William K. Willis

From Ohio History Central

William (Bill) Karnet Willis was the first African American to play in the All-America Football Conference.

Willis was born on October 5, 1921, in Columbus, Ohio. He earned a football scholarship to The Ohio State University, where he excelled under head coach Paul Brown. Willis played at Ohio State from 1941 to 1945. He also participated in track and field. Upon graduating from Ohio State in 1945, Willis became the head football coach of Kentucky State College. In 1946, Willis tried out for the Cleveland Browns, a football team in Cleveland, Ohio, which played in the All-America Football Conference. Brown, Willis's former college head coach, was now head coach of the Browns. Brown immediately hired Willis, breaking the color barrier of the All-America Football Conference.

Willis played on offense, but he was best known for his role as middle guard on defense. Due to Willis's tremendous skill, he was a first-team All-League selection seven out of the eight seasons that he played for the Browns. In 1950, the Cleveland Browns joined the National Football League (NFL). Willis was elected to the NFL Pro Bowl three times. He also is commonly credited with helping the Browns win the NFL championship in 1950. Facing elimination from the playoffs, Willis made a touchdown-saving tackle against the New York Giants, allowing the Browns to win and to advance in the playoffs.

Following the 1953 season, Willis retired. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Willis died on November 27, 2007.

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