The Groundbreaker

Bill Willis's letter to his college coach and mentor, Paul Brown, helped change the face of professional football

By Jean-Jacques Taylor

Soon after the death of legendary football coach Paul Brown in 1991, Mike Brown spent some time going through his father’s belongings.

He studied photos and looked at the plaques and awards his father had received. He read cards and correspondence thanking his father for favors large and small.

One letter stood out. Maybe it was the neat handwriting that made it as easy to read as on the day it had been written more than four decades earlier. Perhaps it was the name on the return address that caught Mike Brown’s eye: Willis.

It was a letter from a man to his mentor asking for advice. Bill Willis, a former star at Ohio State, was now head coach and athletics director at Kentucky State College.

Willis wasn’t sure if he should pursue a coaching opportunity at Wilberforce College or find a different line of work. After all, the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League wanted him.

Would Brown consider giving him a tryout with his new team in Cleveland?

Willis, a young black man, felt comfortable writing to Paul Brown, a white man, because their relationship had been built on trust in an era when racism was an accepted part of life in the U.S.

When Willis arrived on the Ohio State campus, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still more than 20 years away from being ratified. His bond with Brown, the Buckeyes’ head coach, was forged at a time when African Americans had to sit at the back of buses and in the balcony in movie theaters. 

It was a period when blacks had few options when it came to pro sports. Those who played baseball could play professionally in the Negro Leagues, but there weren’t many choices for those who wanted to play basketball or football.

Willis’s letter to Brown helped change that. It served as the catalyst for his being among the first four African Americans to integrate professional football.

Color barriers 

“The letter was dignified. He wasn’t asking for a job, because it was just assumed there couldn’t be a job,” Mike Brown said. “He wished my dad well with the new team and told him what he was planning to do with his life. My father had just started the Cleveland Browns, and Bill was asking for advice. 

“It was interesting reading that letter because it helped put the thought in my father’s head.”

Brown, unlike his predecessor at Ohio State, Francis Schmidt, wanted the best players on his squad, black or white. He welcomed African American players, which is how Willis wound up with the Buckeyes. 

Willis, wearing No. 99, starred as a two-way lineman from 1942 to 1944. He helped the Buckeyes win a national title in 1942 and was named to the All-American team in 1943 and 1944.

But Willis wasn’t just a terrific player. He was a good student, and his character was beyond reproach. He had enough self-confidence and restraint to handle the challenges that would inevitably arise if Brown added African American players to his Cleveland roster.

As Brown put his first professional team together, there hadn’t been an African American player in pro football since 1933. A gentlemen’s agreement among NFL owners limited rosters to white players only, a situation historians suggest was initiated by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

In 1946, less than a year after Willis’s letter landed in Brown’s mailbox, he and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns and became the first African Americans to play in the All-America Football Conference.

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier the following year, and in 1950, Earl Lloyd became the NBA’s first black player.

“[My father] didn’t consider himself a banner-carrying pioneer,” said Clem Willis, one of Bill’s three sons. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna break the color barrier for all blacks,’ but he knew by doing the right thing and being the right person, it could help open doors and provide opportunities for others like himself.”

Upgrading the roster

Bill Willis never intended to play football. He wanted to be a good man and a good father, especially because his own father had died when Bill was only four.

A track star at East High School in Columbus, Willis shied away from football because he didn’t want to be compared to his older brother, Claude, a star athlete.

At Ohio State, Willis was a track and field standout in the 60- and 100-yard dashes when Brown first noticed him. After Brown became head football coach in 1942, he wanted to upgrade his roster’s talent. One way to do that was by adding African American players. 

Brown had grown up in Ohio and played football at Washington High School in Massillon with African American players. Later, as head coach at Washington, Brown led his teams to six consecutive victories over Canton McKinley in one of high school football’s storied rivalries.

“It never occurred to him [that black players should be excluded],” Mike Brown said. “If a better player deserved to be starter, then he started. He was offended that anyone would think otherwise. It would be absurd to him.

“I don’t know how to explain how he came to feel that way, but he did. It was something he taught us as kids. He would talk with disdain about some of the things he saw in the South.”

Willis’s high school coach set up an interview with Brown. Willis weighed only about 200 pounds, but Brown favored speed over size.

“My dad went with another guy to talk to Paul,” Clem Willis recalled. “Paul said he could play at Ohio State, but the other [guy] couldn’t because he had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. [Brown] didn’t want his players smoking.

“He had rules. You went by them or you didn’t [play]. My dad respected Paul Brown and his ability to organize and get things done. Paul Brown was a demanding person.”

That appealed to Willis, who appreciated the discipline. Raised in Columbus by his mother and grandmother, Willis was the type of kid who made his bed each morning and cleaned the dishes immediately after eating.

It didn’t take long for Brown to become a father figure to him, a man he trusted and respected. That’s why he felt comfortable asking Brown for a recommendation to become head coach and athletics director at Kentucky State. 

Brown complied. Then, after an 8-2 season at Kentucky State, Willis wrote the letter that spawned the NFL of today, with its African American players, coaches, and general managers. 

Beyond reproach

Brown was intrigued by the idea of adding Willis and Marion Motley, who was already on his radar, to his Cleveland team. But he didn’t respond to Willis’s letter because he didn’t want word to get out that he was considering adding black players to the roster.

He knew there would be anger and opposition. He wanted to handle it in his own way, starting with his own team. Brown wanted his players to see Willis’s talent before they made judgments based on his race.

Brown phoned sportswriter Paul Hornung of the Columbus Dispatch and told him to contact Willis and suggest that the former Buckeye stop by the Browns’ training camp at Bowling Green State University on his way to Montreal.

“My father picked Bill to come to Cleveland because he knew what kind of guy he was,” Mike Brown said. “He knew he could count on him.”

It’s always that way for the first, the groundbreaker. It was that way for Jackie Robinson and Willis and Motley, and for Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, both of whom joined the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL in 1946. The first must be beyond reproach because if he’s not, those who follow are not guaranteed an opportunity.

The tryout

Shortly after Willis arrived at training camp, Hornung bet him a Stetson hat that Brown would give him a chance to make the team. The next morning, Willis received a tryout.

“My father had no idea there was any possibility that Paul Brown put [Hornung] up to doing that,” Clem Willis said.

Brown had Willis go up against center Moe Scarry, a quality player. Willis destroyed him. Four consecutive times, the whistle blew. Four times, Willis dominated the man in front of him.

“The first time he hit me, I fellover backwards into Otto [Graham],
and Otto fell down, too,” Scarry told USA Today in 2006. “Otto said, ‘What the hell happened?’”

“Then we put [Frank] Gatski at center. Same thing. Then we tried a guy named Mel Maceau. Same thing . . .

“Everybody got knocked down. We used to just line up over the ball and snap it. With Willis, though, you had to put the ball as far as you could out in front of you, to get as far away from him as you could. He changed the whole way we snapped the ball.”

That afternoon, Willis signed a contract for $4,000. Brown, who was also trying to sign Motley, asked him not to say anything publicly until the team made an announcement.

Willis knew some team members might not want him on the Browns’ roster. He knew some other owners and players didn’t want him in the league. And he knew there would be challenges when the Browns played in cities such as Miami, where laws prevented African Americans and whites from staying in the same hotels or competing against each other in professional sports.

Three days later, Brown signed Motley.

“Brown told me, ‘[Motley is] as tough as nails, and he’ll be your roommate,’” Willis told USA Today. “I had never even heard of Marion Motley. But I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s great!’”

Winning drove Brown more than anything else. He saw Willis as an outstanding middle guard and Motley as the consummate fullback. 

“Driving to combine from Cincinnati to Indianapolis [years later, my dad and I] talked about bringing Bill and Marion to the Browns,” Mike Brown said. 

“He didn’t talk about the grief he received or the great credit he was given. He said, ‘I brought in Bill and Marion because they were better players.’”

Winning respect

Before their first season, Brown told his black players they should expect to be subjected to indignities on the field, whether they were slurs or eye-gouging or the kind of hurtful mischief that takes place in piles away from the eyes of officials.

“I soon won the respect of my opponents,” Willis said in Myron Cope’s book The Game That Was, published in 1970. 

“They learned that I could take it and dish it out, and I didn’t really have to play dirty ball to hold my own. Speed was my greatest asset, but I could unleash a pretty solid forearm block and a rather devastating tackle.”

Brown implored Willis and Motley to avoid retaliating. He suggested they point to the scoreboard or ask their teammates to take care of any issues. If they did, Brown said, he would do everything in his power to ensure they
received the same treatment as any other member of the team. If that meant changing hotels on the road, so be it. If it meant passing up restaurants that didn’t serve blacks, Brown was fine with that.

At Bowling Green, Motley, Willis, and Horace Gunn, a third African American player on the team, usually stayed in their dorm rooms playing cards rather than deal with any drama that might arise in town.

Some nights, a young boy would sneak upstairs to the second floor,
where only players were allowed, and listen to his heroes tell tall tales about their feats on the athletic field. Sometimes, the youngster even joined their nightly game of hearts.

“They were so nice and kind to me,” Mike Brown said.

Halls of Fame

Bill Willis played eight seasons with the Browns, leading them to four AAFC championships. The league merged with the NFL in 1950, and Willis played four more seasons. 

After retiring from his pro football career, he devoted himself to making life better for children. He eventually became director of the Ohio Youth Commission.

Willis was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. In 2006, he was honored with exhibits at Cincinnati’s African American Museum and the Ohio Statehouse marking the 60th season of African Americans in professional football.

Ohio State retired his number in November 2007 during a game against Wisconsin. Less than a month later, Willis died of complications of a stroke. He was 86.

“He had a pretty remarkable career, but he was happy more about opening up doors for other people,” Clem Willis said. “He wasn’t one to pound his own chest.

“He had a great time meeting Romeo Crennel when he coached the Browns. They hit it off, the first black coach of the Browns and the first black player. I remember he told Romeo, ‘I’m just like a single grain of sand.’”

 

 

Jean-Jacques Taylor ’91 is a sportswriter for ESPN Dallas.