Professional football player, administrator
One of the first African Americans to play in the modern National Football League (NFL), Bill Willis overcame a racially discriminatory environment and became a well-loved star of the game. Both in Cleveland, Ohio, where he played for eight seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and in Columbus, where he previously excelled as part of the Ohio State Buckeyes squad, Willis inspired younger players and was remembered as a pioneer who directly paved the way for widespread African-American participation in professional football. "Young guys should know about him," Cincinnati Bengals tackle Willie Anderson told Jarrett Bell in USA Today in 2006. "Guys like him gave me a start. He paid a price. It humbled me to learn some of the things he went through."
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 5, 1921, William Karnet Willis played on the football team and ran track at East High School. His older brother Claude, an all-city fullback in Columbus's high school league, had hoped for a football scholarship to Ohio State University but was steered toward historically black institutions. Bill Willis considered a similar path and also received a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois (thanks to his high school coach, Illinois alumnus Ralph Webster), but new Ohio State football coach Paul Brown talked him into staying in Columbus and playing for the Buckeyes instead. The university's openness did not extend to its dormitories, which were segregated at the time; Willis sometimes had to hitchhike across town to get to his classes.
Willis played both offense and defense at Ohio State, wearing jersey number 99 (which was retired by the university in 2007). The Buckeyes, with Willis playing tackle despite his modest weight of 210 pounds, were national champions in 1942. In 1943 Willis became Ohio State's first black All-American, and he repeated the feat in 1944. Despite his accomplishments, Willis had few hopes of playing professional football—the NFL, although it had had a few black players in its formative days in the 1920s, had been restricted to white players through the unspoken agreement of team owners since 1933. Willis took a coaching job at historically black Kentucky State University.
He had a strong desire to get back on the field himself, however, and Paul Brown's hiring as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, then part of the short-lived All-America Football Conference (AAFC), seemed to provide an opportunity. Brown told Willis that nothing in the new league's rules prohibited blacks from playing. The coach may have been ambivalent, for he did not follow up on the meeting. Willis talked the matter over with a sportswriter who bet him a Stetson hat that Brown would give him a tryout. Turning down an offer to play in the Canadian Football League (a route several other black players had taken), he showed up "uninvited," according to Bell, at the Browns' training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Willis needed very little time to make an impact—literally. Lined up in defensive pads against a succession of three different centers, he knocked each of them down and also took out quarterback Otto Graham, ready to take the snap of the ball, as well. "Everybody got knocked down," center Mo Scarry recalled to Bell in USA Today. "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." Brown signed Willis to the team at an annual salary of $4,000, making him the first African-American player in the AAFC and one of the first in postwar pro football, a year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. But the event was attended by very little ceremony—in fact, Brown told Willis to keep the news under his hat at first.
The same low-profile strategy was in evidence in December of 1946, when the Browns headed south to play the Miami Seahawks. Brown, hearing of death threats against Willis and his roommate, black fullback Marion Motley, decided to simply leave both players in Cleveland. He consoled Willis with the statement that the Miami franchise was on the rocks, and in fact it was soon relocated to Baltimore and became the ancestor of today's Indianapolis Colts. Willis generally experienced support from his teammates but plenty of rough physical treatment from opposing players. "You could hear a lot of, ‘Get that black son of a bitch,’" Willis recalled to Bell.
Willis was an all-league player in the AAFC for three of his first four seasons (he made the second team in the fourth year), and his record of success continued when the Browns joined the NFL in 1950. The Browns won the league championship that year (the Super Bowl was still seventeen years in the future), with Willis making a key contribution as he chased down New York Giants back Gene "Choo Choo" Roberts at the four-yard line to prevent a touchdown that would have erased the Browns' 8-3 lead. Willis was an all-NFL player for each of his four years in the league and played in three of the league's Pro Bowl all-star games.
Even at the time, Willis was small for an NFL defensive guard, but his speed more than made up for it. "Did you ever run track?" he asked Paul Zimmerman writing in Sports Illustrated. "Well, I ran the sprints at Ohio State. Hundred outdoors, and the 60 indoors. How many linemen were sprinters in college? That gives you a start." Fans and even some officials were sure that Willis's quick hits were made possible by his having gone offside, before the snap, but photos showed that he rarely did. The Browns put out a special memo to newspaper photographers advising them to use a fast shutter speed of 1/600 of a second in shooting Willis in action.
Willis retired from the Browns in 1953 and became assistant commissioner of recreation in the city of Cleveland's recreation department. He then returned to Columbus in 1963, settling not far from where he had grown up, and served for two decades in the Ohio Department of Youth Services, until his retirement as director in 1983. He had married Odessa Porter in 1947, and the couple raised three sons, Bill Jr., Clem, and Dan. Willis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 and eventually became a member of three other halls of fame—for Ohio high school football, Ohio State University football, and college football. Willis's Ohio State championship ring was stolen in a burglary at his Columbus home in August of 2007, but was recovered hours before his death from complications of a stroke, on November 27, 2007, at the age of eighty-six.
At a Glance …
Born William Karnet Willis on October 5, 1921, in Columbus, OH; died on November 27, 2007, in Columbus; married Odessa Porter, 1947 (died 2003); children: Bill Jr., Clem, Dan. Education: Ohio State University, graduated, 1944.
Career: Kentucky State University, head football coach and athletic director, 1945-46; Cleveland Browns, defensive guard, 1946-53; city of Cleveland, OH, assistant commissioner of recreation, 1954-63; Ohio Youth Commission, deputy director, beginning 1963, retired as director, 1983.
Awards: Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1977; inducted into College Football Hall of Fame; hall of fame inductions for Ohio State University football and for Ohio high school football.
Akron Beacon Journal, November 29, 2007.
Cincinnati Post, November 29, 2007, p. C4.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 29, 2007, p. A1 and p. D2; November 30, 2007, p. D2.
Columbus Dispatch, November 28, 2007; November 29, 2007.
New York Times, November 29, 2007, p. B7.
Sports Illustrated, December 10, 2007, p. 28.
USA Today, November 22, 2006, p. C1.
"Bill Willis," Pro Football Hall of Fame, http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?PLAYER_ID=231 (accessed March 13, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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