Feb. 13, 2007

A year before Jackie Robinson famously donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Bill Willis’ passion for football conquered the barriers of discrimination and changed the course of the game forever.

The world knows the story of the baseball legend as the desegregation of professional sports, but outside of football circles, the history of the former Ohio State standout and NFL Hall of Famer is far-reaching but almost unknown.

Raised by his grandfather and mother in Columbus, Ohio, the future all-around football star was more interested in track than football when he attended Columbus East High School.

“I had a brother, Claude, who was about six years older than me,” Willis said. “He was an outstanding football player, a fullback in high school and I was afraid I would be compared with him.”

When he did finally decide to give the sport that would become his destiny a hearty try, he became a three-year starter and won honorable-mention All-State honors as a senior.

But Willis was skeptical of a future in football. Claude had tried to play in college but was told to look elsewhere, a “black school.” After taking a year off to work, Willis enrolled at Ohio State in 1941 and new head football coach Paul Brown took note.

The two-way tackle with track-star speed quickly earned his way into the lineup as a sophomore for the 9-1 Buckeyes, who went on to win the 1942 Western Conference championship and were named the best team in the nation by the Associated Press.

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