BEREA - Not long after Romeo Crennel was hired as Cleveland`s first black head coach, he was visited by an elderly man whose strength, courage and sacrifice decades earlier changed the NFL.
Bill Willis sat in Crennel`s office that day and talked about football, the Browns and his special life, one that inspired generations of players, many of whom were unaware of his lasting legacy.
"Bill was a pioneer," Crennel said Wednesday. "He blazed a trail for guys like myself."
Willis, a two-time All-American at Ohio State and Hall of Famer with the Browns who helped break down pro football`s color barrier in the 1940s, died Tuesday night in a Columbus hospital from multiple illnesses. He was 86.
More than 60 years ago, Willis, a two-way star from 1946-53 with the Browns, was among a group of players who desegregated pro football a full year before Jackie Robinson stepped across baseball`s racial divide.
Yet Willis` story and those of Cleveland teammate Marion Motley and Woody Strode and Kenny Washington of the Los Angeles Rams are not well known.
"It went under the radar," said Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown, whose legendary father, Paul, coached Willis with the Buckeyes and Browns. "Everyone knew the Jackie Robinson story, but Bill Willis and Marion Motley were every bit as important to the world of football and it was overlooked.
"He got some recognition in the last few years and I`m grateful for that. He deserved to know people appreciated his role."
Willis is recognized as the first black full-time starter in pro football`s modern era. He was also Ohio State`s first black All-American, and the school recently honored him by retiring his No. 99 jersey.
"He may have been the finest player that ever played here," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said.
At halftime of the Nov. 3 game against Wisconsin, Willis, who suffered a stroke a few years back, was driven to the 50-yard line in a golf cart for an emotional ceremony that concluded with his name and number being unveiled on a permanent sign at one end of Ohio Stadium.
Surrounded by family and friends, Willis tipped his cap in thanks. Watching him were thousands of fans oblivious to his enormous imprint on football`s history in Ohio and beyond.
After joining the Browns in 1946, Willis endured unspeakable bigotry and hatred on the field. He was subjected to physical abuse as players would give him an extra elbow to the ribs or shot to the head while laying in the pile. He was taunted with profane racial slurs by white players.
It`s hard to imagine now, but there were hotels that wouldn`t allow blacks to stay as guests. So Paul Brown would call ahead of time to make sure the entire Cleveland team would be accommodated.
Willis rarely spoke of the injustices he had to overcome. He also refused to make a big deal about his contribution to advancing racial equality in sports.
"In talking with Bill, he just appreciated the opportunity he had and that he wanted to make the best of it by doing the best he could," Crennel said. "By doing that he opened up the doors for other minorities to come in and have a chance."
Browns running back Jason Wright has a great appreciation for what Willis accomplished.
As a youngster, Wright attended Saturday classes on black history while living in California. His parents, who were active in the civil rights movement, wanted to make sure he knew about those who had made his life better. The 25-year-old is well-versed on Willis` story and that of other pioneering players.
"To think of what adversity and what trial had to be in their faces to establish an integrated league is really amazing," he said. "It`s something that every player, not just the black players in the league, owes a ton of gratitude towards. One of the unique things about the football environment is that we really become a family, across racial lines, across socio-economic lines.
"You don`t see that in the rest of society and those guys paved the way for that special atmosphere we have here."
Last season, Crennel asked Willis to speak to his players before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns didn`t get a rah-rah speech from Willis or one detailing his fight. Instead, Willis spoke to them about the importance of being a good teammate.
"He didn`t talk about what he had been through," wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "He talked about focusing on us."
That was Willis` way. While his tackling and blocking made him a standout on the field, he was a modest man off it.
"He didn`t want to toot his own horn and he never did," Mike Brown said. "He didn`t want the spotlight, he didn`t feel he was anything special. He never bragged about his role, yet he was the leader and the one who set the pace."
The Browns will wear either a special jersey patch or helmet decal for the rest of the season to honor Willis. The team is awaiting approval from the NFL before completing plans.
To Wright, it`s the least that can be done.
"You hear those stories of Jackie Robinson. You hear of Jesse Owens running over in the Olympics and this is the same caliber story," Wright said. "The same kind of epic drama that happened. His life had an impact, for sure."