Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bill Willis' Achievements Should Never be Forgotten

Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis passed away on Tuesday. Willis played on Ohio State's 1942 national championship team and on five Cleveland Browns' championship teams (four AAFC titles plus the 1950 NFL Championship), all while being coached by Paul Brown. Willis played both ways but made his mark by using his blistering quickness to cause tremendous disruption as a defensive middle guard. However, just as significant as Willis' accomplishments as a player is his role in helping to integrate the NFL. Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard was one of two black players who participated in the inaugural season of the American Professional Football Association (the forerunner of the NFL) in 1920 and in 1921 he became the first black coach in league history but within a few years pro football became a segregated sport. One year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Bill Willis joined with Cleveland Browns teammate Marion Motley and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams to become the first black players in the modern era of professional football.

Bill Willis' achievements should never be forgotten--and it is heartening to see that the current Cleveland Browns' players understand that Willis paved the way for them. As running back Jason Wright said, "It's something that every player, not just the black players in the league, owes a ton of gratitude towards because one of the unique things about the football environment is that we really become a family, across racial lines, across socio-economic lines." Coach Romeo Crennel had previously made sure that his players knew about Willis and it is clear that wide receiver Braylon Edwards paid attention to the history lesson: "He (Willis) paved the way and showed that guys of our color could play. They gave him a chance and he ran with it. He did well. He basically paved the way for gentlemen like myself and I'm appreciative...It had to be hard. It wasn't just them vs. the opposition. It was them vs. players on their team, fans, organizations. To go through it and to maintain and stay focused and strong just says a lot about his character."

Willis was Ohio State's first black All-American and after he retired from the NFL in 1953 he worked for 20 years as the director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. He retired from that position in 1983 but continued to live in the Columbus area. In 2003, Odessa, his wife of 55 years, passed away and this summer his house was broken into and vandalized and many of his mementos were stolen. Willis' son Clem told reporters that his father's Ohio State championship ring was recovered just hours before he passed away.

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