In 1947 Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African-American to play in the big leagues. His signing was historic and his courage amazing. The amount of vernal and psychological abuse Robinson endured from the fans as he played in the outfield and stood in the batter’s box was relentless and at times unmerciful. He put up with more than any man should and he did so with style and a mannerism few could have matched. As remarkable and brave as Robinson’s accomplishments were, others endured even more.
A year before Robinson was signed by the Dodgers, four African-Americans were signed to play professional football. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams while Bill Willis and Marion Motley signed with the Cleveland Browns. Strode played only the single season before retiring. Washington played three seasons before being forced to retire due to injuries. The other two pioneers went on have Hall of Fame careers, paving the way for all those who followed.
Marion Motley is considered one of the best players to ever take the field. In his early days with the Cleveland Browns he played both offence and defense, and excelled at both. Motley played nine seasons and ended his career with 4,720 rushing yards and a truly amazing 5.7 yards per carry. A higher yards per carry than even the great Jim Brown. Motley was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1968. Weighing between 240 and 260, Motley’s size allowed him to run over defenders, but his quickness and speed also allowed him to avoid them entirely.
Bill Willis did not believe he had an opportunity to play professional football and took a job as head football coach and athletic director at Kentucky State College. Willis then heard the Browns were holding workouts and he made the team as a walk-on, being signed just a few days before the Browns signed Motley. Like Motley, Willis played both ways and excelled. Willis was selected to the NFL pro-bowl in 1950, 51 and 52. He was then selected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Motley, Willis and the others most certainly endured much of the same verbal abuse and ridicule which Jackie Robinson would begin experiencing a year later. The four football pioneers faced a slightly harder road however, due to the nature of the game. In the 1940’s and 50’s players were not as protected as they are today and few if any personal fouls were called. A brutal game for the average player, these four brave men became the target of cheap shots, hard hits, and abuse which would have broken most men. To his credit Motley claimed he never responded to the verbal abuse or cheap shots. He simply got his revenge on the next play by outplaying his opponent.
The situation for these men was so bad, they were prevented by law from competing against white players in Miami and were forced to sit out games played there. To help offset this injustice, Paul Brown gave both players an extra $500 in their paychecks, which in 1946 was a considerable sum. By 1947, the Miami team had ceased to exist. Few can imagine the insults and tortures these men endured both on and off the field. The verbal abuse was unrelenting but the physical punishment inflicted on the field would have broken most men, if not in body, in spirit. Fortunately these men had the mental and physical fortitude to stay the course and emerged recognized as pioneers and two of the best to ever play the game of professional football.