Marion Motley

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Marion Motley : biography

June 5, 1920 – June 27, 1999

Motley asked Otto Graham for a job with the Washington Redskins when Graham was head coach there in the late 1960s, but he was again turned away. Motley also signed on to coach an all-girl professional football team called the Cleveland Dare Devils in 1967. By 1969, the team had only played a few exhibition games as Cleveland theatrical agent Syd Freedman struggled to drum up interest in a women’s league. Later in life, Motley worked for the U.S. postal service in Cleveland, HM Miller Construction Suffield, Ohio, the Ohio Lottery and for the Ohio Department of Youth Services in Akron. He died in 1999 of prostate cancer.

Honors and legacy

In 1968, Motley became the second black player voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, located in his hometown of Canton. Having played successfully as a fullback and pass blocker on offense and as a linebacker on defense, he is seen as one of the best all-around players in football history. Blanton Collier, an assistant who took over as the team’s head coach after Paul Brown’s firing in 1963, said Motley "had no equal as a blocker. He could run with anybody for 30 yards or so. And this man was a great, great linebacker."

Most of Motley’s runs were trap plays up the middle, but he had the speed to run outside. "There’s no telling how much yardage I might have made if I ran as much as some backs do now," he once said. Running back Jim Brown surpassed Motley’s rushing records in the early 1960s, but many of Motley’s coaches and fellow players regarded Motley as the better player, in part because of his strength as a blocker. "There is no comparison between Jim Brown and Marion Motley," Graham said at a luncheon in Canton in 1964. "Motley was the greatest all-around fullback."

In his books The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football and The New Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football, football writer Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated called Motley the best player in the history of the sport. He was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994.

Military and professional career

As America’s involvement in World War II intensified, Motley joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. There he played for the Great Lakes Blue Jackets, a military team coached by Paul Brown, who was serving in the Navy during an extended leave from his job as head coach of Ohio State University’s football team. Motley played fullback and linebacker at Great Lakes, and was an important component of the team’s offense and defense. The highlight of his time at Great Lakes was a 39–7 victory over Notre Dame in 1945. Motley was eligible for discharge before the game – it was the final match of the season and the last military game of World War II – but he stayed on to play. Motley put up an impressive performance, thanks in part to Brown’s experimentation with a new play: a delayed handoff later called the draw play.

After the war, Motley went back to Canton and began working at a steel mill, planning to return to Reno in 1946 to finish his degree. That summer, however, Paul Brown was coaching a team in the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC) called the Cleveland Browns. Motley wrote to Brown asking for a tryout, but Brown declined, saying he already had all the fullbacks he needed. At the beginning of August, however, Brown invited Bill Willis, another African-American star, to try out for the team at its training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio. Ten days later, Brown invited Motley to come, too. "I think they felt [Willis] needed a roommate," Motley later said. "I don’t think they felt I’d make the team. I’m glad I was able to fool them."

Both Motley and Willis made the team and became two of the first African-Americans to play professional football in the modern era. The Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League had signed the only other black players in pro football earlier that year: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The four men broke football’s color barrier a full year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Motley felt the Browns would likely be his only opportunity to make a career of football. "I knew this was the one big chance in my life to rise above the steel mill existence, and I really wanted to take it," he said.