It is impossible to tell the history of professional football without the Cleveland Browns.
The contributions go beyond the eight league titles, head coach Paul Brown, whose influence is still seen across the NFL today, and the 17 members enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1946, the ‘Forgotten Four’ of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley reintegrated pro football.— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 26, 2022
Today, the Hall of Fame is proud to announce that all four have been selected to share the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award.
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One of the biggest bookmarks came in 1946 when Brown signed defensive tackle Bill Willis and running back Marion Motley, who along with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams, reintegrated professional football. Willis, Motley, Washington and Strode would go on to be dubbed the “Forgotten Four” as their role in league history has often been overlooked.
Related: Changing pro football’s color barrier: Paul Brown hires Bill Willis and Marion Motley
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will look to remedy that this fall when they honor all four as recipients of the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award, which is named after the former owner of the Canton Bulldogs, one of the league’s founding members, and recognizes “significant innovative contributions to professional football.”
The award will acknowledge the cultural shift that the four players helped set in motion, according to Jim Porter, president of the Hall of Fame (quote via clevelandbrowns.com):
“Individually and collectively, they made one of the most profound cultural shifts in pro football history when they broke pro football’s color barrier, thus ending years of racial segregation. Their pioneering role not only opened the door to opportunity for generations of NFL players to come, but it also changed the game forever.”
Willis and Motley both joined the Browns in 1946 for the team’s first season in the All-America Football Conference.
Related: PBS documentary to focus on Marion Motley
Willis played eight seasons with the Browns, earning First Team all-league honors seven times and being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Motley also played eight seasons with the Browns and is still seventh on the franchise’s all-time list in rushing yards. He was a two-time First Team All-Pro selection and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
The four players will be honored during the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Week in Canton this August.
A list of the previous recipients of the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award may be found on the Hall of Fame’s website.