Pro football pioneer and Hall of Famer Bill Willis dead at 86

Hall Info Published on : 11/28/2007

After a brief struggle with the onset of several serious illnesses, Bill Willis passed away Tuesday evening surrounded by members of his immediate family. Willis, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1977, was 86.

A true pioneer of the game, he was one of four African Americans to permanently break professional football’s “color barrier” in 1946. Along with fellow Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame teammate Marion Motley in the All-America Football Conference and the Los Angeles Rams’ Woody Strode and Kenny Washington in the National Football League, Willis helped desegregate pro football a full year before Major League Baseball was integrated. Willis was the only surviving member of the pioneering foursome.


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Bill Willis, Class of 1977
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“Bill Willis is one of the true heroes in the history of pro football,” commented Steve Perry, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s President/Executive Director. “The courage and leadership exemplified by him while leading the cause to break down racial barriers is a model for all of us all to live by."


“The Pro Football Hall of Fame is deeply saddened by this loss. Our thoughts go out to Bill’s family during this difficult time,” added Perry.

Willis, a seven-time all-league choice, was a two-way star who excelled as a defensive middle guard for the Browns from 1946 to 1953. His lightning quick burst off the line of scrimmage helped him earn a starting position with Cleveland after just one pro scrimmage. Willis and the Browns advanced to the championship game in each of Willis’ eight pro seasons and captured the AAFC title four times and won the 1950 NFL championship. Willis was known for a famous game-saving tackle against the New York Giants in a 1950 playoff game that preserved the Browns’ title run that season.