Bill Willis broke pro football’s color barrier in 1946, over six months before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. African Americans finally played pro football after a 13-year embargo thanks to a match made at Ohio State.
Paul Brown, first head coach and namesake for the Cleveland Browns, set out to assemble the first ever Browns squad in 1946. He brought in Willis, who he coached at Ohio State, and Marion Motley, who played high school ball in Canton.
The story of football’s racial integration started in central Ohio, and thanks to two former Buckeyes, saw African Americans welcomed back to the sport.
How Bill Willis Broke Pro Football’s Color Barrier
Bill Willis and Paul Brown at Ohio State
Willis played football at Columbus East High School, right in Ohio State’s backyard. Brown’s first year with the Buckeyes coincided with Willis’ senior year in high school.
Brown was so impressed with Willis’ attitude and character that he offered Willis a roster spot upon their first meeting.
Though Willis was barely 200 pounds, his athleticism made him an excellent blocker on the offensive line. In his sophomore season in 1942, halfback Les Horvath ran behind Willis on his way to winning the Hesiman Trophy. That season, the 9-1 Buckeyes also won the program’s first national championship.
In 1944, Willis was an All-American but knew the NFL wasn’t an option for him. So in 1945, he accepted the position of head coach and athletic director at Kentucky State. He didn’t feel a passion for coaching, however, so he sought out other opportunities to continue playing.
Years prior, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall convinced the NFL to bar black players from the league. Willis didn’t think he would have an opportunity in the NFL, but a new league called the AAFC had just formed, and Brown was one of the league’s first head coaches.
Little did Willis know that Kenny Washington and Woody Strode would sign with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, becoming the first black players in the NFL.
Bill Willis In Professional Football
Willis got in contact with Brown, and the two were soon reunited at a tryout with the Cleveland Browns. Brown signed Willis and Motley, who he coached in the Navy.
Willis and Motley made their debuts in September of 1946, becoming the first two black professional football players since 1933.
Willis was an advocate for the African American community until he passed away in 2007.
Ohio State retired his number 99 shortly after his death.
“Bill Willis is the ultimate Buckeye. His record of accomplishment on the field and the class and dignity he exudes exemplify the qualities of Ohio State,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith upon Willis’ death. “He is the consummate gentleman. Recognizing his career and legacy as an athletics pioneer by retiring his jersey number is a way to salute not just the Willis family, but the Buckeye program overall.”