Motley, Marion 1920–1999
Marion Motley 1920–1999
Former professional football player
In the late 1940s, African American athletes broke through the color barrier that prevented them from playing professional sports. The most famous example is Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in major league baseball. Less known is the story of Marion Motley, who joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946, becoming one of the first African Americans to play in the National Football League.
“What we did (in football) helped get Jackie into the major leagues,” Motley was quoted as saying in a Knight-Ridder Newspapers wire story. “There was a quote from (Dodgers general manager) Branch Rickey, who said, ’If these men can play a contact sport like football, then Jackie Robinson can play baseball.’ So we really opened the door in two sports.” That achievement would be impressive enough, but Motley, a fullback and linebacker, accomplished far more in his eight years with the Browns. The team won five consecutive championships—four in the All-America Football Conference and one in the NFL—with Motley scoring five touchdowns. In the other three years, the team made it to the title game.
Motley led the NFL in rushing in 1950. One of the largest running backs of his era, he rushed for 4,720 yards in his career and averaged an astounding 5.7 yards per carry. Nevertheless, his top earnings as a professional football player were just $11,500 a year. Blanton Collier, assistant coach for the Browns and later head coach, told the New York Times that Motley was “the greatest all-around football player I ever saw. He had no equal as a blocker. He could run with anybody for 30 yards or so. And this man was a great, great linebacker.” Paul Zimmerman, writing in Sports Illustrated, described Motley as “tireless, devastating, explosive. It’s hard to see how you could play the game any better than he did.” “I was fortunate to be able to be one of the few to excel at something I liked to do,” Motley was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “I felt proud to be a black American. Just as Martin Luther King had a dream, let me tell you, without a dream, you can’t accomplish anything.”
Motley was born on June 5, 1920, in Lessburg, Georgia, and was the son of Shakeful and Blanche (Jones) Motley. When he was three-years-old, his family moved north to Canton, Ohio, where his father found work as a foundry molder. At Canton’s McKinley High School, Motley played both basketball and football. During his three years as a star fullback, McKinley’s
Born on June 5, 1920, Leesburg, CA; died on June 27, 1999, in Cleveland, OH; son of Shakeful and Blanche (Jones) Motley; married Eula Coleman, 1943; children: Raymond, Ronald, George. Education: studied at South Carolina State University, 1939-40; University of Nevada-Reno 1940-43. Military service: U.S. Navy.
Career: Steel worker, Republic Steel, 1943; played football for U.S. Navy Bluejackets,1945; fullback for the Cleveland Browns, 1946-54; linebacker for Pittsburgh Steelers, 1955;worked four years for the Cleveland Post Office; worked eight years as safety director for an Akron, OH construction company; worked ten years for State of Ohio Lottery; worked at the State of Ohio Department of Youth Services, Akron, OH.
Awards: All-AAFC fullback, 1946-48; selected to the All-Pro team, 1950; All-time AAFC leading rusher; inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, 1968.
football team lost only three times—all to archrival Massillon (Ohio) High School, which was coached by the legendary Paul Brown. Years later, Brown would coach Motley on two different teams: the U.S. Navy Bluejackets, and the Cleveland Browns.
After graduating from high school in 1939, Motley played football for a year at South Carolina State. In 1940, he transferred to the University of Nevada-Reno. During his three years playing for Nevada, the team achieved only a mediocre record, but Motley made some impressive long-distance touchdowns. In a game against San Francisco in 1942, he intercepted a pass and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown. That same year, Illustrated Football Annual included Motley on its “All-American Check List,” and described him as “a 22-carat back.”
After Motley injured his knee in 1943, he left college and returned to Canton, Ohio, where he worked for Republic Steel. “I burned scrap iron out of the steel with a torch, and it’d get awful hot up there on top of the steel where I worked,” he was quoted as saying in A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football. “I honestly think all that heat mended my knee.” The same year, Motley married Eula Coleman. The couple would raise three sons. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
In 1945, Motley played football for the U.S. Navy Bluejackets, which was coached by Paul Brown. In the season’s final game, the Bluejackets routed Notre Dame by a score of 39-7, and Motley scored on a 44-yard run. “Notre Dame simply could not handle Motley that day,” Brown was quoted as saying in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, “and even had trouble knocking him down as he ran several trap plays that became his specialty over the years.”
In 1946, the All-America Football Conference was launched as a competitor to the NFL. One of the AAFC teams, the Cleveland Browns, recruited their first African American player, Bill Willis. At the time, there were only two African American players in the NFL, and none in the AAFC.
The Browns decided they needed to recruit another African American player to be Willis’ roommate for away games, so they invited Motley to try out. “After a few practices, one of the white lineman, Mike Scarry, told Paul Brown, ’Either you get Motley for our side or I go over to his side,’” Motley later recalled in the New York Times. “After that, I didn’t worry about being Bill Willis’ roommate. I wanted to be the best fullback.” Motley signed up with the Browns for $4,500 a year.
During his rookie season, the 26-year-old Motley averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored five times. With Motley on the team, the Browns dominated the league, capturing All-America Football Conference titles every season between 1946 and 1949. Motley was the AAFC’s all-time leading rusher, with 3,024 yards.
In 1950, the National Football League absorbed three AAFC teams—the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts—and the AAFC went out of business. Many football fans thought that the Browns would be outclassed in the NFL. However, Motley and the Browns—which included such all-time greats as quarterback Otto Graham, wide receivers Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli, offensive tackleAicker Lou Groza, and offensive guard Bill Willis—set out to prove them wrong. “None contributed more than the 6-foot-1-inch, 238-pound Motley, who was fast, explosive, and hard-working,” Frank Litsky wrote in the New York Times.
In the Browns’ first year in the NFL, Motley led the league in rushing, with 810 yards on 140 carries, and was selected to play in the first Pro Bowl. The Browns won the championship that year, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 30-28. They also reached the championship game each of the next three seasons.
While Motley possessed a sprinter’s speed, he mostly ran plays inside the tackles. “He made most of his yardage on trap plays, on which a defensive lineman was allowed to penetrate the line of scrimmage, then was trapped, allowing Motley to run through the vacated area,” Litsky wrote in the New York Times. Motley averaged 5.7 yards per carry during his career. He also excelled on draw plays and screen passes, and was one of Cleveland’s best defensive linebackers.
Motley was large enough to block defensive ends by himself, and quick enough to run away from—or run over—linebackers and cornerbacks. “He saved my life many a time,” Hall of Famer and teammate Otto Graham told the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. In the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Paul Brown praised Motley as “our greatest fullback ever because not only was he a great runner, but also no one ever blocked better—and no one ever cared more about his team.”
Motley’s commitment to the team also extended to its individual players. In A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman related a story that demonstrated Motley’s kindness to teammate Joe Spencer. “One day after practice I was counting my pennies and trying to figure out the cheapest way to get home,” Spencer said. “Marion didn’t say a word—except ’Get in,’ when he pulled up his car. So every day we used to drive to practice together and drive home, one of the greatest stars in the game and a guy just fighting to stay on the club. But that’s the way he was. If you were his teammate, he would do anything for you.”
As two of the first African American players in the NFL, Motley and Willis had to endure undisguised racism both on and off the field. “All the hate that Jackie Robinson faced in baseball, Motley and Willis faced first in football,” Ray Didinger noted in a Knight-Ridder Newspapers wire story. “Like Robinson, they knew if they failed to produce, or if they fought back at those who cursed and spat on them, they would set back the cause of all black players.” “It was rough for us on the field,” Motley recalled in an interview with George Vecsey of the New York Times. “The officials called back touchdowns of mine. Players stepped on my hands so much that I still have scars on the backs of them.” Football officials deliberately looked the other way as opponents stuck their fingers in his eyes, or punched him when he was lying on the ground.
Motley and Willis never complained to officials, or said anything to a player who had fouled them. Instead, their strategy was to go after that opponent—legally—in the next play. “We hit him hard enough that we didn’t have to say anything,” Motley told Ray Didinger of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. After his first year in the NFL, when Motley led the league in rushing, attitudes began to change. “One day, a guy stepped on my hand and the ref picked the ball up and walked off 15 yards,” Motley recalled in an interview with Didinger. “The ref said, ’Personal foul. And if you do it again, you’re out of the game.’ I knew then I had respect.”
During his last four seasons with the Browns, Motley’s old knee injuries began to worsen. He was sidelined during the 1954 season, and was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following year. Motley played five of the first six games, mostly as a blocking back for punts and field goals. “I felt my speed coming back when I ran the sprints,” he was quoted as saying in A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football. “Then I hurt my knee again, and that was it. I told them I was through.”
After retiring from football as an active player, Motley struggled to find a coaching job in the NFL. But while the league was ready to accept African American players, it did not provide a welcoming environment for the hiring of African American coaches. As Motley recalled in a 1982 interview with George Vecsey of the New York Times, he inquired about a coaching job with his old team, the Browns, only to have a team official ask, “Have you tried the steel mills?” Motley also expressed bitterness at his meager NFL salary, and the fact that the Browns continued to use plays he had originated, while refusing to let him coach. “They were ready to let me run with the ball,” he told Vecsey. “But they weren’t ready to pay me—or let me think.” Motley worked briefly as a scout for the Washington Redskins, and coached a women’s football team in 1967. However, his dream of coaching in the NFL would go unfulfilled.
In the years after his retirement from football, Motley held several different jobs. He worked for four years with the Cleveland Post Office. This was followed by eight years as safety director for a construction company in Akron, Ohio, and ten years with the State of Ohio Lottery. He ended his career at the State of Ohio Department of Youth Services in Akron.
Motley’s accomplishments as a football player were not forgotten, however. In 1968, he became the second African American player to be voted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame. As his presenter, Motley chose Willis, his old teammate and roommate from the Browns. In the 1971 book A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman chose Motley as the greatest football player of all time. While Motley’s statistics were impressive, “it’s a kind of meaningless way of evaluating this remarkable player, “Zimmerman wrote. “It would be like trying to describe a waterfall in terms of gallons per second, or a sunset in terms of light units.”
On June 27, 1999, Motley died after a battle with prostate cancer. Fellow Hall of Famers Dante Lavelli, Lou Groza, Bill Willis, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield, Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, Ollie Matson and Dick Lane were honorary pallbearers at his funeral. Shortly after Motley’s death John Bankert, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame told the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that Motley was “a man of great courage and character. A champion in every respect, he represented pro football with dignity and pride. I am proud to have known him and called him ’friend.’”
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1987.
A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, by Paul Zimmerman, E. P. Dutton, 1971.
Detroit Free Press, June 28, 1999.
New York Times, Feb. 26, 1982; Sept. 25, 1997; June 28, 1999.
(Cleveland) Plain Dealer, June 30, 1999.
Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, Oct. 19, 1995; and www.nfl.com.
"Motley, Marion 1920–1999." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/motley-marion-1920-1999
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