(b. 5 June 1920 in Leesburg, Georgia; d. 27 June 1999 in Cleveland, Ohio), professional football player considered to be one of the greatest running backs of all time.
Motley was one of three children born to Shakeful Motley, a mill worker, and Blanche Jones Motley, a homemaker. Born in rural Georgia, he moved with his family as a young boy to Canton, Ohio, where his father worked in a foundry. He was a three-sport standout at the perennial football powerhouse Canton McKinley High School, from which he graduated in 1939. He attended South Carolina State College in Orangeburg for one year and then in 1940 transferred to the University of Nevada (later the University of Nevada, Reno), where his former high-school coach Jim Aiken was the head coach.
Motley was a star football performer at Nevada for three seasons (1940–1942). A punishing linebacker on defense, he also excelled as a running back. His 105-yard return of a kickoff against San José State College (later San JoséState University) set a Wolf Pack record, and he received regional All-Star recognition. His career was imperiled during the 1940 season when, while driving back from a football game in San Francisco, he struck and killed a person in Fairfield, California. He spent several days in jail and was charged with involuntary manslaughter. He was supported by Nevada students and Reno boosters, who provided legal assistance and raised the funds to pay a $1,000 fine. Impressed with Motley's character and the strong community support evidenced on his behalf, the judge granted him probation. Two days after being released from jail, Motley repaid his supporters by scoring two first-quarter touchdowns in a 78–0 romp over Arkansas A&M College.
With one year of eligibility remaining, Motley left Nevada without earning a degree for the U.S. Navy in 1943; he spent much of his wartime service at the Great Lakes Naval Station playing for the powerful teams coached by Paul Brown. Motley's high-school team had lost only three games, all to the Massillon High School Tigers coached by Brown. In 1945 Brown was selected by Mickey McBride, a Cleveland taxicab magnate who also operated the largest nationwide wire service for horse-race betting parlors, to coach his new professional team in the upstart All-America Football Conference (A-AFC). In assembling one of the greatest professional teams of all time, Brown defied the unwritten all-white rule then current in professional football by signing African-American players. In addition to Motley, Brown invited the star defensive lineman Bill Willis, a former Massillon player. Thus in 1946 Motley and Willis, along with Woody Strode and Kenny Washington of the Los Angeles Rams, reintegrated professional football for the first time since the 1930s.
At six feet, one inch, and 235 pounds, Motley was a bruising inside runner. His initial burst of speed often got him through the line, where he then ran over smaller defensive backs. "Don't get fancy when you pass the line of scrimmage," Brown instructed his talented fullback. "Just run right at them and over them." The innovative Brown created a special play ("Trap 34") to take advantage of Motley's explosive running, which was made effective by the deft ball handling of the quarterback Otto Graham and the crisp blocking by such lineman as Lou Groza and Chuck Noll. The Browns dominated the All-America Football Conference, winning its championship all four years of its existence with a 47–4–3 overall record. During those four seasons Motley gained 3,024 yards on 489 carries. He also caught forty-five passes for 644 yards, many coming on screen pass plays. He also played middle linebacker; his games were so memorable that in 1991 Brown said that he never had coached a more determined or effective line-backer than Motley.
In 1950 the Browns joined the National Football League (NFL) after the A-AFC folded. Most experts predicted that the Browns would get their comeuppance after playing in what they considered a lesser league. Instead, the Browns devastated the heavily favored Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Eagles 35–10 in their inaugural league game and stormed on to win the conference title. Motley led the NFL with 810 rushing yards on 140 carries and was named to the All-League first team. In one memorable performance on 29 October 1950, he gained 188 yards on just eleven attempts against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Between 1950 and 1953 the Browns won forty games and lost eight; a late-season injury forced Motley to sit out the 1954 season, and in 1955 he ended his career as a substitute linebacker for the Steelers. He ended his entire career with 4,720 rushing yards and thirty-one touchdowns. He averaged an extraordinary 5.7 yards per carry. He always felt that he could have gained many more yards had Brown accepted his suggestion of running outside the ends on option plays.
After retirement Motley faced many frustrations. His highest salary as a Brown was just $15,000, and the league at the time lacked a retirement program. His efforts to obtain an assistant coaching position in the NFL proved fruitless; he blamed racism for his rejections. When he once asked a Browns official about possible employment, he was met with a caustic, "Have you tried the mills?" After leaving football Motley initially found work as a parking lot attendant and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Cleveland. During the 1980s he served as a spokesperson for the Ohio Lottery. He and his wife, Eula Coleman, who were married in 1943, had three children. He died in 1999 after a year-long battle with prostate cancer.
In 1968 Motley became the second African American to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is located just a mile from his former home in Canton. Despite losing three prime playing years during World War II, Motley made a lasting impression after joining the Browns as a twenty-seven year old. Blanton Collier, an assistant coach with the Browns during Motley's tenure and later the team's head coach, once commented 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 thirty yards. And this man was a great, great linebacker." Paul Brown, Jr., commented upon Motley's death, "My dad always felt Marion was the greatest back he ever had."
There is an interpretative segment on Motley's role as a racial pioneer in professional football in Richard O. Davies, America's Obsession: Sports and Society Since 1945 (1994). See also George Sullivan, Pro Football's All-Time Greats: The Immortals in Professional Football's Hall of Fame (1968), and Jack Clary, The Cleveland Browns: Great Teams' Great Years (1973). An obituary is in the New York Times (28 June 1999).
Richard O. Davies