The cat-quick Bill Willis earned All-American honors at Ohio State as a two-way tackle on the national championship team of 1942 and the high-ranked '44 squad. But pro football seemed closed because of the NFL's unwritten ban on African-American players.
A friend of Willis' suggested he try out for the Cleveland Browns of the newly formed All-America Football Conference, scheduled to start play in the fall of 1946. The Browns were led by Paul Brown, who had coached Willis at Ohio State.
Willis (born 1921) showed up unannounced at the Browns' training camp. He earned a starting job in his first practice scrimmage by blasting past the team's NFL-experienced center to nab the quarterback again and again.
A few days later, when fullback Marion Motley joined the team, the AAFC had its first two African Americans. Both went on to Hall of Fame careers.
Willis' power and quickness on defense brought him continuous all-league recognition. Because his sudden, explosive charge on the snap catapulted him into the enemy's backfield before a play could get started, frustrated opponents often insisted he was off-sides.
The Browns won four straight AAFC titles, with Willis a key performer first as both an offensive and defensive guard and, after two years, as a defensive specialist at middle guard. Although he anchored one of the most effective defenses in pro football, the 210-pound Willis was tiny for the middle guard position.
"They listed me on the program at 225 pounds," Willis said. "It was a psychological thing. (Coach) Paul Brown didn't want the other teams to know I was really that small."
In 1950, Cleveland entered the NFL and continued its success with an NFL championship. Willis' game-saving tackle against the New York Giants keyed the playoff victory that put the Browns into the championship game.
Besides annual All-Pro selections, the soft-spoken Willis was named to the first three Pro Bowls.
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