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Willis watching special Sunday

It would take Bill Willis 10 days and four hours to play all 2,900 songs he has downloaded on his computer.

From Sinatra to Stevie. And Miles Davis in between.

It turns out one of the last video and audio links to one of the nation's most historic moments is a thoroughly modern man who is on line with Sunday's NFL opener.

"I hope to be in Cleveland, but if not, I'll be glued to the TV set," says Willis of the Bengals and Browns, still living 83 years later in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

"One of the reasons this has come to pass is a legacy by a fellow named Paul Brown."

Naturally, Wednesday would have been Brown's 97th birthday. In three days, Brown's teams play in Cleveland for the 64th time. But for the first time, the team that is named for him and the one that he helped Willis integrate takes the field with an African-American head coach in Romeo Crennel.

And the news is that it's not news, completing the journey that began when Brown assigned Willis, his track-quick lineman, to room with captain Lou Rymkus that long ago training camp at Bowling Green.

"The league is on the right track," says Willis, who ignored enough late hits and hate names in the late 1940s to help make integration a staple of pro football instead of an anomaly. "I like to think what Paul and we did back then helped make it possible for blacks to not only participate, but to get into coaching."

Another day at the office
Sunday's thrill for Willis is just another day at the office for Crennel and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, in his third season as the first African-American coach in the history of Paul Brown's other team. There are six African-American coaches in the NFL and you just can't stop the presses any more. What happens in two weeks when Lewis takes the Bengals to Chicago to play Lovie Smith's Bears and Crennel takes the Browns to Indianapolis to play Tony Dungy's Colts?

"I would like to think the game transcends it all, and that's the thing both Marvin and I were working toward, and hoping to get," Crennel said Wednesday in a conference call. "In the NFL, the color of a coach's skin doesn't matter. We're just two football coaches playing each other on Opening Day and the guy who can get his team to play the best on that day should win the game, and I think that's what we both want from our position."

It's what Brown and Willis wanted back in Brown's first year coaching the new Cleveland Browns in America's newest pro football league, the All-American Conference. Brown didn't much care if little green men could get his team on firm footing.

He signed Willis on Aug. 6, 1946 in those first heady anything-is-possible days after the war, and three days later he signed another African-American in fullback Marion Motley to continue to rankle some of the new league's fathers.

But Brown did it delicately. He didn't call Willis. Instead, he called a Columbus sportswriter and casually suggested he pass the word to Willis to drop by Bowling Green on his way to a tryout in Canada. That's how it was. Willis never thought about the pros in this country. It was either Canada, or coaching again at Kentucky State.

"I think he knew what he was doing and how important it was because he used other avenues," Willis said. "And when he told me to suit up, he told me he'd let it be known in his own time."

The rival NFL had signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode earlier in 1946 to break its color line, but they were men near the end of their careers while Willis and Motley went on to become Hall of Famers and marquee names of the pro game's first dynasty. Willis, so quick and athletic for the times at nose tackle, actually became football's first true middle linebacker when Brown began to drop him off the line.

Hard to believe, but those were days that Brown couldn't take Willis and Motley to Miami for the Browns' last game of their rookie season because of a law prohibiting blacks and whites to enter into competition together.

Now, in three days, two black guys lead their teams of blacks and whites onto the field to open the NFL season. That may not be news, but for Willis, it gives him pause.

"Looking back on it," Willis says, "who thought this day would ever come?"

Brown handled the Miami travesty like he handled everything else with Willis and Motley. Quietly and with dignity, is the way Willis remembers it. He gave them each $500 extra in their checks, and told Willis something vague that made him think it would be taken care of. Willis then remembers Miami disappearing from the league.

In the days that Jackie Robinson couldn't always have the same accommodations with the Dodgers on the road, Willis can't remember one ugly hotel incident.

"Paul was a clear thinker," Willis said. "He had everything planned out before it happened. He made sure everything was handled."

Breaking through the barriers
Of course, Brown couldn't handle the taunts of fans and opponents. Or the late hits. As mad as he would get, Willis always made sure he turned the other cheek. He once said that if he and Motley hauled off and belted somebody, it could set integration in the pros back 10 years. Once, afer the whistle, one guy drilled him and then Willis grabbed him to fend him off.

"Get your black hands off me," the guy said, but Willis fought the temptation and held the guy away in case he chose to clock Willis at the last instant.

"The best way when they play you dirty is make sure when you tackle them, you make it a good one," is how Willis remembers Brown's counsel.

Plus, there were guys like Rymkus who told him if he had problems with anyone, to send him his way.

And, Willis always remembers the lineman from the 49ers when Willis's knee obviously buckled in the middle of a snap. The guy had a free shot at him, but he eased through the play without laying a hand on Willis.

"Cleveland was a great town to play in. The city of champions they called it," Willis says. "It was a melting pot and everyone got along."

Willis insists he never heard a cross word from a teammate. They took their cue from Paul, he says. As he walked into his dorm on that first day of training camp, he heard someone holler out something that could have been a racist taunt, like "Who dat over in dere?" Willis discovered it was a guy using his home region's dialect and expression.

"We had guys from all over," Willis says, and the two Ohioans, Willis and Motley, had to adjust to talk from the south and both coasts.

If Willis doesn't go to Cleveland on Sunday, watch for him at Paul Brown Stadium Dec. 11. He has an open invitation to sit next to Bengals president Mike Brown since Willis is one of the few people that Paul Brown would let sit next to him while he watched the Bengals play.

"I haven't met either of them," Willis said of Lewis and Crennel. "But I plan to do it. It is something I would really like to do. I look forward to talking to them."

Willis would like to know that the Browns haven't forgotten their founder.

"He did a lot for this city, this team, and the NFL, period," Crennel said. "We have a mural on the wall when our players come in the door, and there is Paul Brown kneeling on the sideline. We realize he's a major part of the history of this team, and we don't want to forget that."

Willis certainly hasn't.

"I'll be watching," Willis says, "but I'm not sure what will be going through my mind. It's something I'm really going to enjoy."

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