And now the Hall will recognize the former Cleveland Browns as pioneers of the NFL.
Willis and Motley broke into football in 1946 under Paul Brown and the AAFL version of the Browns.
The @Browns were part of pro football’s reintegration that occurred in 1946. Then, a member of the upstart All-America Football Conference, the Browns signed two African American players, Bill Willis and Marion Motley. https://t.co/u8usMJ5hND
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 15, 2018
They were among the first African-American players in football, enduring the racism and abuse that went with it.
But as Motley colorfully told reporters at his Hall of Fame induction,
“While they were calling us (names) and alligator bait, I was running for touchdowns and Willis was knocking the (daylights) out of them. So they stopped calling us names and started trying to catch up to us.”
For breaking the NFL color barrier, the entire quartet will be awarded the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award this season.
Marion Motley Highlights
But he is unlikely to pass Marion Motley’s 5.7 yards-per-carry, the NFL running back record to this date.
Motley once lamented the running style of typical NFL offenses in the 50s and 60s.
If he was allowed to run outside, who knows how many yards the powerful speedster could have racked up?
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) May 26, 2022
And he was an excellent pass blocker as well as a runner, and that was just on offense.
Motley was also among the best linebackers of his era, prompting some to call him the greatest NFL player of all time.
He was the second Black player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is a member of the NFL All-Time Team.
And all that happened after leaving college with a knee injury and serving in the military for 2 years.
Bill Willis Highlights
Willis had a more traditional route to Paul Brown and professional football after graduating from Ohio State.
But it was far from normal for a Black man to follow that path in 1946.
He might have been the only player able to take down Motley one-on-one back then.
In fact, Willis was the most dominant defensive player of the era lining up in a defensive tackle position.
The @Browns created the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship to provide opportunities and experience to minority coaches, who have historically faced barriers in the pursuit of entry-level positions and promotions.
— BrownsGiveBack (@BrownsGiveBack) February 4, 2022
But Willis almost didn’t play in the league, initially taking a job as a coach at Kentucky State College.
He was headed to a tryout with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football league when he received a call.
Paul Brown reached out through a reporter and Willis redirected his travel to the Browns’ camp at Bowling Green.
Willis joined Motley in the Hall of Fame in 1977.