Tuesday 23 April 2013

No Uniform, No Shoulder Pads, Just a Football

Washington, Strode, Willis and Motley were the first four black football players to play on American fields in decades.  The first two men would not last long, but Willis and Motley ended up making careers out of their contracts.  But it came at a cost:  cheap shots, hard hits and abuse.  But in the end, Motley would be listed as one of the top 100 NFL players of all time.

Photo courtesy memberfiles.freewebs.com.

Marion Motley was born in Georgia and raised in Canton, Ohio.  At his Ohio high school, Marion excelled at several sports including track, javelin and boxing.  He was also interested in playing football, but the coach refused to give him pads or a uniform.  He persevered, practising without either.  After graduating, Marion attended college in Idaho where he played more ball.  Attitudes had not changed:  opposing players stomped on him with their cleats, gouged him in the groin, and kicked him in the knee (later to become a career ending injury).

Before completing his degree, Marion signed up for the military where he played football.  Although the referees often gave him "phantom penalties", his coach saw promise in him.

Paul Brown photo courtesy upload.wikimedia.org. 

After the war, Marion was called to try out for the Cleveland Browns in 1946.  At 250 pounds, Marion was an impressive figure.  His speed also impressed the coach, Paul Brown, the same one that Marion played for in the military.

Marion soon signed a contract and was travelling across the United States to various football stadiums.  The taunts were constant at first, some calling him "alligator bait".  The cheap shots were frequent.  But Marion refused to be reduced to their level.  The reception at hotels was not always a warm one either.  At least one hotel refused to rent a room to Marion, but the coach said the whole team would walk and the hotel owner reluctantly relented.

Photo courtesy www.clevelandseniors.com.

While the abuse from opposing teams could be brutal, Marion did not receive the same abuse from his fellow players as coach Brown would not tolerate it.  Bit by bit, his teammates gained respect for Marion as he showed them what he could do on the fans.  And bit by bit the fans folloed suit.  He racked up rushing yards and broke records.  In 1950, he helped lead the Cleveland Browns to their first NFL championship and was the leagues top rusher.  By 1953, he was cut from the Browns but he played for part of a season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Then he took early retirement due to that nagging knee injury.

Marion's nine year career record was impressive:  he amassed 4720 yards rushing on 828 carries for 5.7 years per carry.  And for the player who once didn't even have a uniform, it was an honour to have his uniform placed permanently in the Football Hall of Fame in 1968.

Photo courtesy profootballhof.com.

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