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I DIDN'T PLAN on playing professional football, because I didn't know any blacks who played professional football. After I graduated from Ohio State, all I wanted to do was coach at a black university in Ohio. In 1945 I was coaching football at Kentucky State College when I read a story in the Negro newspaper in Columbus about whether Bill Willis could play for the Browns of the new All-America Football Conference. After I read that story, I went to see Paul Brown, who had been my coach at Ohio State. Coach Brown told me that he didn't see anything in the new league's charter that said blacks could not play. He said he would get back to me. In the meantime I was offered a contract to play for Montreal of the Canadian Football League.
I was all set to go to Canada when I got a call from a Columbus newspaper reporter who was a good friend of Paul Brown's. The reporter told me I should come down to try out for Cleveland. I told him I was on my way to Canada. He said, "Why don't you stop by on the way?" So I stopped at the Browns' camp in Bowling Green just after practice one day, and the next day I got a chance to try out. I was put over center against Mike Scarry. After I beat Scarry a couple of times, the coaches came to the line of scrimmage to make sure I wasn't offside. On the last of four snaps I knocked Scarry into quarterback Otto Graham and stepped on Graham's toe. Paul Brown said that was enough: I made the team right there. I signed a contract for $4,000 and got a $1,000 bonus. What I didn't realize until later was that it was Brown himself who told the reporter to call me.
Football has always been a violent game, and in the yesteryear it was pretty tough because the equipment was not as good and protective as it is today. I played on both sides of the ball. It used to be if you didn't, you would feel something was wrong. I played with many outstanding players, many who are in the Hall of Fame, like Marion Motley. When you talk about an all-around football player, Motley was the very best of his day.
As for integration, I had no sense that I was doing anything special other than being on a special team. But it did get pretty rough at times. I was thankful we had a lineman by the name of Lou Rymkus, who was our captain. He would tell me, "Willie, when these guys call you names, don't you say anything or do anything. Just come and tell me. We'll take care of things." The more I played, the better things got in terms of my acceptance as being a guy who could dish it out as well as take it.
Now you look at the game, and blacks are coaches and outstanding players. I'm sure what helped was that Motley and I did well. We were pretty good at the game, and we acted as pretty good role models. Teams took notice of Motley and me because we played before sold-out crowds. I think the other teams began to think: Well, if we get a couple of black players on our team, we can win football games and make some money, too.
IN THE 1950s, from a racial standpoint, things were pretty stiff in the NFL. There were not many blacks in the league. I think we had six or seven blacks on our ball club. We were called n------ and stuff like that by guys on other teams. You immuned yourself because you expected it. But the beautiful thing about it, as if it was done by design, years later some of those same guys came up to me and sincerely apologized for the things they said. They said they didn't mean it, but it was something to get me off the game. I can honestly say things got better and better as the number of black players increased. But it was difficult staying in different hotels. They would stay downtown, and we would stay in the black section of town. Everything for me was on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore--movies, the jazz houses and all the eating establishments. I had everything I wanted. The only problem was that it separated us, because we could not do anything as a team together. They went their way. We went our way.