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Bill Willis
Defensive lineman
Jersey #(s)
Born October 5, 1921(1921-10-05)
Columbus, Ohio
Died November 27, 2007 (aged 86)
Columbus, Ohio
Career information
Year(s) 19461953
College Ohio State
Professional teams
Career stats
Games 99
Interceptions 1
Seasons 8
Stats at
Career highlights and awards

William Karnet Willis (October 5, 1921 – November 27, 2007) was one of the dominant American football players of the 1940s and 1950s, and is an inductee in the College and Professional Football Halls of Fame. Willis was one of the first African American football players to play professional football. He was signed to a contract with the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC a full year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His success helped open the doors of professional sports for other African Americans. Willis married Odessa Porter in 1947 and had three sons, William, Jr., Clement and Dan.


Early life

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Willis was the son of Clement and Willana Willis. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his grandfather and mother. He attended Columbus East High School where he both ran track and played football. In football he chose to play on the line so as not to be compared to his older brother, Claude, who had been an All State fullback in the same high school a few years earlier. Playing on the line, Bill Willis received Honorable Mention All-State honors in his senior year. Bill's son, Bill Willis Jr. was born in Cleveland Ohio when he played for the Cleveland Browns. [1]

College career

Willis entered the Ohio State University in 1941. His expectations for athletics at Ohio State centered primarily on the track team, where he excelled in the 60-yard and 100-yard events. Ohio State football head coach Francis Schmidt had played no African Americans during his stay from 1934 to 1940. Furthermore, at only 202 pounds, many considered Willis small for a lineman. New Ohio State head coach Paul Brown, however, favored quickness over size. Willis became a starter as a sophomore in 1942.[2]

That year the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Conference and were voted national champions by the Associated Press. Before the following season, the Ohio State team was decimated by inductions into the war effort. Willis volunteered for the army, but was declared 4F due to varicose veins.[3] He was a first team All Conference selection in the Big Ten that year. In 1944 the Ohio State Buckeyes completed an undefeated season, and Willis was named to the United Press International and Look Magazine All-America teams. He played in the 1944 College All-Star Game at Chicago.

Willis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1977 he was inducted as a charter member of the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame. Willis is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. The Ohio State University honored Willis on November 3, 2007 when his #99 jersey was retired.

Professional career

A career in the National Football League was unlikely for Willis in 1945. No African Americans had played in the league since 1933. He took a job at Kentucky State College, an historically-black school, as head football coach and athletic director. He also began exploring the option of playing for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

Willis then read of a new professional league being formed in the United States, the All-America Football Conference, and that Paul Brown was to be in charge of the Cleveland team, the Cleveland Browns. He wrote to Brown asking for a tryout. Brown sent a message through Columbus Dispatch reporter Paul Hornung that Willis would find it worth his time to show up at the training camp. Without a formal invitation, Willis' official status was a walk-on. Willis made the team, and a few days later the Browns also signed African American fullback Marion Motley.

In their rookie years, Willis and Motley were forbidden by law from competing against white players in Miami, and were required to sit out their game against the Miami Seahawks.[4] Brown gave both men an extra $500 in their checks, and told Willis he would take care of the problem. The following year, Miami disappeared from the league.

Willis began with the Browns playing both offense and defense, but changes in substitution rules soon allowed him to concentrate on the defensive middle guard position. As a pro, Willis weighed between 210 and 215 pounds but was listed at 225 as a psychological ploy. The Browns won their league title every year they played in the AAFC, and Willis was named as an All League player after three of those four years.

In 1950 the Browns moved into the National Football League. Willis was selected for the Pro Bowl in 1950, 1951, and 1952. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

External links


  1. ^ PFRA Research: BILL WILLIS
  2. ^ ibid
  3. ^ Steinberg, Donald (1992). Expanding Your Horizons: Collegiate Football's Greatest Team. Dorrance Pub. Co.. ISBN 0-8059-3323-9.  
  4. ^ Geoff Hobson, Willis Watching Special Sunday
Preceded by
Norman Passmore
Kentucky State University Head Football Coach
Succeeded by
Robert White


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