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Bill Willis and Paul Brown Still A Presence At Bengals-Browns

Bill Wills: pioneer.
Bill Wills: pioneer.

Seventy years later and Bengals president Mike Brown suddenly becomes the 15-year-old with heart dropping while watching Bill Willis slicing through the Cleveland tundra with what looks to be an impossible task.

But Willis has always been one of Brown's heroes and heroes never disappoint. Showing why his father Paul made him the game's first modern middle linebacker, Willis, best known as one of the men that broke pro football's color line, was at ease as a pioneer.

From his own 36, the league's best nose guard somehow chases down one of its fastest running backs when he catches the Giants' Choo Choo Roberts at the Cleveland 4 late in a 3-3 game to make sure the Browns win their first NFL post-season game.

The final is 8-3 because after Lou Groza kicks a field goal, Willis ends all the tension when he dumps Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly in the end zone as the clock ticks to the end.

"An exciting moment in the history of the Browns," Mike Brown says. "It's an example of what a great player Bill was. He made great plays in big games."

This is simply one of the "million things I think of when the Bengals play the Browns," and he'll do it again when the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary in Thursday's game (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12 and NFL Network) in Cleveland. In the midst of the pandemic Brown has decided to end his 52-season streak of attending every Bengals' regular-season game, but memories like that one make it a little easier.

William Karnett Willis not only became a hero but a friend.

Bill Willis Jr. remembers another night game.

This one was back in 2007, a Sunday night. As always, Brown accompanied the Bengals to watch their game in Pittsburgh. But Willis remembers Brown changing his plans after the game so he could drive to Columbus and speak at his father's funeral service the next day.

"That was very thoughtful. He's always been that kind of guy to us. The whole family," Bill Willis Jr., says. "Mike talked about my dad's character. It's one thing he and his dad noted and appreciated about Dad and how it rubbed off on other people."

Paul Brown did more than draw Xs and Os.
Paul Brown did more than draw Xs and Os.

Willis also remembers a few days before another Bengals-Browns game in Cincinnati. It was during a ceremony at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame honored Bill Willis Sr. as an NFL pioneer and Mike Brown greeted him near the display case holding that first contract he signed with Paul Brown.

"You would have thought they were high school buddies the way they were yucking it up," Bill Jr. says. "Telling stories on each other."

Maybe this Thursday night Mike Brown remembers another Bengals-Browns game. The first game ever in Paul Brown Stadium. Sept. 10, 2000. Sitting next to him in the owner's box was Bill Willis. Paul Brown didn't like watching games with very many people. Bill was one of the few and after Paul died in 1991, Mike kept the invites coming.

"Mike would always put me in Paul Brown's seat when I went to the games," Willis told back in 2000. "That was quite an honor to sit in Paul's seat. Mike would be on one side and Pete (Paul's other son) would be on the other side. That has always meant a great deal to me."

Bill Willis Jr., 72 next week, and Clem, 70, sound just like their dad. They both have the deep, rumbling voice of their father. Almost musical. And their father loved music. He surrounded himself with sound in his Columbus home. They're the kind of guys that won't get upset if you mistake one for the other on a phone call, but they're of the same mind when it comes to the role of their dad and Paul Brown in breaking the color line in that black-and-white season of 1946.

"The reasons they were pioneers is because not only were they outstanding on and off the field," Clem Willis says, "but they showed the world at large, 'Even if you think they are different than you and me, they are great people.' Not just athletes, but well-rounded human beings."

As both teams and their league on Thursday night reflect on the social justice issue, the sons took a moment to remember what their fathers had done.

"My father explained to me later in life, he wasn't looking to make a civil justice statement. He simply gave Bill a job because he was the best man for it," Mike Brown says. "He felt the best man ought to have the opportunity to do what he could do. Very shortly after he took on Bill, my father hired Marion Motley. Both became Hall-of-Famers based on how they played."

Motley, the un-tackable fullback who in high school played against Paul Brown's Massillon teams, ended up playing for him in the service at Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II. A few days after Brown invited Willis to the training camp of his fledgling Cleveland team in 1946, Brown summoned Motley. While Woody Strode and Kenny Washington broke the color line out west with the Rams, Willis and Motley did it with the Browns.

But that was a concept hard for 12-year-old Mike Brown to fathom. By then he was allowed to stay with his father at the Browns training camp at Bowling Green University, where his favorite routine was forbidden.

The players were housed on the second floor of a dorm. No one else was allowed. By then, Horace Gillom, the best player Paul Brown ever had during his nine seasons coaching Massillon, Mike Brown insists, had joined Willis and Motley as the team's third black player. They had a corner room, Mike Brown remembers.

Gillom was already a mythical figure to Mike Brown. When he broke his leg when he was five years old, he remembers Paul Brown visiting him in the hospital and saying triumphantly to his dad, "I bet you're glad it wasn't Horace."

"I would sneak in and I'd look into their room," Mike Brown says of the players' night off. "They would be nice and invite me in and we would play "Hearts." The idea was to stick Marion with the Queen. He would guffaw and make it out like it was a great insult. It was always fun when that happened. They were kind to me. They treated me like I was one of the group. I thought I was, anyway, and that's probably what mattered.

"Those guys are still heroes to me," Mike Brown says. "Bill was a big figure in my mind. I admired him and followed his life after football."

What 12-year-old Mike Brown couldn't know is that the black players didn't go out on an off night because they knew they weren't welcome in restaurants or bars.

"It was different in Cleveland, a bigger metropolitan area," Bill Jr. says.

Clem Willis has thought about those card games.

"Paul Brown knew everything that was going on, so he had to know what Mike was doing," Clem says. "But he didn't do anything to stop it and I think that says a lot about the kind of guy Paul was and Mike, too."

And, it says a lot about Willis, Motley and Gillom, too.

"Dad and Motley, they got along with everybody," Bill Jr., says. "Both outgoing guys."

One of the first things the Willis sons remember is those family picnics Paul Brown would host. The pictures have to jar the memories of the games like leapfrog with the other kids, but they're there.

"The Browns had a great family atmosphere and it shows you the kind of relationship Paul Brown had with his players," Bill Willis Jr. says.

If you want to know why Paul Brown and Bill Willis stayed lifelong friends, start there. Family. Maybe start with Bill's wife, Odessa. The kids remember the stories of Paul Brown calling her, "Dessie," and the coach always telling their dad, "Check with Dessie."

"I think my dad really liked how much respect (Brown) had for his family, his wife," Bill Jr. says. "He would always ask, 'How is Odessa?' He made it clear he knew she was ruling the roost."

Odessa would tell them stories, too. One thing she liked about Paul Brown, the sons say, is before the Browns would go on the road, Paul would send someone to check out the hotel.

"If for some reason blacks weren't allowed to stay at the hotel or come through the front door, he would make every effort to change hotels so they would be part of the team," Bill Jr. says. "He couldn't do it 100 percent of the time. Most of the time he was able to leverage and do that. He really looked out for them. We were grateful the time he didn't take them to play in Miami."

Remember, Bill was five and Clem three when their dad retired after the 1953 season. But it's almost like they lived it. The Browns received death threats before traveling to Miami. The black players would be killed when they stepped on the field.

"My father and Motley were not aware of that until after the game," Clem says. "Paul gave them something like $500 and said something like, 'You guys stay here and we'll do this one without you,' kind of thing. He looked out for his players … I think Dad thought that was a good move. He wasn't looking to go out like that."

Bill Willis Sr. eventually made it to Miami. He went to Super Bowl 23 with Paul Brown and the sons remember when the TV cameras scanned the owner's box and they caught a glimpse of their father. No death threats. Just a V.I.P seat.

"I think first and foremost, Paul admired his prowess on the field, but not even half a notch below that, it was his demeanor," Bill Jr. says of the bond that remained. "Dad never changed even though he had become a star. Paul knew him in college before all that and I think he really appreciated that."

Bill Willis and Paul Brown won't be in a box together watching Thursday night. But amid all the issues of a new century, they, in a way, are still overlooking the field in Cleveland.

"Paul did the right thing by giving everybody a chance to play regardless of skin color," Clem Willis says. "If you fast forward to now, I'm sure Paul Brown was a guy that listened to his players. No doubt he was a guy in charge. But he was a guy who listened to and respected his players. They would figure out together what the right thing was."