Men Of Honor
Why isn’t Eddie Robinson mentioned among the best of all time in MSM ?
I’ve been laboring for weeks on how to acknowledge the 60th anniversary of the color barrier being broken in professional football. I could go on for days about Jim Brown, Deacon Jones, and Deion Sanders. And while they deserve credit for bringing pro football to the forefront and “Prime Time” of American sports, there were those that came before the signing bonuses and sneaker deals whose only luxury came from playing the game that they loved in exchange for minimal pay and sometimes hostile treatment. The Civil Rights Movement only reached its peak in the 1960’s; it was fought in locker rooms of professional teams as with as much intensity as any diner sit-in.
I’ve chosen to salute three men who put money, glory and prestige on hold, just to put their skills against the best in their profession. Today’s Black Athlete needs to take note the next time they hop into their late model BMW, sporting the latest iced-out jewelry; that regardless of who you are and what you’re making; you’re drinking from a well that you did not dig.
While many consider Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 the induction of the Black Athlete’s participation in American sports in the modern era, it actually occurred an entire year earlier when William “Bill” Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns as an offensive guard. Willis would later double as a defensive tackle, as two-way players were common in football prior to the Super Bowl era. Willis, considered too small for either position was listed at 6’2”, between 215-225 pounds. A known speedster, Willis was valued as both a blocker and tackler. From his days at Ohio State and throughout his professional career Willis’ speed was so deceptive it led many to believe that he was playing offsides; but upon further review Willis’ timing off the ball gave him an undeniable advantage over his opponents.
Willis entered The Ohio State University in 1941 and focused on running track; he was a star in the 60 and 100-yard events. From 1934 to1940, no Black athletes were allowed on the football team. New Ohio State head coach Paul Brown came in and set things straight, he brought Willis out for tryouts, although Willis was small for his size he saw his speed as an advantage and started Willis in his sophomore year of 1942.
That season Ohio State won the Big Ten and National Championships. The following season the team was reduced greatly due to inductions into the war effort. Willis volunteered but was considered a 4F due to varicose veins. That season Willis became First Team All Big 10 as Ohio State finished the season undefeated. Willis made the UPI and Look Magazine All-America Teams, and was invited to play in the 1944 College All-Star Game in Chicago.
Upon leaving Ohio State, the pro football ranks were not an option for Willis. Due to an unspoken ban, Blacks had not been permitted to play professionally form 1934 to 1946. It was a step back for a league that finally gained credibility in the 1930’s. ‘Name’ Black players we no longer signed, largely in part because of the Great Depression that left much of America unemployed. The hiring of any Blacks at that time for anything was considered a “bad public relations move.” Willis went on to coach at Kentucky State College an HBCU; once there, Willis also served as the athletic director. The desire to play football was still in his heart, so much so that he considered playing in the Canadian Football League for the Montreal Alouettes.
In 1946, the All-America Football Conference was formed; Paul Brown was placed in charge of the Cleveland Browns franchise. Willis would contact Brown about trying out for the franchise; Brown assured Willis that there was no reason why a Black man couldn’t play in the AAFC. Brown would later respond indirectly through Columbus dispatch reporter Paul Horning that it would be worth his while to show up. Showing up without a formal invite, Willis made the team as a walk-on.
Within 24 hours, Willis signed a contract for $4,000.
During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the Browns became professional football’s first dominant team, Paul Brown put together an offensive juggernaut that scored at will. Willis started out playing offense and defense for the Browns but eventually he would play defense full-time while revolutionizing a position. Paul Brown employed a 5 man defensive front that placed Willis in the middle, because of his speed he was able to assist in run support or drop back into coverage on passing downs. Willis’ position would come to be known later as middle linebacker. Willis would anchor the league’s best defense for four of his first six years in the NFL, while enjoying a successful career highlighted with a game-saving tackle against the N.Y. Giants that saved a championship season in 1950. Willis was selected to three Pro Bowls (1950-1952) prior to his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
If you thought it was easy being the first Black player in pro sports, try being its first star. Dominant and virtually unstoppable were words associated with Marion Motley, the second signee of Paul Brown just three days after Bill Willis. Motley learned the game of football in Canton, Ohio, where his career would later come full circle. Brown had known of Motley from his scholastic days at Canton McKinley High, Brown coached at rival Massillon High, their paths would cross again as Motley played for Brown at the Great Lakes Naval Center during WWII and finally for the Cleveland Browns in 1946.
A marvelous athlete, Motley attended the University of Nevada, where he ran track, threw the javelin and even boxed, participating in the Nevada Golden Gloves.
In 1946, while working in the lumber mill near Leesburg, Va., (his birthplace) Motley received an invitation from Brown to play for him in the newly formed AAFC, thus solidifying their partnership forever.
Upon his arrival in Cleveland, it became evident that Motley’s size and talent would be more than the league could handle. At 6’1” 238 lbs., he became the personal bodyguard for quarterback Otto Graham as a fullback. The last line of defense for Graham often meant the end of the line for anyone trying to get to him. With that type of protection, the Browns were able to develop their passing game into one the most prolific in the early NFL.
The same aggression that Motley displayed as a blocker he probably used twofold as a runner. In a league that was still in its developmental stages Motley became the league’s first star Black or White. He was a bulldozer; his runs often ending with two or three opponents bringing him down while several others lay in his wake. He ran with a downhill style that meant plenty of shoulder dipping, forearm shivers and high stepping so if you were on the receiving end on any of this you probably felt like Rick James after a late night tussle with Charlie Murphy. Besides being a bona fide bruiser, Motley was a skilled runner. There were two plays in the Browns playbook that Motley enjoyed; one got there by accident. The Browns ran a trap play where the guard kicks out and become a lead blocker as Motley follows. The last play came because of Graham trying to avoid oncoming lineman, he pitched the ball to Motley for a productive gain, known today as the draw play.
Being the league’s Black standout star in Jim Crow America did not come without a price. There were times where Willis and Motley were segregated from their teams when it came to meals and lodging on the road. An incident in Miami, Fl. was the last straw for Coach Paul Brown. As rookies, Blacks were forbidden by Jim Crow law against competing against white players in Miami and were required to sit out their game against the Miami Seahawks. An infuriated Brown gave both men an additional $500 in their checks and promised them that the problem “would be taken care of.” The next season there was no franchise in Miami. Motley struggled with the notion that in one moment a group of men could unite for a common cause and in the next moment when the lights were dimmed and the uniforms came off you can act as if you never knew this person. He went as far as to seek an explanation from his white teammates, “How is it that we can be so close during a game, but before a game and after a game you go back to this routine?” The best they could muster was a shrug of the shoulder. Hurt and embittered Motley used that as fuel to blaze his way into Canton’s hallowed halls.
Motley also had to deal with the dirty play from white players; he dealt with everything short of fire hoses and German sheppards, the refs were no help proving that the U.S. government was not the only entity turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to injustice. It’s well documented how Jackie Robinson took his abuse silently played through it; Motley let it be known that all of his transgressors would eventually pay.
Known as the predecessor to the great Jim Brown, Motley would retire after 9 seasons as the AAFC’s leading rusher, his career totals were 4,712 yards with a 5.7 yards per carry average (NFL yards included). In 1950 he was the last person to lead the league in rushing with less than 140 carries, that season he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
In 1968, Motley returned to Canton a conquering warrior, immortalized with the game’s greats. He was also named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Despite the social climate in his playing days, Motley would not allow himself to be intimidated regardless of what the status quo called for.
Imagine being the first, the prototype and never being recognized for it. You are the cornerstone in a pyramid of greatness. Even in your final days acceptance never came, not even a phone call to acknowledge your contributions. You never expressed bitterness but in your heart you know that you are the father of all of that you see – you smile at the strides that have been made on the playing field; but your heart is torn that for lack of knowledge your children do not know of you. Dead men with green faces and material idols lead many astray. Many have fallen off of the path, but those that remain true to your cause are looked upon as outcasts, rebel-rousers, and being too Black. Left to suffer for the sins of their father.
This was the plight of Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard. The senior selection committee honored one of the rocks upon which the National Football League was built, posthumously at the 2005 Hall of Fame induction.
Pollard’s contribution to professional football extends beyond the playing field. An All-American from Brown University Pollard led the Bruins to a 1915 Rose Bowl victory as a 5’9” 165 lb. running back. He was lauded up and down the East Coast as Brown beat up on Ivy counterparts Harvard and Yale.
Pollard joined the Akron Pros in 1919 after serving in WWI, in 1920 the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association (later became the NFL). In the Pros first season the compiled an 8-0-3 record on their way to the league championship. The team did not lose in their first 19 games with Pollard going 15-0-4. Pollard had the distinction of becoming not only the first Black player in pro football history but also its first Black head coach as well.
Pollard was described, as the league’s most feared runner because of his elusive style; he was also an excellent punt return man. Pollard experienced the haters on the field as well, but employed a method that would prevent him from being intentionally injured. Upon being tackled, he would quickly roll on his back and stick his cleats and knees into the air to prevent piling on.
Since bench coaching was not allowed in pro football during this time, Pollard was relied upon for his sheer knowledge of the game, coming from a complex offense at Brown; he was tailor-made for the position. Over the course of his career, Pollard played and coached as many as 4 different teams. Pollard organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, and all-African American pro team that played against White teams in the Chicago area but enjoyed greater success in playing exhibitions on the West Coast.
The team folded as a result of the Great Depression, thus ending Pollard’s pro football career.
Life after football was prosperous for Pollard who ran several businesses and even had his hand in entertainment as a theatrical agent.
Although Pollard never lobbied for induction into the Hall of Fame, he was a pioneer who was overlooked. Jim Thorpe, who came into the league at the same time as Pollard was inducted in the Hall’s inaugural class in 1963, Pollard’s day, would come some 42 years later and 19 years after his death. Pollard died at the age of 92 in 1986.
Pollard’s daughter Leslie summed it up best when she spoke to the Boston Globe last February, “It’s strange. This generation does not know anything. Almost all of my younger life, there was mention of my father in his football days almost every time you picked up a newspaper. Now, people have never have heard of him.”
Something I saw a few years ago saddened me, Emmitt Smith the NFL’s all-time leading rusher was being interviewed for an NFL Films special – the question asked of Smith was if he knew who Marion Motley was, Smith with a stupid grin on his face said, “No, I don’t know who Marion Motley is.” I was embarrassed for Smith – a player of his magnitude should not only know the history of the game, but also know the contributions of our people to this game.
As a boy, I dreamed of playing this game as a professional, my dream was to graduate from the University of Michigan and break all of Anthony Carter’s receiving records, he is the first football player that I remember watching as a kid. Instead, I became a sports enthusiast who just happens to write about this great sport, I can’t think of a bigger thrill.
I went to the Fritz Pollard website and I saw a quote that I used in the opening that read: “We drink from wells that we did not dig.” In my lifetime, I know I’ve been to that well too often to ignore it, so today I raise my glass.
This is an unpublished column I wrote over a year ago.