OHIO STATE RETIRES BILL WILLIS’ NO. 99
Statement From Jim Tressel on the Passing of Bill Willis
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A statement from Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel on the announcement of the death yesterday evening of legendary Ohio State All-American Bill Willis:”Bill Willis made a profound impact on the game of football throughout his lifetime. Even as recently as this fall, Mr. Willis was serving as a powerful role model for our players and coaches.
“Number 99 will be missed greatly, but we will draw strength from his life, accomplishments, and his Ohio Stadium recognition. Our thoughts are with the Willis family at this difficult time.”
Ohio State football legend Bill Willis will be the first lineman and first defensive player to have his jersey number retired in ceremonies today at Ohio Stadium.
A Buckeye lineman from 1942-44, Willis was a three-year starter playing both offense and defense. The Columbus native was a devastating blocker on offense and a punishing, relentless tackler on defense, despite his willowy 6-2, 215-lb. frame. Willis earned All-America honors in 1943 and 1944 (Ohio State’s first-such African-American honoree), and was a key part of the Buckeyes’ 1942 national championship squad.
Willis went on to a distinguished career with the Cleveland Browns (1946-53); he is considered to be the first African-American starter in professional football.
“Bill Willis is the ultimate Buckeye,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State director of athletics. “His record of accomplishment on the field and the class and dignity he exudes exemplify the qualities of Ohio State. He is the consummate gentleman. Recognizing his career and legacy as an athletics pioneer by retiring his jersey number is a way to salute not just the Willis family, but the Buckeye program overall.”
Willis, who is retired from his career as director of the Ohio Youth Commission, is a member of the Ohio High School, Ohio State Athletics, College Football and Pro Football halls of fame. Willis, who learned his jersey would be retired on his 86th birthday Oct. 5, still lives in the Columbus area, as do two of his three sons.
“Bill Willis is an inspiration to all Buckeye fans and football fans in general,” said Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel. “His career was unparalleled and the class he has always demonstrated is extraordinary. It has been an honor to get to know Mr. Willis.”
Willis’ No. 99 jersey will be retired from service after the 2008 season. Other Ohio State retired numbers since 1999: Archie Griffin (45); Vic Janowicz (31); Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (40); Les Horvath (22); Eddie George (27); and Charles “Chic” Harley (47).
“It’s great to see Bill’s number retired. He is certainly an icon, and his achievements have been a pinnacle at all levels of football. The recognition is very deserving,” said Griffin, president of the Ohio State Alumni Association. The two-time Heisman Trophy winner was the first Buckeye athlete to have his number retired in any sport.
His jersey number “99” was retired Nov. 3, 2007.