"I love the game of football, watch it every chance I get," Willis, 81, said before a recent game at Cleveland Browns Stadium. "I really like what I see of this young Browns team. This team is growing. I get excited watching them."
Willis, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, played in a championship game in all eight seasons he was with the Browns through the 1953 title game. He signed with the Browns on Aug. 15, 1946, as the brand new team was preparing for its first season in the All-America Football Conference.
An All-American tackle at Ohio State who stood 6-foot-2, but weighed just slightly over 210 pounds, Willis didn't overpower the opposition, he eluded tacklers and ran down ball carriers. He played right guard on offense, but was considered the premier defensive player in the game at middle guard during his peak years.
Willis' game was one of anticipation and reaction. The late coach Paul Brown said, "Bill Willis was one of the outstanding linemen in pro football history and certainly the fastest. The technique he used is exactly what coaches taught their players 40 years later."
His most memorable play was a game-saving tackle that enabled the Browns to win the NFL's American Conference championship by defeating the New York Giants, 8-3, in a playoff game at Cleveland Stadium on Dec. 17, 1950. Both teams had finished with 10-2 records, with the Giants handing the Browns both of their losses -- 6-0 in Cleveland and then in New York, 17-13. Willis tackled Giants back Gene (Choo Choo) Roberts from behind at the 4-yard line to prevent a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The Browns then broke a 3-3 tie on Lou Groza's 29-yard field goal with 58 seconds left and added a safety in the final seconds when Willis, Jim Martin and George Young cornered quarterback Charley Conerly in the end zone. The 8-3 triumph sent Cleveland into the NFL Championship Game in its first season in the league.
"That was a rough, tough game, typical of whenever we played the Giants," Willis said. "We beat Los Angeles (30-28) the next week to win the championship."
Willis said discipline was the key to the Browns' success and laments that pro football has become more of an individualistic endeavor.
"There has been a great change in the game and it is all so true that you can hold an awful lot nowadays," he said. "I can recall that if a lineman or somebody would hold me that would call for some crucial action. Go ahead and block me, but don't hold me. You got held, you took matters into your own hands, if you know what I mean. You can't do that today, they'll kick you out of the game. But that was football back then.
"Now they are permitted to hold and keep the target in front of them. Basically the game is the same as far as blocking and tackling and the game plans in that area. You try to make six points and add on another. That's never changed. That's the whole objective. They just go about it in a little more jazzed up way these days.
"Discipline is needed to succeed. We were all gathered together for the sole purpose of playing football and in order to do your level best you had to be in the best condition and you had to always think in terms of one for all and all for one. There was none of this stuff of being individualized.
"Guys were excited to score a touchdown, but they realized they just didn't get there by themselves. Their teammates got them there. There is no sense in giving a demonstration. To get into the end zone, why that is what you are supposed to do. You want to save all your emotion for the play that is about to start. That's when you display your emotions. Let it all out then. You don't do it after the play. What good does that do? That's just wasted energy."
Willis went on to emphasize that players in his day were just as excited to score or make a bone-jarring tackle. But they tried not to let their minds wander from the immediate task at hand.
Of course, that was a lot easier because they never went to the sidelines to daydream.
"We were out there for the full game on both sides of the ball," he said. "We honestly used to feel that if we didn't play at least 58 minutes or so that the coach was mad at you or you weren't doing your job properly. You didn't play half a game. You wanted to go the full 60 minutes."
Willis, who became the assistant recreation director for the City of Cleveland after he retired from football in 1954, still goes the full 60 minutes for every game the Browns play. These days, he does it by watching on television from his home in Columbus.
"I don't get a chance to come to games very often, but I watch the Browns on television every game," he said. "I can't remember missing one. I still love the game, absolutely.
"I think this team is going to bring back the old glory days. We have an awful lot of talent. It is still young, but it is growing. In a game such as football there is no such thing as standing still. You either go forward or you go backward. In my opinion, this team is going forward."