Bill Willis, a Hall of Fame guard with the Cleveland Browns who also was Ohio State's first black football All-American, died Tuesday evening November 27th, a university spokesman said. He was 86.
Willis had been battling a short illness and was hospitalized, said school spokesman Steve Snapp, who was notified of the death by one of Willis' sons. No other details were released.
"As great a football player as he was, he was three times as good a dad," his son Will Willis Jr., told The Columbus Dispatch.
Willis, an All-American in 1943 and 1944, had his No. 99 jersey retired at halftime of the Wisconsin-Ohio State game on Nov. 3 at Ohio Stadium.
He had a distinguished career with the Browns (1946-53), helping to break the color barrier in professional football. Willis was inducted into both the college and pro football Halls of Fame.
Willis played both offense and defense for the Browns but won acclaim as a defensive middle guard on a five-man front. He made a touchdown-saving tackle in a playoff game against the New York Giants that allowed the Browns to advance and eventually win the 1950 championship game in their first year in the NFL.
With the Buckeyes, Willis was a devastating blocker on offense and a punishing, relentless tackler on defense, despite his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. The Columbus native was a key part of the Buckeyes' 1942 national championship squad.
After retiring from a career as director of the Ohio Youth Commission, Willis continued to live in the Columbus area.
With the death of Bill Willis, the league lost one of its most courageous pioneers. Willis wasn't just a dominant defender who starred for the Cleveland Browns from 1946-53. He was one of four black players who reintegrated pro football and opened doors that thousands of other minorities have walked through ever since.
It's easy to overlook that kind of contribution now. The National Football League has grown to the point that younger generations can't even recall when it was a sport that lived in the shadow of Major League Baseball. We all know what Jackie Robinson did for that game, but men like Willis -- along with Browns teammate Marion Motley and Los Angeles Rams Kenny Washington and Woody Strode -- carried similar burdens as trailblazers in their own professional pursuits. For whatever reason, their heroic stories weren't celebrated in the same fashion.
When Willis joined the Browns, who were then members of the All-American Football Conference, there hadn't been another black man in professional football in more than 13 years. There had been some blacks in the game before the 1930s -- men like Fritz Pollard, Paul Robeson and Robert Marshall -- but the league adopted an unwritten policy of banning them in 1933. As result, Willis learned what it was like to be a standard-bearer. He withstood the cheap shots, the racist jeers and all the predictable ugliness that came with the job.
What's impressive about Willis is that, like Robinson, he excelled despite all the hatred surrounding him. It's an understatement to say the man could play; he was a flat-out force. He twice was named an All-American during his career at Ohio State -- he was the first African-American to receive that honor -- and he dominated as both an offensive tackle and a middle guard on defense. Willis helped the Buckeyes win the 1942 national championship, and then he became even scarier as a pro.
Until Willis came along, the position of middle linebacker didn't exist in the NFL. But since he was so quick and explosive as a middle guard in their five-man line, the Browns' coaches started moving him off the line of scrimmage and placing him a few yards in front of the center. The idea was to give Willis a chance to run down opposing ball carriers with his speed and relentless pursuit. He proved more than capable of handling the responsibility.
Willis eventually was named All-League in the All-American Football Conference three times. After the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, he earned four more All-League honors there. The accolades didn't stop, either. He became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him six years later. More recently, Ohio State retired Willis' No. 99 at halftime of their game with Wisconsin on November 3rd.
Still, the real blessing for Willis, who died at age 86, was that he lived long enough to witness the progress he helped create in the NFL.
The notion that a black man couldn't play quarterback vanished during his lifetime. He had the opportunity to see pro teams hiring minority candidates as both head coaches and executives. In fact, Willis told reporters that he felt a special bond to Romeo Crennel after the Browns made Crennel the first black coach in franchise history back in 2005.
Judging from the comments Willis made late in his life, it was apparent that he was leaving the world in a better place than it was when he arrived. That, by the way, should be how he's remembered. He helped change the game of football with brilliant play, undeniable perseverance and a courage that we always should appreciate. And when you really think about it, the history of the game couldn't have been written the same way without him.