EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is Part 10 in a 12-part series on Ohio’s historic football personalities. The series began on Aug. 5. It continued on Aug. 6, Aug. 7, Aug. 8, Aug. 9, Aug. 10, Aug. 11, Aug. 12 and Aug. 13.
Football historian Paul Zimmerman, Dr. Z for his Sports Illustrated readers, had a definitive response when asked to choose the greatest football player of all time. Marion Motley was the pick for Zimmerman, one of pro football’s foremost historians, who made his proclamation in 1970 — more than 15 years after the Canton product’s final game.
“The Train’s” teammates and his coach echoed the thought.
“He was a train wreck, and I was one of the guys he wrecked,” said teammate Don Shula, a future Hall of Fame coach. “Once he got going, you didn’t want to be in his way.”
Paul Brown also had a running back named Jim Brown, but Motley eclipsed him in the coach’s eyes.
“The greatest back I ever had was Marion Motley,” Paul Brown said. “The only statistic he ever knew was whether we won or lost. The man was completely unselfish.”
Motley was born on June 5, 1920 in Leesburg, Georgia, to Shakeful and Blanche Motley. Shakeful was part of the Great Migration of blacks who came north to find work. Motley’s father found a job as a foundry moulder and the family settled in Canton when Marion was 2. Soon the youngster picked up on the community’s passion — football.
Marion’s powerful build was so fearsome the junior high football manager at Canton McKinley would not issue him pads. But when Motley got on the field to create a wave of devastation, those who practiced against him insisted he be padded — for their protection.
As a sophomore in 1936, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder became a starter, but at right guard. It was an incredible gaffe, and one can’t help but wonder if racism wasn’t in play. The Bulldogs had a tremendous team that rolled unblemished until the season finale, a 31-0 loss to Paul Brown’s Massillon squad.
Years later, long after coach Johnny Reed was fired at McKinley for losing five straight games to Massillon, Brown spoke at a banquet alongside Reed.
“You know John, anyone who would play Motley at guard should get fired,” Brown said.
As a junior, Motley was moved to fullback, but Reed again authored a tactical blunder. The McKinley boss rotated Motley back to guard for the Massillon game to make room for previously injured Tip Lockard. Predictably, the move backfired as the Tigers prevailed 19-6 in McKinley’s lone loss.
Overall, Motley was badly underutilized when looking at his stats. In 1937, the growing fullback gained 950 yards on just 58 carries (an incredible 16.3 yards per carry) and scored 10 TDs. He also hit 6 of 9 passes for 229 yards and four more touchdowns.
In 2002, longtime McKinley historian Chuck Bowersox was asked about the hard-to-believe, yards-per-carry average.
“You never saw him play,” Bowersox told the Canton Repository. “He was a great one, I’ll tell you that. He had more long runs than the man on the moon.”
Motley’s senior year resulted in another 8-1 season, Massillon again beating McKinley in a 12-0 decision. As a senior, “The Train” rolled for 1,228 yards on just 69 carries (17.8 avg.) and threw for 454 yards and seven TDs. Motley was fifth in the state scoring chase with 113 points. His incomparable high school stats included 2,178 yards rushing and a surreal 17.2 yards per carry average. He also threw for 683 yards and 11 touchdowns while scoring 174 points.
Somehow, Motley was only third-team All-Ohio as a senior, nothing short of a travesty. In addition, one must weigh the racial climate of the day to understand why college recruiters weren’t flocking to Canton. “The Train” wound up attending South Carolina State for a semester, but was quickly dismayed by the Jim Crow scene and returned home.
The next year he transferred to Nevada, under former Canton McKinley coach Jimmy Aiken. Motley had a solid, yet injury-riddled career with the Wolf Pack that largely flew under the radar.
He figured football was behind him when he enlisted in the Navy on Christmas Day, 1944. Yet fate stepped in and reunited Motley with his old foe, Paul Brown from Massillon. Both were stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago.
Motley suited up for Brown as the base football team played elite college competition, including Ohio State and Notre Dame. When World War II finished, Brown made sure he got in touch with Motley as the coach began forming the new Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference.
By 1946, it had been approximately 25 years since a black player had competed in professional football. But Motley signed with the Browns on Aug. 10, 1946 for $4,000. Teammate Bill Willis joined him that month and both eventually reached the Hall of Fame. They helped shatter the color barrier for good.
“Marion Motley was all too available for a man of his talent,” Paul Brown said.
Motley was a powerhouse on both sides of the ball, as a fullback and linebacker. Offensively, Brown used him on four basic plays, the draw, trap, sweep and screen pass. Opponents knew what was coming, and still couldn’t stop him.
Motley gained 601 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a rookie, while the Browns swept to the 1946 AAFC title, a championship they would win all four years of the league’s existence.
In 1947 he gained 889 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry on a 13-1-1 team. Motley erupted for 964 yards on a 15-0 team in 1948, and finished his four-year reign as the AAFC’s career rushing king in 1949 with a total of 3,024 yards, tops in league history.
Cleveland ruined the conference with its dominance, and the Browns were invited to join the NFL in 1950. Motley and Co. quickly ruled that roost, too. Motley immediately won the NFL’s rushing title with 810 yards, 5.8 avg. and earned All-Pro honors in a 12-2 season that concluded in a championship.
A knee injury flared up in 1951, which slowed him dramatically over the next couple of seasons, and Motley eventually retired in 1954.
In nine years as a pro, “The Train” accumulated 4,720 yards rushing, 5.7 yards per carry, and scored 31 TDs. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, the second black player honored behind only Emlen Tunnell.
“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,” Paul Brown said. “He was as good as our great ones (on defense, too).”
Paul’s son Mike Brown has long maintained Motley was his idol as a youngster. Today, Mike Brown’s family still operates the Cincinnati Bengals, but his memories of Motley never dimmed.
“The great players of any era can play in any other era, and Marion was one of those,” Mike Brown said. “If he walked in today, he’d start for any team in the league.”
Those interested in learning more about Ohio’s football history are strongly encouraged to purchase Ohio’s Autumn Legends, Volume I & Volume II, by Larry Phillips. Both editions come in Kindle, paperback and hardback, and all are available at Amazon.com.