Bill Willis

Class of 1977



Career games played


NFL Pro Bowls




"The split second the ball moved, I charged and I always came at a different angle…I could unleash a pretty good forearm block and a rather devastating tackle too.”

Enshrinement Speech

Career Highlights

Bill Willis, at 6-2 and 210 pounds, was small by pro football standards in 1946, yet he performed in a class by himself, particularly on defense. In the eight years he played for the Cleveland Browns from 1946 through 1953, he was a first-team All-League selection seven times and a second-team choice once. He also played in three NFL Pro Bowls.

Bill, an African American, came to his first pro training camp as a comparatively small man seeking a job in a big man's sport that had, for about 15 years, been a whites only game. Lined up as the middle man on a five-man defensive front, Bill overwhelmed the center four straight times, each time crashing into quarterback Otto Graham.

Bill's charge was so quick that the coaches felt he had to be offside. But head coach Paul Brown, who had coached Bill at Ohio State, made a personal check and found that his recruit hadn't been offside at all, just exceptionally fast and agile in his defensive charge. That very night, Brown signed Willis to his first pro contract, helping to permanently break pro football’s “color barrier” a full year in advance of Jackie Robinson doing the same in major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Bill played both offense and defense for the Browns but it was at the middle guard position that he earned lasting admiration and acclaim. Lightning quickness was his constant trademark but opponents remember he was a solid blocker and devastating tackler as well. It was Bill’s touchdown-saving tackle in a playoff game against the New York Giants that enabled the Browns to continue their quest for the 1950 championship their first year in the NFL after four dominating seasons in the All-America Football Conference.

Year Team G
1946 (AAFC) Cleveland Browns 13
1947 (AAFC) Cleveland Browns 13
1948 (AAFC) Cleveland Browns 14
1949 (AAFC) Cleveland Browns 12
1950 Cleveland Browns 12
1951 Cleveland Browns 12
1952 Cleveland Browns 12
1953 Cleveland Browns 11
AAFC Total   52
NFL Total   47
Career Total   99
Additional Career Statistics: AAFC – Interceptions: 1-6



Championship Games

1946 AAFC – Cleveland Brown 14, New York Yankees 9
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

1947 AAFC – Cleveland Browns 14, New York Yankees 3
Willis started at right guard. No statistical data available.

1948 AAFC – Cleveland Browns 49, Buffalo Bills 7
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

1949 AAFC – Cleveland Browns 21, San Francisco 49ers 7
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

1950 NFL – Cleveland Browns 30, Los Angeles Rams 28
Willis started at right guard. No statistical data available.

1951 NFL – Los Angeles Rams 24, Cleveland Browns 17
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

1952 NFL – Detroit Lions 17, Cleveland Browns 7
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

1953 NFL – Detroit Lions 17, Cleveland Browns 16
Willis played in this game. No statistical data available.

All-Pro: 1946 (HA)

All-Pro Second Team: 1948 (AP, SN)

All-AAFC: 1946 (OA), 1947 (OA), 1948 (UPI, NY, OA)

All-AAFC Second Team: 1949 (UPI, NY, OA)

All-NFL: 1950 (UPI, NY), 1951 (AP, UPI, NY), 1952 (AP, NY), 1953 (AP)

All-NFL Second Team: 1952 (UPI), 1953 (UPI)

(3) – 1951, 1952, 1953

• 1940’s All-Decade Team

Year Team W L T Division Finish
1946 Cleveland Browns 12 2 0 (1st)
1947 Cleveland Browns 12 1 1 (1st)
1948 Cleveland Browns 14 0 0 (1st)
1949 Cleveland Browns 9 1 2 (1st)
1950 Cleveland Browns 10 2 0 (1st)
1951 Cleveland Browns 11 1 0 (1st)
1952 Cleveland Browns 8 4 0 (1st)
1953 Cleveland Browns 11 1 0 (1st)

Full Name: William Karnet Willis

Birthdate: October 5, 1921

Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio

High School: East (Columbus, OH)

Died: November 27, 2007 at Columbus, Ohio

Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame: January 8, 1977

Enshrined into Pro Football Hall of Fame: July 30, 1977

Presenter: Paul Brown, Hall of Fame coach

Other Members of the Class of 1977: Frank Gifford, Forrest Gregg, Gale Sayers, Bart Starr

Pro Career: 8 Seasons, 99 Games

Drafted: Not drafted. Signed as a free agent in 1946 by Cleveland Browns

Uniform Number: #30 (also wore #45 and #60 briefly)

Bill Willis Enshrinement Speech 1977

Presenter: Paul Brown

Mr. Chairman, Governor Rhodes and inductees and ladies and gentlemen. This morning at breakfast, my wife said to me ''you know of all the wonderful places we go and the nice things we get to see, the nicest and the happiest of them all is when you bring me here for this given weekend'', and golly I think she's right. I am always amazed when I come back for this great event and how a city like Massillon and the surrounding areas could put this on at this degree. It is something that astounds me at all times. You see the Cantons and the Massillon’s never get over it, that is the way it is.

I would like to say to the class that is coming in here, Pete Rozelle said to me at lunch "you know this is an exceptional group" and you guys really are. You keep in mind once you get in the Hall of Fame, it's yours, they can't take it away from you. You wear the tag all your life. It involves some responsibilities, but this group here can really measure up. I've known them as competitors and players and I agree with Pete they are special and I would like to say to them, I am proud to be in the Hall of Fame with you.

Now we'll get to Bill Willis and I think first of all I want to thank Bill for asking me to have the honor of presenting him. You know when you are a football coach you never know for sure just what some of your players might think of you and as you know I have never been known for my humor or being much of a comedian, I'll say that Bill, who I guess was about the most popular guy on our team and a tremendous players, and if there is one thing that stands him out it would be his quickness and speed, I think the quickest down linemen in the history of football. I always likened his defensive charge to that of a snake thing going at them, it is just a tremendous performance.

I first got to know him at Ohio State where I was coaching. He came there with his High School Coach, Ralph Webster, who was always telling me about this guy. They played in our national championship football team of 1942 at Ohio State. I went into the Navy and when I got out, we started the Cleveland Browns. We were at camp at Bowling Green and I had an idea so I called Paul Horning, the sports editor of the Columbus Dispatch, and I said, ''would you please try to find the deacon and bring him to Bowling Green and all you have to do is just have him ask for a tryout. I did the same thing here in Canton with Oscar Barkley. I had him get a hold of Marion Motley, and just come up and ask for a try-out. Well they did and the rest of it is history. I say this to you, so we understand each other, this was no social idea. I am looking for guys to play football for people who are men among a bunch of men and this guy really measures up.

I think the next step in this thing was year after year we were a winner. We all went to a lot of pro bowl games, became all pro in a lot of ways and a lot of times and won all the honors that go with it. too numerous to go into. But the main thing was his personality. This was no ordinary personal person. He was a swell husband and a fine father. I can remember these little guys when we would have a picnic up there, they would come up with Odessa and him. Those were the days when little Clement was trying to grow up to his teeth. He was quite a kid and I used to kid Bill about it. We would have all these contests for the kids, to tell you the truth between the Willis and the Motley boys the rest of the guys all got licked in every contest we could figure out. Those were happy, happy days and we were a successful football team that just got into the championship after championship and this was one of the real cogs.

You have heard these people talk about playing different positions today. This guy played offensive tackle, offensive guard and defensive middle-backer. He probably re-wrote the book on how you take a ball from center and make a ball exchange because centers couldn't cope with him when he played over their head and we all had to get down to brass tacks in pro football and find a better way to get the quarterback out of there before it got up-ended. I think he was also the fore-runner of what is today the four-three defense. We played him loose, side to side and covered the field. This guy was a sprinter at Ohio State and the Madison Square Garden. I think one of his opponents was Buddy Young. To give you an idea, this is some pretty good-sized guy to be able to do that. But over and beyond all of it was a man and a fellow. This guy is loving, he was a deed to everybody. I don't know if I have ever had a more popular football player nor a better one in this position.

I am honored, Bill, that you would ask me to do this. I have been through a lot of times and I say to all of you this is the biggest, finest, even the man above cooperated with us today with weather. I commend you on the finest service to our sports. And now I would like to present to you for enshrinement to the Hall of Fame, my dear, dear friend and a great, great player, Bill Willis.

Bill Willis

Mr. Toastmaster, my very good friend Governor Rhodes, members of this platform, sports friends, sports fans, and friends. You know it is with a great deal of humility and with profound gratitude that I stand here before you today, and I really had to thank God for giving me the strength and the ability to perform in football. I thank God also for the wisdom that he gave me to make the choices in life that I did make.

This is a great, great day for me. I am very thankful I have been blessed in many, many ways for the love of my dear wife, Odessa. She has given me inspiration and encouragement in her very strong love through the years. We have been blessed with three very fine sons. We are extremely proud of them. We are proud also of the beautiful daughters-in-law we have, and it makes me feel great to be able to have my entire family here with me and share in this most momentous occasion. I would like to thank very much the selection committee for honoring me in this way and I would like to thank the citizens of Canton, Ohio and Massillon. I would like to thank my coach, my high school coach, Ralph Webster who did introduce me into the game of football and I would like to give a special thanks to a very fine friend of mine, my line coach at Ohio State, Ernie Gophrey. Ernie Gophrey taught me how to use my size and how to use my strength to the very, very best ability. And I would like to thank Paul Brown. Over the years Paul Brown has meant a great deal to me. And Paul, I am honored to have you to be my presenter today, because after all that's the way it began, 33 years ago.

I have often said that Paul Brown saved my life, and if it had not been for PB, I am certain I would not be here receiving this honor today. Bec1use it was he who afforded me the opportunity to play pro football, when it was not the popular thing to do. I was the first black to play in the All-American conference and Paul Brown arranged for me to play. Without fanfare, he simply gave me the opportunity to make that ball club of his and in his own quite way, he did have to defend his actions in those days, and it was a week ago later that he brought Marion Motley to camp. And Marion Motley as you know, did prove to be the best the pro football game as ever seen, in my opinion.

Motley and I became fast friends because we had to be fast friends. We had to go through a lot together and we had to depend upon each other. However, we not only depended on each other, we had our teammates to depend upon. And I would like to say to all of my teammates who are here today and those who are not here today, that I am deeply grateful for the companionship, for the friendship, for the togetherness we shared in those days. I would also like to thank a person whom I have known for many, many years, a person who was my friend when I went to East High School in Columbus, Ohio and that is my very good friend, Jim Rhodes, Governor Rhodes. I would like to thank the Governor for giving me the opportunity to work in the service of the youth of this state over the past 14 years, and though he is bias and thinks I am the greatest football player that ever was, I know he is the greatest Governor this state as ever had because he is a Governor for all the people of this state.

You know when I first started playing with the Browns many years ago, I had no idea whatsoever, the thought never entered my head, that one day I would be standing here selected to go into this Hall. I had but one purpose and one goal in mind in those days and that was to make the ball club and do the very best that I could to make my club the winning team. Playing the game of football, I did learn the secret to success. And as I go about this date, I tell every young person that there is a formula for success. And that formula is to always do the very best you can with what you have wherever you are. And you will find if you do the very best that you can, under any and all circumstances that the best will come back to you. The best as come back to me, it has been a long time coming though. But it is here now, and I am extremely grateful, and I know you are also that at last we have reached the Hall. And I say to you Paul Brown, you are a remarkable fellow and one day someone really ought to write a book about all of the innovations that this man has brought to modern day football. Because many of the things that we see today, many of the formats, many of the plays, many of the techniques were brought about by Paul Brown, and I would have to dieter with anyone who would say, Paul, that you are not the greatest.

One of the innovations or rather the process of innovations that I am quite sure that anyone would have to write when this book is written about you, is the process of you introducing a player to the · game of football who was selected for his ability to perform and not for any other reason. It was because you gave me that opportunity, Paul, I will be forever grateful and I say to you, all of you who are here, that this is the greatest moment of my life in the world of athletics because after you reach the Hall there is no other place to go. And so, thank you for the support all of you have given me through the years and I, like the other enshrinees that are present before me, am hopeful that I am deserving. Thank You.