While the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s long established color barrier in 1947 is well known, few recall that professional football broke the same barrier a year earlier.
The 1946 season started with the addition of a new league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), and eight new teams. Two still exist today: The Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Coach and General Manager of the Browns at the time was Paul Brown. Brown had coached African American players in high school, college and while in the service during WWII and won a national championship with Ohio State University in 1942. Knowing he wanted the very best players possible on his roster, he persuaded the AAFC to let him sign African American players including Hall of Fame tackle Bill Willis who played for him at Ohio State and Nevada fullback Marion Motley who played for Brown in the service.
When Brown signed Motley and Willis the only other team to follow suit was the Los Angeles Rams of the rival NFL. The Rams signed Woody Strode and Hall of Famer Kenny Washington, both who played at UCLA. Unfortunately, the motivation behind the signings of these players was not the same. The Rams only signed Strode and Washington to avoid a potential lawsuit. The Rams played at the LA Coliseum which was a city-owned facility. Some felt that by not having any African Americans on the team, it would leave them open to civil rights violations. So, while Motley and Willis were great contributors to the Browns, Strode and Washington rode the bench for the Rams.
The AAFC, not the National Football League, would be the league to bust down the color barrier. With the success of the Browns (they won all four AAFC championships) other AAFC teams added African American players like Hall of Fame members Buddy Young and George Taliaferro.
Bill Willis was born in Columbus, OH and went to Columbus East High School. That same high school also produced Chic Harley whose great exploits led to the building of Ohio Stadium in 1922. In addition to football, Willis also participated in track at Ohio State. With the Buckeyes he earned first team All-America at guard and was on the 1942 National Championship team. After graduation he coached one year at Kentucky State University before he got a tryout with the Browns in 1946. He would then go on to an outstanding Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
Paul Brown would go on to become one of professional football’s greatest coaches. Leading the Browns to a league championship game in ten consecutive seasons (AAFC 1946-49, NFL 1950-1955) he would later go on to form and coach the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 and remained the team’s owner after retiring from coaching. When the Bengals played San Diego in the 1981 AFC Championship game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, he watched the game from the press box with only one of his former great players – Bill Willis.