Pop Quiz: Which was the first major professional sports league in America to integrate?
Answer: The National Football League.
Can anyone name the first black player in the NFL? (A shake of the head from my collaborator.) The answer is that the Cleveland Browns, under the leadership of coach and general manager Paul Brown, signed Bill Willis to play a year before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Paul Brown had an excellent eye for talent. Four years earlier, he had coached Willis at Ohio State, making a solid contribution to an undefeated Buckeye team that won the national title.
The 1942 team is one that Buckeye fans can be intensely proud of, even 68 years later. Of the 43 men on that squad, 39 of them completed their Bachelors degrees and 19 of them earned Masters degrees. Of the four non-graduates, three of them were killed in World War II.
To recap: Coach Brown, formerly of the Scarlet and Gray, figured it was a good idea for a black to play with the Browns. Paul Brown won several championships for Cleveland over the following ten years. Ironically, he lost his job after having a personality conflict with a legendary running back: Jim Brown. (I’m not making that up.)
Bill Willis’s number 99 is retired and holds a place of honor at Ohio Stadium next to Ohio State’s six Heisman Trophy winners. Sadly, Willis just recently died, on November 27, 2007 in Columbus at the age of 86. He was in his late eighties. For anyone who appreciates irony, you might enjoy the story of the LAST NFL team to integrate. It was, Kafkaesque as it may sound, the Washing ton Redskins. The team owner, Preston Marshall, was a notorious racist who once declared that he would not have a black player on his team until the Harlem Globetrotters hired a white player. The Redskins were a title contender in the 1940s. But as the 1950s rolled along, they slowly became the laughingstock of the NFL. It was not until 1960 that Marshall finally agreed to have black players on his team. In a truly bizarre development, when Marshall’s plan became public, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party carried signs that said “Keep the Redskins White.”