With 99 days remaining until Ohio State’s season-opener versus Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Aug. 30, this is the first in a series of articles featuring the greatest football players in Buckeye history.
Today we look back at Ohio State football legend Bill Willis, the first lineman and first defensive player to have his jersey number retired, which was done so in 2007.
Willis was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 5, 1921, and later attended East High School where he was a star on both the football and track teams for the Tigers. Willis graduated from East High in 1940.
Willis spent one year away from the classroom to work after high school, and in 1941, Willis enrolled at The Ohio State University, planning to spend most of his sporting time running track as a sprinter. Prior to his enrollment, Francis Schmidt was the head coach of the football team and no African-American players ever suited up for Schmidt during his tenure from 1934-1940.
But that all changed in 1941 when Paul Brown took over the head coaching duties at Ohio State as Willis made the team and became a starter on the defensive line as a sophomore in 1942. That year, the Buckeyes went 9-1 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten and won the conference by defeating Michigan, 21-7, in front of 71,691 fans at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State concluded the regular season with a 41-12 win over Iowa Pre-Flight, a team made up of Navy cadets at the University of Iowa during World War II, which earned the Buckeyes a national championship as awarded by the Associated Press.
In 1943, Ohio State struggled to a 3-6 mark, though Willis was tabbed as a first-team, all-Big Ten selection.
In 1944, Coach Brown joined the Navy, so one of his assistants, Carroll Widdoes, took over. Widdoes guided the Buckeyes to an undefeated 9-0 season that included a 18-14 win over No. 6 Michigan before 71,958 at Ohio Stadium, as Ohio State was named national champions by the National Championship Foundation and the Sagarin Ratings. During that season, Willis was named to the United Press International and Look Magazine All-American teams, becoming the first African-American at Ohio State to do so. Willis also played in the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game at Solider Field.
Since very few, if any, African-Americans played professionally in the National Football League since 1933, Willis went undrafted in 1945, so he took a job as head football coach and athletic director at Kentucky State College, a historically black college in Frankfort, Ky.
Also in that year while still serving in the Navy, Brown signed a contract to become part-owner, vice president, general manager and head coach of Cleveland’s entry into the All-American Football League.
In 1946 after Willis found out about Brown’s new job, he inquired about a tryout. That year, Willis made the team. In eight seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Willis was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, an eight-time all-Pro selection, and was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 40’s while helping the Browns win four AAFC Championships (1946, 1947, 1948, 1949) and one NFL Championship (1950).
Willis, who retired as director of the Ohio Youth Commission, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Willis was also inducted as a charter member of the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame.
On Nov. 3, 2007, Ohio State honored Willis by retiring his No. 99, just three weeks before he passed away at the age of 86.
“Bill Willis is the ultimate Buckeye,” said Ohio State’s director of athletics, Gene Smith, in 2007. “His record of accomplishment on the field and the class and dignity he exudes exemplify the qualities of Ohio State. He is the consummate gentleman. Recognizing his career and legacy as an athletics pioneer by retiring his jersey number is a way to salute not just the Willis family, but the Buckeye program overall.”
Other Buckeyes to wear the No. 99 jersey include Luke Fickell (1992-96), Michael McCray (1986-88), Jimmy Moore (1976-78), Jay Richardson (2002-06) and Alonzo Spellman (1989-91).