The Cleveland Browns have gone on an excursion to explore their football roots, including some deep, almost forgotten ones.
Hoping to connect his team to its storied past, Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski took minicamp on the road Wednesday with a trip south to Canton for light training as well as a visit from Pro Football. Hall of Fame.
“Honestly, it’s important for all of us, in all walks of life, to know the people who have walked this path before you,” Stefanski said. “My job as head coach of the Cleveland Browns is limited. I won’t have this role forever. I know people came before me. I know there will be people who come after me.
Before walking among bronze busts of enshrined players, quarterback Deshaun Watson, star running back Nick Chubb and their teammates listened to a presentation on Browns Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley, who along with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, broke the color barrier of professional football. in the 1940s.
Known as the “Forgotten First,” the quartet of black players helped end NFL segregation, a shameful period from 1933 to 1946 rarely recognized by a league proud of its generational heritage.
“They stepped up,” said Willis’ son, Clem, who spoke with his brother, Bill Jr. and Motley’s grandson, Tony. “They put their lives on the line and sacrificed themselves to create a better place for themselves and their people.”
For more than 30 minutes, the Browns heard gripping stories about Willis and Motley, whose bravery was chronicled in a book co-authored by former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and longtime football writer Bob Glauber.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Johnson knew Jackie Robinson, a pioneer in baseball integration.
However, he knew nothing of the troubling racist history of professional football.
“We were only going to learn what they wanted to teach us,” said Johnson, the 1996 first overall pick who played 11 seasons in the league. “When I first learned of this, I thought, ‘How is this possible? How could these individuals be such stars in our community and we don’t know anything about them?
“It’s almost like it’s a secret.”
A phone call from Glauber a few years ago prompted Johnson to support the project “so that young players know who laid the groundwork and where it came from”, especially in a league where 70% of players are black.
In 1946, Browns coach Paul Brown signed Willis and Motley, who became the first black players in the All-America Football Conference. That same year, Washington and Strode secured contracts with the Los Angeles Rams, who previously played in Cleveland and broke the NFL’s white-only barrier.
The four men were subjected to verbal abuse, vicious beatings after the whistle and even death threats.
But for years, these were barely football footnotes.
Glauber underscored this point by asking one of the Browns players to raise their hand if they had heard of Willis, Motley, Washington and Strode before coming to Cleveland. Only a few went up. He didn’t know them either.
“Honestly, I was embarrassed,” said Glauber, who writes for Newsday. “Then I realized that if I didn’t know it, Keyshawn didn’t know it, this story needed to be told.”
Stefanski wanted his players to hear it too.
After boarding five charter buses from Berea, players, coaches and team support staff made the hour-long journey, which became a trip back to the team’s glory days. Along the way, players watched a documentary about legendary running back Jim Brown, one of 22 Cleveland players immortalized in the hall.
All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio admitted he didn’t know much about the Browns’ history before he was drafted in 2014.
“You look back and it was like before the Super Bowl era,” Bitonio said. “I mean 17 Hall of Famers, multiple championships, some of the best players to ever play the game, innovators, some of the best coaches to ever (coach) the game have been through here.
“You kind of get a respect for why Browns fans are the way they are.”
Stefanski respected the wishes of superstar Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and excused him from the tour. Last week, Garrett said he didn’t want to visit the museum until it was dedicated.
“I understand his feelings about it,” Stefanski said before the tour.
Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. wasn’t surprised by Garrett’s request.
“I know if you’re playing this game you want to be the best,” he said. “And if you don’t have that mindset, you’re not going to last very long in this league, so for him to set goals, I mean, I don’t expect anything else from him. It’s a little early right now, but I say it’s a shoo-in.
NOTES: The team will practice at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday to wrap up their mandatory minicamp. … WR Anthony Schwartz was ill and did not make the trip to Canton.
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