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On 100th birthday, legacy of Nevada's Marion Motley more important than ever

Marion Motley
Marion Motley was one of the best football players in NFL history. (Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier and Colin Kaepernick took a knee that changed America, there was Marion Motley.

Motley was a thickly built 6-foot-1, 240-pound fullback and once-in-a-generation star for the Wolf Pack in the 1940s who would go on to professional glory, earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as last year's NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. Beyond his accolades on the field, Motley advocated for social change and equality with his play.

Motley was one of four men to break pro football's color barrier, doing so in 1946, seven months before Robinson did the same for Major League Baseball. Motley died in 1999 at age 79, but today would have been his 100th birthday.

Born in Leesburg, Ga., Motley grew up in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a two-sport star at Canton McKinley High, which went 25-3 during his football career, the only losses coming to rival Massillon Washington High, which was coached by Paul Brown, who would eventually sign Motley to play for the Cleveland Browns.

Growing up in the Jim Crow era, Motley faced racism his entire life. Upon graduating from high school, he went to South Carolina State College before being recruited out West by Nevada's Jim Aiken, who coached at Canton McKinley shortly before Motley rose to stardom for the school. Aiken didn't have much tolerance for racism and began to stock the Wolf Pack's roster with talented black players. The state of Nevada was known as the "Mississippi of the West" with blacks facing restrictions rivaling the worst conditions in the deep South, although most of those issued plagued Southern Nevada.

In Northern Nevada, Motley helped changed mindsets with his on-field prowess and off-the-field charm. "In Marion Motley, the ball club has one of the best backs in the entire nation," a Reno reporter wrote in the early 1940s. Nevada, however, faced resistance. During the sixth game of Motley's first season, Idaho refused to play the Wolf Pack if it allowed Motley to take the field. Aiken wouldn't back down.

"When (Idaho's coach) told Jim I couldn't play, I had to grab Jim and pick him up around his waist and hold him off the ground," Motley told the school's Oral History Program. "He was going to punch this guy in the mouth."

The message was received as Idaho relented and Motley took the field with his teammates, although he was limited to only playing in the second half. Before that game was played, Reno had rallied to support Motley, a seminal talent the school had never before seen.

Earlier that year, Motley had driven to California to visit a friend. Outside of Fairfield, he tried to pass a car and accidentally collided head-on with incoming traffic. One of the passengers in that car, a 60-year-old man from Berkeley, fractured his skull and later died of pneumonia.

Days after he rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Eastern New Mexico, Motley was found guilty of vehicular homicide and sent to jail before sentencing. Motley faced almost certain prison time, although California precedent showed previous cases could be adjudicated by probation and a $1,000 fine. Growing up poor, Motley didn't have that kind of money. A Motley Fund campaign, with one of those thermometer meters, was put on campus asking for donations in his name. Classmates, teachers, local businesses and community members chipped in until the $1,000 goal was reached ($1,000 back then was about $18,300 in modern currency).

The money was taken to the courthouse in Fairfield and the Reno police chief and other well-known locals vouched for Motley's good character. The Nevada star was given three years of probation and half of his $1,000 fine was allocated to the son of the deceased. After missing one game, Motley was cleared to play at Idaho.

"I cannot tell you in words how grateful I am for what you have done for me," Motley said in a statement to the Nevada State Journal. "I shall try to show it by the quality of school work I do and the service I can render in behalf of the University of Nevada and the people of this state."

After that turbulent first season, Motley played two more years at Nevada before suffering a knee injury in 1942 that preceded a return home. With the country embroiled in World War II, Motley enlisted in the Navy in 1944 where he reunited with Brown, who was the coach of the Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets military football team where Motley was stationed.

Meanwhile at Nevada, the Wolf Pack football team continued its history of standing for black rights. Aiken added black stars Bill Bass, Horace Gillom, Sherman Howard, Elmer Green and Al Tabor, among others. In 1946, Nevada was scheduled to play at Mississippi State. But 15 days before the contest, Nevada canceled the game at a cost of $3,000, a huge sum at the time. The reason: Mississippi State wouldn’t let Nevada’s two black players – Bass and Gillom – take the field.

“They told us that they didn’t want our black players to play,” said Dick Trachok, the former Wolf Pack player, coach and athletic director who was a sophomore that season. “They said they don’t do that down there. I remember our coach saying, ‘If we can’t take our whole team, we’re not going.’”

That coach was Aiken, who had the backing of the Nevada Board of Athletic Control, which voted to cancel the game. Mississippi State didn’t allow black players at their games because “an unfortunate commotion would ensue if the colored stars were allowed on the Starkville field.”

While a paper in Mississippi wrote having two blacks players on the field could be “accompanied by murder threats,” Nevada pushed to play the game with Gillom and Bass so the Southern school could see “what kind of unfortunate commotion Mississippi State wants to start” with the Wolf Pack. Mississippi State rebutted with athletic director C.R. Noble writing to Nevada: “It is not custom in the South for members of the Negro race to compete in athletics with or against members of the white race nor members of the white race to compete against the Negro race in athletic contests. I am sure that you understand this traditional custom which Mississippi State college cannot under any circumstances violate.”

The game's cancellation was big news at the time. Headlines across the country reported on the decision.

“Nevada’s Colored Gridders Barred by Mississippians,” read one headline.

“Southern College Doesn’t Want Negro Players in Football Game,” another read.

“Mississippi Grid Official Upholds Southern Code,” another read.

Nevada’s decision began a trend. One day later, Penn State cancelled its game at Miami as a result of that school barring its black players.

“We were the first ones in the country to cancel a game because they wouldn’t let our black players play,” Trachok said. “The decision came from our coaches and president that if everybody couldn’t go, we weren’t going. I don’t think we ever got enough credit as a school for taking that stand.”

In 1948, Nevada again declined to sit its black players when heading East. This time, the opposition caved, and Howard and Tabor became the first black players to appear in a college football game in Oklahoma when Nevada beat Tulsa, 65-14. The 1948 and 1949 teams were the first great squads in school history, breaking into the national rankings, and black players played prominent roles on the team. Nevada's dedication to breaking stereotypes and affording equal opportunity to players no matter their race is one of the proudest moments in school history, and it started with Motley, who endured slurs throughout his career.

"They called us names and everything, and I just wouldn't even talk to them," Motley told the school's Oral History Program. "If I caught one in my way, I ran over him. I ran smack over him. We got a lot of respect that way."

In 1946, Motley was signed by the Cleveland Browns and he and Bill Willis made the team and broke the AAFC's color barrier. That same season, the Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who broke the NFL's color barrier.

"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," Motley said in the book Legends by the Lake: The Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium.

After winning four AAFC championships, Motley and the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, winning the title in their first year in the league. Motley remains the AAFC's all-time rushing leader and was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in the NFL. Motley's career rushing average of 5.7 yards per carry is an NFL record for backs with at least 750 carries. He did all this despite constant threats. Motley and Wills didn't travel to one game at Miami after receiving threatening letters. They were restricted from the team hotel in another instance. On the field, they were called slurs, stepped on and victims of constant cheap shots.

"Sometimes I wanted to just kill some of those guys, and the officials would just stand right there," Motley said in Legends by the Lake. "They'd see those guys stepping on us and heard them saying things and just turn their backs. That kind of crap went on for two or three years until they found out what kind of players we were."

In his autobiography, Brown said Motley was the franchise's greatest full back and an ultimate teammate.

"No one ever cared more about his team and whether it won or lost, no matter how many yards he gained or where he was asked to run," Brown wrote. "I've always believed that Motley could have gone into the Hall of Fame solely as a linebacker if we had used him only at that position. He was as good as our great ones."

Motley did go into the Hall of Fame as a full back in 1968, becoming the second black player to be enshrined. He was the first Wolf Pack athlete to have his number retired. But Motley's life didn't finish with a storybook ending. After retiring, he asked Brown if he could join the team's coaching staff. Brown, as progressive as he was for the time, declined to offer him a position, saying he should look for work at the steel mill, the very existence he was looking to escape by playing football.

Motley would go on to work as a whisky salesman, in the postal service, for the Ohio lottery and the Ohio Department of Youth Services among other jobs. He repeatedly tried to break into coaching at the professional ranks but was turned down not only by Brown but former Browns teammate Otto Graham, who was the Washington Redskins' head coach for three years in the 1960s. After continually being passed over by the Browns, Motley wrote the following in 1964 after the team hired Bob Nussbaumer when he was told the staff was full.

"When I heard of the hiring of a new assistant, I began to wonder if the full reason is whether or not the time is ripe to hire a Negro coach in Cleveland on the professional level."

The Browns didn't hire their first full-time black assistant coach until 1972 when it signed Tabor, the former Nevada player who was the first African-American to play a college game in Oklahoma in 1948. Motley was good enough to play for the Browns, but not good enough to coach for the franchise, Motley was resigned to coaching an all-girls pro football team, which failed to gain any traction before folding.

Motley paved the way for black students, faculty and administrators at Nevada. He endured slurs and racism while breaking pro football's color barrier. He amazed on the field with his athletic skills and earned friends off it with his charm and good character. He pushed society forward. Before there was Colin Kaepernick, there was Marion Motley.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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