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Blazing Through Barriers
Paul Zimmerman
December 10, 2007
Remembering speedy Bill Willis, who helped integrate the NFL
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December 10, 2007

Blazing Through Barriers

Remembering speedy Bill Willis, who helped integrate the NFL

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I WAS 13 years old when I first saw Bill Willis play defensive guard for the Cleveland Browns. Football was my game. I loved to watch it and I loved to play it, and I would read anything I could get my hands on if it dealt with techniques. But nowhere in Winning Football by Bernie Bierman or the rest of mylibrary did it describe what Willis did, how he could beat the center before he got out of his stance, how he would race the ball into the backfield. Willis, the Browns Hall of Famer who died last week at age 86 of complications from a stroke, was, you see, the fastest interior lineman who ever played the game.

In 1946 Paul Brown helped break the color line in professional football by hiring Willis and Marion Motley, and you can bet that Brown, who was almost as great a recruiter as he was a coach,wouldn't have gone so far out on a limb if this pairhadn't have been truly special. Motley is considered by some, myself included, as the greatest fullback in history. Willis was all-league in seven of his eight years in pro football, first the All-America Football Conference from 1946 to '49, then the NFL from '50 to '53.

You marveled at his speed, and the Browns' p.r. department helped the legend along. I remember a photo of Brown down on all fours, looking down the line to check for himself whether or not Willis really was offside. The press book had a memo to photographers that Willis must be shot at 1/600th of a second to capture his speed.

I met him a few years ago during Hall of Fame Week in Canton. I told him that as a youngster, I tried to copy some of his moves and failed. He laughed.

"Did you ever run track?" he said. This time it was me who was laughing.

"Well, I ran the sprints at Ohio State," he said. "Hundred outdoors, and the 60 indoors. How many linemen were sprinters in college? That gives you a start."

And a Hall of Fame career.

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