My knees were knocking.
They knock all the time now, but back then – about 12 years ago, my knees didn’t normally make funny noises, or any noises.
This time, though, instead of pain, it was fear. Anxiousness. Anticipation. Whatever you want to call it, it was emotional and not physical.
I was meeting Bill Willis for the first time, and I was scared to death. I was intimidated like I’ve rarely been intimidated in my life. It was as if one of the mannequins in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton had come to life and sat down a foot away from me – in a room in a swank Cleveland hotel in 2005. I wasn’t really meeting a person. I was meeting history.
You don’t know who Bill Willis is?
February is Black History Month, so you need to know. You need to hear this story – his story, whether you like football or not, or whether you’re African American or not.
You’ve heard of Jackie Robinson, haven’t you? Well, Willis – and his teammate, longtime friend and fellow Hall of Famer, Canton McKinley High School product Marion Motley -- were Jackie Robinson a full eight months before anyone knew who Robinson was.
Willis, a lightning-quick middle guard from Columbus East High School and Ohio State, and Motley, a powerful, bruising fullback, were the two African American players who broke the color barrier permanently coming out of World War II not just in football, but in pro sports overall, when they suited up for the first game of the start-up Cleveland Browns in the All-America Football Conference on Sept. 6, 1946 at Cleveland Stadium when they throttled the Miami Seahawks 44-0.
Indeed, it was a night for history. Those in the crowd of 60,135, the largest ever to see a pro football game to that point, didn’t realize they were seeing the beginning of the greatest pro football dynasty ever as the Browns went on to play in 10 league championship games, with seven titles, in their first 10 years of existence. And they certainly didn’t realize they were seeing the beginning of tremendous changes not just in sports, but of society as well.
It would not be until April 15, 1947 that Robinson was called up from Montreal of the International League to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But because baseball was such a bigger sport than football at the time, and because Brooklyn is a borough of New York, which, even then, was a much bigger media market than Cleveland, the exploits of Willis and Motley were largely swept under the rug of history at the expense of Robinson’s high-profile debut with the Dodgers on Tax Day.
Willis was 84 at the time we met – he would pass away a little more than two years later – and this was a chance to interview him on camera for the Browns’ website and trace his amazing life story. Motley, with whom Willis played for eight seasons in Cleveland, had passed away in June 1999, just as the re-born Browns were getting ready to play their own inaugural season.
I had grown up with my dad’s stories about Willis, and now here he was smiling and being thrilled that someone would want to talk to what he called "an old man."
I was immediately struck by two things, the first of which was how big his hands were. It is said that the commonality between great athletes is the enormous size of their hands. I had never seen hands like that. When he shook my hand, I felt like a little kid with the way his hand swallowed up mine.
And the second thing was his kindness and class. When you look up the word "gentleman" in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Willis and that warm, friendly, infectious smile that I saw that day. He just looked like someone you’d like to meet, which, as I found out, played into his successful step into history. But more on that in just a minute.
Willis told the story of being recruited to Ohio State in 1941 by new head coach Paul Brown, who had been hired away from Massillon High School to coach the Buckeyes. Willis starred on OSU’s first national championship team as a sophomore in 1942. As World War II was winding down a few years later, he wanted to continue playing football but, with no African Americans on pro teams, there was little hope for that to happen.
So Willis began a college coaching career at all-black Kentucky State. Was he into coaching? Yes, a little. But he was more into just football, and this was his only way to stay involved.
In the early days of the Browns’ first training camp at Bowling Green State University, Brown invited Willis to watch practice. Brown secretly hoped that the experience would give Willis the itch to play, and it worked.
"Would you like to try out for the team?" Brown asked.
Brown knew the answer would be "yes" – he could see the delight in Willis’s eyes -- and he also knew that the young mans didn’t need to show him that he could play. Brown already knew he could.
But now for something that was not so silly. On the contrary, it – racism – was as serious of a social issue as there was at the time, just like now. As such, Brown needed someone with a lot of maturity and self-discipline to be the pioneer of change. He knew Willis could handle it from their days together at Ohio State.
But he also knew that it wouldn’t be easy.
A man light years ahead of his time in terms of understanding both football and society, Brown lectured Willis on that fact that he would be ridiculed and physically abused by racists who wanted to keep his kind out of the game. But Willis couldn’t retaliate – he couldn’t as much as say a word in protest – if he did, it would send the effort back decades. As bad as race relations were, they would get even worse if an African American fought back in front of thousands of people in a stadium because it would validate what many whites were thinking: That the presence of blacks would scar the game.
To help Willis, Brown went out and signed Motley, whose abilities he knew from coaching against him in those Massillon-McKinley games a decade earlier. Maybe even more important was the fact that Motley would be a good friend and roommate for Willis by giving him someone who was enduring the same torture.
Willis recalled a player from the Los Angeles Dons whose behavior was particularly offensive. He slid razor blades under the finger holes on his hand pads and would jab those blades into any part of Willis’s body he could get to during pileups.
So how did Willis endure all this? How did he retaliate by not really retaliating?
"I knew I was a much better player than they were," Willis said. "Along about the middle of the third quarter when they realized that what they were doing wasn’t having any effect and that they couldn’t beat me, you’d be surprised how quiet they would get."
In being a great player and a great person with even greater restraint, Willis left behind a legacy in ways he may have never realized.
Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, the son of Paul Brown, was a kid growing up in Shaker Heights when Willis was playing for his father on the Browns. When Willis passed away, Brown made it a point to scramble back to Columbus after just a few hours of sleep and give part of the eulogy on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning five days after Thanksgiving in 2007. This was despite the fact that he had attended his Bengals’ game in Pittsburgh the previous night.
"I had the distinct privilege of hanging around the locker room with all those great players on the early Browns teams," Brown said. "Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli and the rest. I looked up to each one of them. But the guy I looked up to the most – the guy I idolized the most – was Bill Willis. He was my hero, and he still is."
Sitting there in that big, old downtown church, just a few blocks from where Willis lived, I knew exactly what Brown meant.