Former pro football trailblazer loved his UCC church
Written by Timothy Ahrens
June - July 2008
When Bill Willis spoke, people listened.
"Whenever I heard him talk, I hung on every word he said," said Archie Griffin, former Ohio State All-American running back and two-time Heisman Trophy winner. "He was that type of person, so very encouraging and motivational."
A legendary football trailblazer, Bill, who died last November, was also a beloved UCC member.
Born in 1921, Bill was a pioneer in the sports world. He became Ohio State's first African-American All-American in 1943 and 1944, playing on both the offensive and defensive lines. He also was a member of OSU's 1942 national championship team.
After graduating from college, Bill became one of the first African-American professional football players in 1946, enduring blatant racism from fans and other players. As a star middle guard (a position that would evolve into middle linebacker), he played on championship teams for the Cleveland Browns during an eight-year career. He is considered to be professional football's first African-American starting player.
Among the honors he was to earn for his gridiron feats was induction into the Ohio high school, Ohio State, college and professional halls of fame. In November, the No. 99 that he wore at OSU was retired. He became only the seventh player in the university's history to be so honored.
When Bill's number was retired, Gene Smith, OSU athletic director, said, "Bill Willis is the ultimate Buckeye. His record of accomplishment on the field and the class he exudes exemplifies the qualities of Ohio State. He is the consummate gentleman."
OSU head coach Jim Tressel said Bill may have been "the finest player who ever played here."
After his playing career, Bill turned his attention to another passion - kids. He and his wife, Odessa, who died in 2003, raised three sons. He also had a long career as director of the Ohio Youth Commission, where he worked diligently to help provide better opportunities for kids.
Bill was humble about his pioneering contribution to football.
"I'm proud of the role I played, but it was a very small part," he said. "I'm appreciative of the people who permitted me to play that role. I still get nice, thoughtful letters, saying that I had a part in how the entire fabric of professional football - management, players, everything - has moved ahead.
"Looking back on it, who thought this day would ever come?"
Bill considered First Congregational UCC in Columbus "my church'' and was a member for 43 years. He was a fixture at Sunday worship and made countless friends among the congregation. Bill had a great love for the music of the church, and served on the search committee several years ago when a new music minister was hired.
Bob Hunter, sports columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, wrote the day after Bill's death that he was a man who could be appreciated in many ways.
"It doesn't matter which memory of Willis you pick, there are plenty of beautiful ones from which to choose," Hunter wrote. "Whether he's viewed as the forerunner of the middle linebacker, a racial pioneer or the possibly the best Ohio State football player ever, Willis deserves to be remembered.
"In life and death, Willis will be one of football's everlasting treasures."
The Rev. Timothy Ahrens is senior minister of First Congregational UCC in Columbus, Ohio.