'He should be in history books'

Updated: 11:25 p.m.

The talk is of the Pittsburgh linebackers this week. About how they are big enough to stop the run and fast enough to get to the quarterback and how the Steelers have put them on a Pro Bowl conveyor belt down through the years.

But on Wednesday, Bengals Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson chose to think about football's very first middle linebacker as he recalled the day club president Mike Brown brought the elderly gentleman to his locker and introduced him to Bill Willis.

"What is the league, 80 percent black?" Anderson mused. "Football is the most popular sport in the world now. A guy like that should be in history books."

Willis slipped into history at age 86 Tuesday as one of the first African-Americans to break pro football's color line. A player for Paul Brown, a friend of Mike Brown, and a figure of awe for Marvin Lewis, Willis also left a large imprint on the Bengals.

"Words aren't going to give justice for me to understand what he faced," said Lewis, the first African-American head coach for Paul Brown's team." There's not words that I could put to it, I don't think."

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On the first day of work for preparing for the Steelers, the Bengals were peppered with questions about another death, the passing of Redskins safety Sean Taylor, shot to death in his home.

A somber Rudi Johnson offered, "You just have to be careful. It could have happened to anybody. You have to be sure not to put yourself in certain situations and learn from different people; learn from this."

And like everybody else, defensive tackle John Thornton shook his head.

"It happened so quick," Thornton said. "I didn't know Sean, but I don't think he was in the wrong crowd. I don't know that. It just seems like a strange incident."

Taylor's death and his life deserved all the reflection, headlines, and prayer. It just seems that Willis was always fated to be a footnote to the current players.

Anderson hopes his peers remember Willis as they do Taylor.

"I count myself as the younger generation even though I'm in my 12th year," Anderson said. "We don't have any history. Just with the Bengals, we don't even know who played 15, 20 years ago. There are guys on our team that when I mention Jeff Blake, they have no idea."

So if they don't know Jeff Blake, how can they possibly know Bill Willis?

"Exactly," Anderson said.

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Anderson

Anderson met Willis a year ago Sept. 17, when Mike Brown called him down from his Columbus, Ohio home to Paul Brown Stadium to present the game ball for the game between the Bengals and his old team, the Cleveland Browns.

Sixty years before it was Brown's father Paul calling Willis up from Columbus to play middle guard for that first Browns team. Along with fullback Marion Motley, they were among the first to integrate the pro game.

Willis chose Brown to present him at his 1977 Hall of Fame induction and he remained close to the Brown family. He watched the first game in Paul Brown Stadium in 2000 against the Browns with Mike Brown and it was Brown who wanted to make sure that the National Underground Railroad Museum has a record of Willis' thoughts and accomplishments as a pioneer.

Mike Brown never forgot his days as a grade-schooler sneaking into the players' dorm at Browns training camp and playing Hearts with Willis, Motley and some of their teammates. Players will come and go but those will always be Brown's heroes and it was the 12-year-old that released Wednesday's statement.

"I admired Bill since my boyhood, and have been proud to consider him a personal friend," Brown said in a statement.  "He was not only a great football player, but a true pioneer. Bill and Marion Motley were the key figures in breaking the color barrier in pro football after World War II. This was a year before Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball.

"During an exceptionally challenging time, Bill never failed to comport himself with dignity and forbearance, and his achievements proved to be of great benefit to the future of the National Football League.

"The Bengals were pleased to maintain a relationship with Bill through the years, and we will miss him greatly."

It was the 12-year-old that led Willis to Anderson's locker last year, the old defensive lineman that once had a futuristic blend of speed and power so dominating that he changed the game when Brown backed him up from center to middle backer.

"They called them middle guards then. They had five defensive linemen," Anderson said. "How about those two guys? They were innovators. That's what defensive coordinators are still looking for. Strong guys that can hold up against the run and fast guys to run them down.

"I think Mike felt like I ought to meet him," Anderson said of that postgame moment. "I'm sure he loved the game and an owner gave him the chance, but I'm sure he never thought about the impact he would have for the guys that came after him. I'd like to see the league do something to make sure guys like that are remembered."

It's a lesson worth remembering and Willis never minded teaching it long after his last tackle. He summed it up best that week nearly five years ago Mike Brown hired Lewis.

"You could be talking with Paul Brown," Willis said, "and he just didn't see guys as white guys or black guys. That's just the way he was. Could you help his team was all he wanted to know."

Willis is still helping.

In the history books.

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