Born Oct. 5, 1921, in Columbus, William Karnet Willis wasn't that enamored with playing football. He enjoyed running track and the freedom that came with competing against others one on one. But college football coaches couldn't contain themselves when they saw the athletic ability packed into his 6-2, 199-pound frame.
An all-state performance on both offense and defense at East High School in Columbus, Willis agreed to play football at Ohio State – but only if he was allowed to run track as well. New head coach Paul Brown readily agreed.
"I didn't care what else Bill wanted to do as long as he played football," Brown remembered later.
Brown and Willis each got to Ohio State in the fall of 1941 as World War II was raging in Europe. While Willis prepped the varsity as part of the freshman team, Brown posted a 6-1-1 record in his first season with the Buckeyes that included a tie for second place in the Western Conference. Fifteen days after OSU and Michigan played to a 10-10 tie, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war.
As a result, the Buckeyes opened fall practice for the 1942 season with only three seniors, 16 juniors and 24 sophomores. The team had lost 18 lettermen from the year before – most of whom had enlisted in the military – including the entire starting offensive backfield.
But left among the young roster were such names as Bob Shaw, Dante Lavelli, Chuck Csuri, Lin Houston, Les Horvath, Gene Fekete and Willis.
An indication of how that season would go was evident from the season opener when the Buckeyes blew out Fort Knox by a score of 59-0. Seven players scored nine touchdowns as OSU rolled up 507 total yards to minus-5 for their opponents.
Led by Willis, who was a blocking machine at offensive tackle for Horvath and Fekete and a devastating road block at middle guard on defense, the Buckeyes rolled to four more victories in a row before being upset at Wisconsin.
But they regrouped the following week with a 59-19 pounding of Pittsburgh and went to post a 9-1 record, earn the conference title and become Ohio State's first-ever national championship team.
Thanks in part to Willis leading the charge up front, Fekete led the Big Ten in rushing with 910 yards on 182 carries and finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He also set an OSU single-season scoring record that would last for 27 years until Jim Otis broke it in 1969. Shaw, Csuri, Houston, Fekete and Paul Sarringhaus all made first-team All-American.
"We were so fast on that offensive line that we would get to our block so quick the other team didn't know what had happened," Willis told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in 1992. "They didn't know what was coming."
The following season, the war was now raging and the Buckeyes' would-be dynasty was decimated. By the time the 1943 season rolled around, Ohio State's roster of 44 players included only five from the previous year. Willis was one of those five, but only because he had received a medical deferment after undergoing surgery the previous summer for varicose veins.
The young team put up a good fight but fell to a 3-6 record and a seventh-place finish in the conference. But Willis still played well enough to earn All-American honors, the first African-American at Ohio State to be so honored.
During his senior season, WWII again caused roster turmoil for the Buckeyes, only this time it cost them their head coach as Brown enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
But under first-year head coach Carroll Widdoes, Ohio State rebounded to go undefeated in 1944 – topped off with an 18-14 win over Michigan – and the team won the "civilian" national championship. Army was voted the Associated Press national champions that season, partly as a morale boost to the Cadets.
Willis finished his OSU career by being named to his second straight All-American team and also had the honor of blocking for Horvath, Ohio State's first Heisman Trophy winner.
"All of us on the team took that as an honor," Willis said later about Horvath's win. "It truly was a team achievement that year."
Following his senior season, Willis went to Kentucky State University and became head football coach there. But with the war ended and enlisted men returning to the States, he got a call from his old coach. Brown was now in professional football as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and wanted Willis to join him and he became one of the first African-Americans to play professional football.
He played it well, too. In the eight years he played for the Browns, he was a first-team all-league selection seven times.
He played on the Browns' championship teams in the All-American Football Conference, and then went with the team when it joined the NFL in 1950, earning All-Pro honors three consecutive years. Cleveland went to the NFL championship every year from 1950-53, but won the title only once.
In fact, it was a game-saving tackle Willis made against the New York Giants in the 1950 divisional playoff game that sent the Browns to the championship game, which they won 30-28 over the Los Angeles Rams.
Willis retired after the 1953 season and returned to the Columbus area to work for the Ohio Youth Commission. He became that group's director in 1963 and took charge of the state's juvenile institutions. His work was so outstanding that when the Ohio Department of Youth Services built its own high school in Delaware, it was named William K. Willis High School in his honor.
In 1971, Willis began to receive other honors. He became only the sixth Ohio State player to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Six years later, he became a member of the first class of inductees into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame, joining such as other illustrious former Buckeyes as Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, Wes Fesler, Chic Harley, Jim Parker, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Jack Nicklaus and Horvath.
That same year, he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of only five former Buckeye players in Canton. The others are Parker, Lavelli, Paul Warfield and Lou Groza.
Willis continued to make his home in the Columbus area and was an annual guest at Ohio State football appreciation banquets, handing out the Bill Willis Award to the Buckeye voted the most outstanding defensive player of the year.
He received one final tribute Nov. 3, 2007, when Ohio State formally retired his No. 99 jersey. A frail Willis rode in a golf cart to midfield of Ohio Stadium and basked in the glow of another thunderous ovation from appreciative Buckeye fans.
A little more than three weeks later, Willis died at the age of 86.
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