The Players Who Broke Football's Racial Barriers

Marion Motley's story is discussed in the film "Forgotten Four" to be screened at WRHS (wrhs.org)
Marion Motley's story is discussed in the film "Forgotten Four" to be screened at WRHS (wrhs.org)
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Browns diehards likely know the names of Marion Motley and Bill Willis: two of the first African-American football players in the modern era. They were both incredible players, inducted in the Pro Hall of Fame, who faced incredible discrimination on and off the field. Ahead of speaking on a panel at the Western Reserve Historical Society tomorrow about Marion Motley's legacy in sports, his grandson, Tony, told ideastream's Tony Ganzer about some of the challenges his grandfather faced during his career.

MOTLEY: "Well as I can remember, he used to tell me different stories, you know the other players stepping on his hands, and telling the referees about it, and they would just say 'Motley get back to the huddle, get back to the huddle.' I remember one story vividly, that they were supposed to have been going to Miami to play, and he got a letter and it said 'Motley if you come down here, and you carry the ball over the field goal, you better watch out.' And I remember him telling me that he went to [coach] Paul Brown about it, and Paul said, 'well, do you want to travel? Do you want to go to the game?' And I think he didn't go, but I remember asking did he get paid? I think Paul Brown paid him. But that was just the time in which he played, and the adversity he had to face: [being spat] on, being called the 'N' word, he and Bill Willis had to face that adversity, and carry the torch for many of the black players today."

GANZER: "I read that Paul Brown wouldn't put up with racism on the Browns team."

MOTLEY: "It wasn't about race with Paul Brown. It was about the Xs and Os. Being men."

GANZER: "Do you think players now realize how the leagues were back in the day? How much of a struggle men like your grandfather had to fight?"

MOTLEY: "I really get the feel that a lot of them don't understand, but there are some who understand, especially the old schoolers I think because they were closer to that time. Maybe the Jim Browns, the Tony Dorsetts, of that time, stuff like that. But the young guys, to me, it's about the money more or less. These guys are out if they break a nail, they're on the injured reserve, sprained ankles. You know, my grandfather, you have to think back then they didn't even have face masks and real helmets. They had leather helmets. So you have to put your mind-set back then, you can just imagine they played hurt all the time, or a lot of the time. Poked eyes. Busted lips. They were just rugged, because it wasn't about the money, because there was no money at that time. It was just basically the love of the game. "

GANZER: "You're going to speak on a panel, and then there's going to be a screening of a film about the pioneers of the NFL, what do you hope people will take away from both that film and hearing your testimony about your grandfather?"

MOTLEY: "My personal testament, to that, is that they understand first of all the legacy of those guys, the things that they went through to make it better for today, number one. Number two: what burns in my heart, a lot of times, and not taking anything away from Jackie Robinson, is that these guys went through all of this stuff before Jackie Robinson. Even though Jackie Robinson went through it you know at UCLA, but on a professional level you know those guys were first. But Jackie Robinson got the accolades, and the financial backing and all of that. And we as a society we look at that singular person, because all these guys came through as a group, per se, they didn't achieve or get those accolades that Jackie Robinson did, but that's the thing I want people to understand is that these guys were first."

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