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Changing pro football’s color barrier: Paul Brown hires Bill Willis and Marion Motley

From 1934 to 1945, there weren’t any black players in pro football

Marion Motley

None of the NFL owners will own up to this which owned NFL franchises from 1934 to the end of World War II, but the fact remained that none of them hired any black players during this time-frame.

In team photos of NFL clubs in 1933, such as the maiden season of the Pittsburgh Pirates (later renamed the Steelers), there are black players sprinkled about from the various clubs. But not in 1934. Or the year after that. And subsequent years all the way up to 1945.

None. Zero. Natta.

The NFL began its operations in 1920 under the name the “American Professional Football Association” until 1922 when the name was changed to the “National Football League.” And in its infancy, black players were a standard. Not a majority, but were prevalent and maybe not accepted as people, but were accepted as athletes. Well, sometimes.

When the Great Depression began in 1929, as the years rolled along many folks were becoming resentful that black athletes were taking jobs away from their white counterparts. Especially in the NFL. George Preston Marshall, who was famously a bigot, owned the Boston Redskins and developed a campaign through a “gentleman’s agreement” that none of the other clubs would employ black players until at least the recession had concluded.

Even during World War II when players in the league were in great shortage and teams were begging for players, not a single black player was hired nor even invited to a tryout. This was despite the fact that college football was being dominated by numerous black players at key positions such as running back.

By 1939, the Great Depression was all but over. Yet, the “gentleman’s agreement” still remained.

Re-integration of the NFL

Daniel Reeves was the owner of the Cleveland Rams. For several years, he had wanted to move his Rams to the West Coast and play in Southern California. The problem remained that travel to games at the time was primarily by train, which would take days to arrive at a city, and then the journey back.

After World War II, there was an excess of athletes who had left the NFL or college football, had lost their college years altogether and were still in their prime. And they wanted to play professionally. A new league was created called the “All-American Football Conference” (AAFC) beginning in 1946.

This eight-team league would become an NFL rival league and compete for players, coaches and scouts. One of the franchises was announced to be placed in Cleveland, despite the Rams still a local franchise.

Cleveland Browns Coach Paul Brown, 1954 NFL Championship
Paul Brown (center with long coat)
SetNumber: X2216

Reeves pushed the other NFL owners hard for his relocation request. The new Cleveland franchise had hired Paul Brown as their head coach. At the time, Brown was one of the most famous sports names in the state of Ohio.

The other owners initially declined, but air travel was now a viable transportation option which would cut down travel times significantly. Finally, the owners voted yes to move the Rams from Cleveland to Los Angeles.

But going to play in Los Angeles there was a snag. Make that, a huge snag.

The only stadium large enough to host NFL games was the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was currently the home of USC and UCLA college football games and was perfect for the pro game with seating of 77,500. It was owned by the City of Los Angeles. And the City of Los Angeles allowed all races and creeds of people to use their facilities as a public domain.

The Rams were still in their “gentleman’s agreement” stage without any black players.

The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission ran the facility for the City. A meeting was set with the Rams and also the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC about renting the stadium for their home games. At the meeting was in attendance Halley Harding of the Los Angeles Times. Harding opened the meeting opposed to clubs using the public facility to teams that blatantly excluded athletes who “just happened to be colored.”

The Coliseum Commission chairman, Leonard Roach was against all things Jim Crow. To him, this meant the stadium was built to be used by all people.

Kenny Washington

The Rams agreed to sign two black players, one of which would be a graduating senior out of college. Two weeks later, the commission approved the Rams lease agreement. On May 4, 1946, the NFL was officially re-integrated when the Rams signed former UCLA running back Kenny Washington.

This was one year before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in baseball.

Browns’ different road with the color barrier

Since his coaching days at Massillon Washington High School in the 1930s, Paul Brown did not have an issue with black players. He started whichever athlete was the best at that position and did not concern himself with this aspect. This translated to his other coaching positions at Ohio State and then the Great Lakes Naval Bluejackets during the war.

When Paul Brown was hired as head coach of the Cleveland franchise of the AAFC, he was still in the Army. Every team in the new league built their rosters from any manner they could since there wasn’t a league draft. He recruited players that he had either coached, or coached against all those years.

When the now-Cleveland Browns were in training camp at Bowling Green university leading up to the 1946 maiden season, the roster was devoid of any black players. Men coming back from World War II were finding out that the prejudice they realized when they left to fight for this country, remained back home when they returned.

But cities in the northern part of the United States were gradually coming around and wasn’t as bad an area to be a black man than in other parts of the country. Not that it was good either. But this attitude regarding black athletes would soon change.

There was a boast in popularity regarding pro football coming out of the war whereas years prior all this country cared about was Major League Baseball and college football. Plus, there was an excess of men who either were on an NFL roster when they entered the military, were in college and lost years of eligibility or had just graduated and missed their opportunity to play. In fact, there were more men now to play pro football than actual teams to sign them.

James Crowley, the newly-minted commissioner of the AAFC, was asked specifically if black players would be able to participate in the league. His answer: “There is no rule that bars a Negro athlete from playing. The AAFC is just what the name implies; it is All-American in every aspect.”

Bill Willis was a quick, black defensive lineman that Coach Brown had coached while winning a National Championship as the head coach of Ohio State. Willis was invited to play in the College football All-Stars contest against the defending NFL champions, a prestigious annual event for an inbound rookie player.

Bill Willis

After that contest, no NFL club gave him an offer nor was he drafted. Just 24-years old, he accepted the position as head coach of Kentucky State University, a black college, for a season. But he wanted to play professional football instead like so many other black athletes.

Willis then verbally agreed to play for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League but had yet to sign a contract. About the time that he was preparing to head to the largest city in Quebec, Coach Brown contacted the sports editor of the Columbus Dispatch where Willis lived and asked if he would contact Willis to see if he was willing to attend Browns training camp as a free agent prospect.

At the time, Coach Brown was quoted in the Cleveland Press after that publication had gotten wind that the Browns head coach was seeking out a black player:

“I’m only interested in selection of the best football player. I don’t care about their color, nationality or religion. We’ll try Willis at guard and if he proves that he hasn’t lost his old fire and speed, we’ll definitely sign him. He’ll do us a lot of good if he still has it. He was like a black panther when he was playing for me at Ohio.”

On August 6, Willis reported to Bowling Green. He stood just 6’-2” and wasn’t that big at 210 pounds. At Ohio State, he was known for his uncanny quickness as he was a former track star. He was also incredibly strong for a man that most felt was undersized.

In a single practice session with the Browns, Willis was penciled in as the starting defensive tackle and signed to a $4,000 contract. Yes, that is how good this player was.

Willis’ speed up the middle of the defensive line would eventually change the way quarterbacks begin their stance under center. Originally, the QB’s feet would be parallel to the line of scrimmage. But Otto Graham, the Browns’ starting signalcaller, was instructed by Coach Brown to place his right foot slightly behind the left foot so that he could push off and move away from the line easier.

This staggered stance is now the norm with every quarterback at every level.

Marion Motley had played fullback for Coach Brown while in the Army at Great Lakes. As training camp approached, Motley had sent a letter to Coach Brown asking for a tryout. Brown sent word back that he had enough running backs, but would revisit the idea the following season if the need were there.

Marion Motley

At the time, Motley was now 26, married with four children, and working at the steel mill in Canton while playing semi-pro baseball when he could. During camp, Browns’ fullback Gene Fekete had gotten hurt in a scrimmage and then another fullback, Ted Fritsch asked to be released so that he could play for the Green Bay Packers, his former team.

Coach Brown sent word to Motley to come for a tryout in Cleveland’s training camp. Motley got a ride from his cousin and immediately arrived at Bowling Green.

Motley was still a big bruising back and just as fast and agile as smaller men. In his era, there wasn’t a man who could match him for speed and power.

After seeing Motley in one practice, Coach Brown was quoted in the paper saying the following:

“He could play a game tomorrow. We have the same plays, the same formation, the same signals we used at Great Lakes.”

Plus, Coach Brown knew there was a bonus with Motley. At the time, the NFL required players to play both ways and had a three substitutes per game rule just like its grandfather sport of soccer. Motley was also a very gifted linebacker. And the end result to that for Coach Brown was a talented player for both the offense and the defense.

The AAFC had abandoned this limitation and changed their rule to unlimited substitutions. Later, when three teams from the AAFC merged into the NFL in 1950, the established league adopted this unlimited substitutions rule.

If you can’t get along with your teammates, you won’t be here.”

The final Browns roster was full of former Big 10 players who were used to playing with black athletes. With the addition of Willis and Motley, Cleveland’s only black players, Coach Brown felt a need to address the issue of race before anything could ever surface.

His statement to his team? “If you can’t get along with your teammates, you won’t be here.”

With Cleveland, the disgruntled weren’t that many anyways and Coach Brown never heard a word of discontent. Every player on the Browns quickly realized the talent level of Willis and Motley, and were just as happy that these two players weren’t playing against them every week instead.

Marion Motley

And with Motley on board, Coach Brown probably avoided a hidden disaster. Now he had a black roommate for Willis; which in 1946 would have started another war based on a white man having to sleep in the same quarters as a black man.

Before the first preseason game, Coach Brown summoned both Willis and Motley into his office to discuss what both players already knew was about to transpire: the language, the name calling, the extra hits, the unnecessary non-football acts such as gouging, biting, pitching and any other sort of malcontent.

The actions of other players in the league was out of Coach Brown’s control, but he wanted his players to be prepared.

Cleveland Jackson of the Call and Post wrote that building a fan base among Negroes across the country was a welcomed by-product of Coach Brown’s desire to field the best team possible.

One can only imagine the intense bullying and nastiness both of these men endured while playing for the Browns. They lived with racism throughout their careers. In the last game of the 1946 season on the road against Miami, the State of Florida had a law that whites, Hispanics and Negroes could not compete on the same playing field during sporting events. Both Willis and Motley were left in Cleveland for that road game.

Although the color barrier was broken in all major American sports by 1950, the men endured shouted insults on the field and racial discrimination off of it. Focused exclusively on winning, Coach Brown did not tolerate racism within the team.

And because of this identity of Paul Brown’s nature, both Willis and Motley would end up with four AAFC Championships, one NFL title, named to the NFL 1940s All-Decade Team, become members of the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor, plus were both enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.