defense. Listed at 6-foot-2 and only 210lbs, Willis played the game like he was 50 or 60 pounds heavier but with the speed of a sprinter. Behind the blocking of Willis, the running of Motley, and the arm of Otto Graham, the Browns proved to be unstoppable in the AAFC winning the championship in every year of the league’s existence.
In 1950, the Browns were absolved into the NFL, and their dominance continued. It was during that season that Willis made the play that he would be remembered for the most. During the divisional round of the playoffs against the New York Giants, Willis made the game-saving tackle that secured the win for the Browns and sent them to the Championship game. The Browns would go on to the win the NFL Championship their first year in the ‘supposedly superior’ league.
Willis would go on to play three more seasons for the Browns earning first-team All-Pro honors as well as being named to the Pro Bowl in each of those three seasons. After Willis retired from football following the 1953 season, he went on to become the assistant recreation commissioner for the city of Cleveland. Later Willis would be named the chairman of the Ohio Youth Commission.
In 1971, Willis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and six years later he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Willis was also named to the 1940s All-Decade Team. The Cleveland Browns inducted Willis into their Ring of Honor in 2001 as well as their Legends Program.
In 2007, the Ohio State Buckeyes retired Willis’ number 99, and in doing so he became the first lineman and defensive player to have his number retired. Willis passed away just 24 days after his number was retired.
Bill Willis was a true pioneer of the game and an all-time great and is without a doubt the best player to ever wear number 30 for the Cleveland Browns.
Honorable mention: Bernie Parrish.