Posted: 1-21-03, 6:15 a.m.
For Bill Willis, still as dignified as the day he broke pro football's color line in Paul Brown's training camp, it sounded pretty familiar.
Mike Brown hired the Bengals' first African-American head coach last week, and 110 miles away in Columbus, Ohio, and 57 seasons after revolutionizing defensive line play with his hair-trigger quickness, Willis knew what had happened.
Marvin Lewis had not been hired by the NFL office, or pressure groups, or $250-per-hour lawyers. From what Willis could see, Lewis had been hired by the same motivation that spurred Paul Brown to call Willis in the summer of 1946 and convince his All-American nose tackle from their Ohio State days together to put off taking that job coaching the line at Kentucky State and come play both sides of the line for the inaugural Cleveland Browns.
Paul Brown then needed no convincing to present Willis into the Hall of Fame on the steps of Canton some 30 years later.
"Paul thought I was one of the best players and Mike Brown is a lot like his father in many ways," Willis said Monday. "He's going to do what he wants to do. Nobody is going to tell Mike Brown what he's going to do. He found a guy he wanted to lead his program and he hired him because he thought he was the most qualified guy just like his father did."
Willis is 81 now and not as quick, but his mind is still jagged-edge sharp. The hiring of Lewis, the eighth African-American to ever coach in the NFL, left Willis ecstatic.
"Frankly, I feel like there should be more black head coaches," Willis said. "Look at how many are assistants who come up through the ranks and pay their dues. I think this is great because Marvin is the guy who can turn this around. He will really do this team proud. Marvin is a top-flight guy and I think it's going to be a turning point for the Bengals."
Lewis might have paid his dues, but it was guys like Willis who came through with the down payment of some memories you'd rather not have.
"You call them the good old days, but sometimes the old days weren't that good," Willis said. "You tend to remember just the good times and forget the bad times. I'd rather not get into any of that stuff."
But he does remember traveling out of town with the Ohio State track team once and not being allowed to stay with his teammates in a hotel. Instead, he and the other African-American runner had to spend the night in a boarding house where rooms were rented by the hour.
"I was in a bad situation," is all Willis will say. "You could say you always call a person that can help you in a situation like that. I called Paul Brown."
In 2003, all this is hard for us to believe. Lewis sits in Paul Brown Stadium now planning for the season ahead that includes a training camp in Georgetown, Ky., and the only race factor is the 40-yard dash.
"I had some embarrassing moments, but never when I was on a team with Paul Brown," Willis said. "You hear about what a great organizer he was. You have to know what situations you might have to face if you brought your football team out of town. You would have to scout the situation and anticipate the embarrassment that might be caused and I never saw any of that."
Willis never heard Brown talk about Black and White. There was no Great Experiment as in baseball with Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
In the summer of '46, Brown slyly and quietly arranged through a third party for Willis to swing by the Browns training camp on his way to a tryout in Canada. When Willis showed up near the end of practice, he heard Brown holler across the field, "Do you still think you can play?" and the next thing he knew he was in uniform. And it didn't even dawn on him that he was the only black guy.
"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' high school coach back in Columbus had played at the University of Illinois and urged him to go there. But he had second thoughts with Brown the coach at Ohio State in Willis' hometown.
"He thought playing for Paul at home would be better for me," Willis said. "I think now it was because he knew of Paul's reputation for being fair (with black players) and playing the best players. I think that had something to do with it."
Of course, Willis had something to do with it, too. He had as much to do with integrating the game as Brown with his immense dignity and All-Pro talent. But he knows he and Brown are from another era. They are just two guys who didn't make a big deal about it.
But Willis thinks the hiring of Lewis is a big deal. Along with Ohio State winning the national championship, this has been one of his best months ever.
Willis has never met Lewis. But he knows people who do and he has read the newspapers and the Internet about him.
"Marvin is the kind of guy that can talk to the modern player," Willis said. "And they do speak a different language than we did."
But Willis knows what Paul Brown would say to him would be understood in any locker room in any era.
"He would tell Marvin he had faith in him doing the job and he was 100 percent behind him," Willis said. "He knew that he has gone through the ranks and Paul would tell him he was the best qualified guy for the job."
Kind of like the day on a practice field 57 seasons ago.
Sometimes, the biggest changes aren't really changes at all.