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Willis-PB made history, not hype

Posted: 7-12-00

They made a movie about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey breaking the color line. Heck, they never even wrote a book about Bill Willis and Paul Brown.

If baseball's Robinson and Rickey were Hollywood, then football's Willis and Brown were off Broadway. Which is pretty much where football in mid-America hid in the shadow of baseball and New York in that giddy first post-war year of 1946 when babies and ball boomed.

Maybe it's just as well the book isn't written yet. Willis and Brown are writing another chapter more than 50 years after they first went to press.

The only place Willis could be on Sept. 10 is in Mike Brown's box for Paul Brown Stadium's regular-season opener. The Bengals are playing the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown's namesakes and his first pro team. They are also the team for whom Willis became one of pro football's first African-Americans the summer before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Indeed, many of the books, including Paul Brown's autobiography, say Willis, the lightning quick nose tackle, was the first. But in history, it's almost treated as mysteriously as that first shot on Lexington Green because it's not as definitive as Robinson.

Who was first? Woody Strode and Kenny Washington broke in on the West Coast later that summer. Marion Motley, the wondrous fullback who foreshadowed Jim Brown, joined the Browns' training camp a week after Willis arrived.

"I'm a little bit hazy on it myself," said Willis the other day from his home in his native Columbus, Ohio. "What was happening with the other guys was a thousand miles away and it's not like today. We just didn't hear about it. All I know is that we all started that same season."

Willis and Brown never made much of the color barrier. That wasn't their way. Willis had played for Brown at Ohio State in the early '40s and they just both figured that was the way it was supposed to be.

"I never had problems on the team," said Willis of that first day he was the only one. "I wasn't a complete stranger. I knew a lot of the guys from college. (Lou) Groza. (Dante) Lavelli. In addition, I knew Paul Brown pretty well. The thread follows the needle. Everybody takes their cue from the coach. That was his attitude. He was looking for good players who could play football together."

Maybe what meant more to Willis happened shortly after his coach died nine years ago and Mike Brown extended his father's long-standing invitation to Willis and his wife to join him in the owner's box of the Bengals.

"Mike would always put me in Paul Brown's seat when I went to the games," Willis said. "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."

As Mike Brown sat in his office the other day and watched the finishing touches put on his father's stadium, he shrugged.

"It was supposed to be an honor," Mike Brown said. "My father liked watching football games with very few people. Bill Willis was one of those people."

Willis, now 78, is one of those guys who was the game before hype, the salary cap and Dennis Miller. In the summer of '46, Willis was trying to decide between coaching the line at Kentucky State or playing with the Browns. He figured he'd play a year or two in the pros so he could learn about the entire offense and then go back into coaching.

Then after a couple of years, Willis figured he'd play another year or two and then coach But the next thing he knew, it was eight years in the game and then it was 1977 and Paul Brown was presenting him for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mike Brown smiles because he remembers when he was 12 years old and he would sneak up to the second floor of the Browns' dorm at training camp. He would play Hearts with Willis, Motley and Horace Gillom, everyone trying to dump the "Dirty Heart" on Motley because he was the guy who would complain the loudest about getting the Queen.

"We were all very impressed with the fact that Mike would come into camp and no one was allowed up on the players' floor, but he came up anyway," Willis said. "Here was this little guy who was crazy about his association with us."

"Oh yeah," Mike Brown said 50 years later. "Those guys were like great gods to me."

Then Mike Brown looked out the window a little longer and recalled how Willis, Motley and Gillom almost never went out at night. Then he remembered it was the late '40s, a time when blacks weren't always welcome in the same establishments as whites.

But Willis doesn't dwell on those things. He admits he faced the same racism Robinson did. He and Motley didn't travel with the Browns in '46 to play the Miami Seahawks because it was against Florida law for blacks and whites to compete against each other. Willis says Brown "laid his groundwork" to avoid potential problems. Such as being barred from the team hotel on the rest of the trips.

But Willis prefers not to discuss it with the same powerful dignity that allowed him to rebound from a terrible stroke 10 years ago that paralyzed his left side. He speaks clearly, walks with a cane and has an
F-stop memory of how he became a Cleveland Brown.

Rickey handled the Robinson experiment with the smoke and mirrors of a machine politician. Brown also used some cleverness. He wanted Willis, but he also didn't want the kid or his team overwhelmed in national exposure.
Brown waited until the Browns were settled at training camp before Willis got a call from Brown's friend at The Columbus Dispatch, Paul Hornung.

"I think he wanted to make it look like I came in uninvited, that I just showed up," Willis said. "I had an offer to play in Canada and I thought that was quite exciting because I had never been on a plane before. But I decided to stop by and when I showed up at the end of practice, Paul hollered across the field, 'Do you think you can still play?' I told him yes and he said, 'Go in and get a uniform.' "

Then the next day, Willis lined up across center Mo Scarry and proceeded to make life miserable for a guy known as pretty quick. It got to a point where quarterback Otto Graham was saying Willis was offsides.

Later on, Graham ended up setting up over center with feet parallel, but one foot slightly behind to push off faster to get away from Willis. Other pro teams soon picked it up. Call it the Bill Willis Step.

"I went under him, I went over him and then I finally went through him," Willis said. "He couldn't get the ball to the quarterback, so Paul put a coach on each end to make sure I wasn't offside and they never caught me. I could just tell by what (Scarry) was doing with his fingers. Everytime he started trembling, I knew he was going to center it. He was so anxious to get the ball back to Otto Graham, he stepped on Otto's toe.

"Paul stopped practice. It was about to end anyway," Willis said. "So he made a little joke. It was something like, 'We can't have Otto Graham getting his toes stepped on.' He told me he would announce me making the team on his own good time."

These were just two guys who thought the best players play. Two guys who respected each other. Willis remembers how close they became after his playing days. Brown and Willis called each other often, particularly when there was a milestone in either family. When Willis was named to the College Football Hall of Fame, Brown made sure Willis' three sons were able to travel to the ceremony.

"The fact that he integrated pro football should obviously be remembered," Willis said. "There's also all his innovations and he had the combination of being a great organizer and master psychologist. He had a way of making every guy feel he was the most important guy on the team and that if Bill Willis didn't do his job, the Cleveland Browns weren't going to win."

Sure, Bill Willis will be there Sept. 10. It might not be a movie, but football and friendship and a seat in a box is all you need for two guys who made the game better.

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