Bill Willis

October 5, 1921 — 

November 27, 2007

William Karnet Willis was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1921.  Willis played for the Cleveland Browns from 1946-1953.  During his career, he was a first-team All-League selection seven times and played in three NFL Pro Bowls.  Willis was one of the first African American football players to play professional football, signing to a contract with the Cleveland Browns in 1946 – a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB.

Willis attended the Ohio State University in 1941, participating in both track and football.   Ohio State football coach Paul Brown started Willis as a sophomore in 1942, when the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Conference and were voted national champions by the Associated Press.

Although a career in the National Football League was unlikely for Willis, as no African Americans had played in the league since 1933, former Ohio State football coach Paul Brown was made head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Willis walked onto the team and signed with the Browns – breaking the color barrier in pro football.  Willis was named an All League player three times with the Browns and the team won the league title every year in the AAFC that Willis had played.

Willis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Also in 1977, he was inducted as a charter member of the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame. Willis was honored by The Ohio State University in November 2007 when his #99 jersey was retired.  He died in late November, 2007.

Information from Pro Football Hall of Fame