Marion Motley played against teams coached by Paul Brown in high school, and for the Hall of Famer at Great Lakes Naval Station while they were in the Navy. Motley teamed with Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant at Great Lakes in 1945.
In 1946, Motley joined Bill Willis as the first two African American players to play for Brown’s Cleveland Browns in the inaugural season of the All-America Football Conference. Motley signed three days after Willis, who had played for Brown at Ohio State and attended the same high school as Vikings legend Jim Marshall.
The 6-foot-1, 238-pound fullback/linebacker proved tough to bring down with the ball in his hands. His 5.7 career yards per carry is a record for fullbacks and helped him total 4,720 rushing yards on 828 carries.
“Marion could do everything: play linebacker, he could run, he was strong,” former teammate Sherman Howard said in The Forgotten Four, a documentary about Motley, Willis and Rams Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Motley helped the Browns win four straight AAFC titles and the 1950 NFL championship in their first year in the league. He won rushing titles in 1948 and 1950, and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
Motley’s accomplishments were in the face of discrimination and hate speech that he, Willis, Washington and Strode encountered as they broke down barriers.
“Bill Willis, Marian Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode never had the adulation, they never really gained the acknowledgement that Jackie Robinson did [in baseball in 1947] for what they did for pro football,” USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell said in The Forgotten Four, a documentary about the 1946 reintegration of professional football. “They’re bonded by the fact that the wall came crashing down in two leagues.”