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Cheap Shots, Death Threats, and Shortened Careers: The Toll Integration Took on the Forgotten Four

In Episode 3 of ‘Blackballed,’ we look at the challenges faced by the men who integrated pro football once they stepped onto the field

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

In 1933, NFL owners secretly banned Black players from the league. Thirteen years later, four Black men—Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley—reintegrated pro football. The Forgotten Four broke the race barrier in professional football one year before Jackie Robinson’s historic, and widely recognized, debut in Major League Baseball.

In Blackballed, a new four-part audio documentary on the Ringer NFL Show feed, we’re telling their story and exploring how it can help us understand the league’s complicated relationship with race in the present day. Below is an excerpt of Episode 3, “Integration.” Listen to Episode 1 here and Episode 2 here, and check back Thursday for the series finale.

Like Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley weren’t exactly greeted with applause when they joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946.

But once they were officially signed, Paul Brown made it clear to the rest of the Browns roster that they were going to need to accept their new teammates or face his wrath. And he stuck by that.

No cheap shots in practice. No fighting. Business as usual.

Not everyone loved Bill and Marion, but eventually, both players grew close to some of their teammates. That didn’t stop their opponents from taking shots at them, but it at least helped them feel like they weren’t completely alone.

And—again—just like with Kenny and Woody, the threat of violence didn’t just disappear when Bill and Marion were off the clock.

The most glaring example of this happens in December of 1946. The Browns are, at this point, 10-2; they’re at the cusp of the postseason and headed to play a game in Miami.

But Bill and Marion don’t make the trip because the team doesn’t want to stir up any trouble with its Southern hosts.

For his part, Cleveland head coach Paul Brown agrees to pay both Bill and Marion their full salaries for the week, even though they weren’t going to suit up.

Here’s what Brown told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time: “When I signed the boys last summer, I made an agreement with the league that I wouldn’t use them in Florida. … I wouldn’t do anything that might embarrass the boys.”

What Brown didn’t add, at least publicly, was that the organization had received death threats against both players.

So the two Black players stayed in Ohio while the rest of the team traveled south.

Again and again, Marion Motley had to force people’s hands to get a full shot. Now, once they saw him play—I mean really saw him—they were almost always enamored. But sometimes he had to hold their eyes open to get that first glance. And whatever peace it earned him, it was always at risk, always tied to his ability to keep producing.

You can see this in a couple of ways during his first year with the Browns. In his debut with the team, Marion received only five carries and struggled to find a groove. The rumor going around Cleveland was that he’d been signed only to give Bill Willis a roommate—kinda like Woody Strode with the Rams.

Today, we know it wasn’t true for Marion, but imagine living with that. Imagine the kind of emotional state he might have been in as the Browns suited up for their second game of the season in September.

If he wanted a shot, he was going to have to take it—again. And that’s what he did. Marion shredded the defense. He scored the first touchdown of the game on a 20-yard run and finished with 12 carries for 122 yards.

He ended the season with a little over 600 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. The thing that set Marion apart, and what really ended up being the staple of his career, was his efficiency; he finished the year averaging 8 yards a carry.

And we’ve gotta stop for a second and consider the distractions he’s being forced to deal with.

Because unlike Bill Willis, Marion is carrying the ball, and that leaves him more vulnerable to his opponents.

Every handoff exposes him to a stray elbow or a shot at the ribs, and teams take advantage of that. Years later, Bill described the beatings Marion took after the play ended, and it’s pretty gruesome: “They would hold him up—keep him on his feet—so they could take shots at him. They would keep coming, taking whacks at him. The first time we played the Dodgers, just about the whole lot of them piled on Marion.”

The team won the AAFC championship that year, largely thanks to Bill and Marion, who both made the All-Pro team.

Over the next few seasons, Marion’s legend spread. He was widely considered one of the best players in the league.

But he also started to deal with injuries: At one point, his knee had swollen to the size of a balloon. And Marion blamed a lot of that on his coach.

Years later, he said, “The way Paul handled the situation, he really shortened my career. The trainer told Paul to give me a couple of days off, but Paul said, ‘No. No, he can come out and run a little bit. If he can’t run, he can hop around.’”

The knee problems followed him for the rest of the season, even in the College All-Star Game. The pain was so bad after that outing that Marion said he couldn’t even walk out of the stadium. He had to prop himself up against a wall as he left while someone brought him to his car.

Marion remained productive into the early 1950s, routinely leading the league in rushing efficiency. But his knee problems took their toll. Paul Brown publicly criticized Marion’s fitness multiple times over this same period, and the quotes are glaring in hindsight.

At one point, he told the press that Marion “seems to have slowed both in physical speed and in his desire to excel.” At another point, he said that Marion “cannot lead his own team now.”

By 1954, with his athleticism sapped, Marion officially retired.

“The old knees just won’t take the gaff anymore,” he said at the time. “The rest of me’s young enough, but the knees feel like 100.”

The next year, he attempted a comeback with the Browns, dropping 10 pounds and expressing a willingness to line up on both sides of the ball.

Paul Brown even said he looked better than the fullback the team had brought in to replace him.

But a few weeks later, Brown traded Marion to the Steelers for another new fullback. The coach saw an upgrade, and he took it.

Marion retired from football for good later that fall.

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. To hear the entire episode click here, and subscribe to The Ringer NFL Show to listen to additional episodes.

Host: Chelsea Stark-Jones
Co-Reporter: Lex Pryor
Producers: Isaiah Blakely, Mike Wargon, Justin Sayles, and Vikram Patel
Sound Design and Original Theme Song: Devon Renaldo
Mixing and Mastering: Scott Somerville

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