Marion Motley: force of nature, complete player

November 10, 1995|By John Steadman

WATCHING MARION Motley take a handoff and explode up the middle was a moving moment of furious expectation. Something was going to happen as he scattered bodies by the bull-like thrust of perhaps the strongest physical force ever generated by one man on a football field.

Motley was a 6-foot-1, 238-pound fullback with enormous thighs whose presence helped establish the Cleveland Browns of his era, 1946 through 1953, as probably the greatest team of all time.

He left tacklers bruised, bothered and bewildered during the eight seasons in which he led the Browns in rushing and dominated all opposition. His crushing style of ball carrying, when neither side wore face masks, sent rivals to nearby hospitals and created instant sympathy for any defense trying to control him.

His career average of 5.7 yards per carry, when including his first four seasons in the All-America Conference, surpasses that of any Browns runner in the club's success-laden, 50-year history, including the more celebrated Jim Brown, who couldn't "run the middle" with Motley.

For a single-game performance, he once averaged 17.09 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he ran 11 times for 188 yards, an NFL mark that even now, 45 years later, stands alone.

How Motley became a Brown had its genesis in the tough Ohio high school football belt, where, as a player at Canton McKinley, he faced Massillon, coached by Paul Brown. Neither Motley nor Brown knew their paths were going to cross again, joined together on the same side of the field and, ultimately, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

World War II drastically altered the destinies of both men, as happened with millions of others. Brown went from Ohio State, where he coached a national championship team in 1942, to the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes (Ill.) Training Station.

Brown coached the base football team and had an awesome array of All-American and professional talent to choose from. He learned that Motley, who briefly had been at South Carolina State and Nevada, was in boot camp, learning the basics of seamanship.

Because the commandant at Great Lakes took pride in the play of the team, much the way a college president revels in on-the-field success of his school, Brown was in close association with the top brass. He was a lieutenant, in charge of winning football games, and that's what the Great Lakes upper command wanted him to do.

It offered them bragging rights with their contemporaries at other military installations. So Brown had special influence. On the morning he heard Motley was among a group of 1,500 men leaving Great Lakes within minutes from the nearby Waukegan railroad station, he exerted enough influence to delay the troop train.

On orders from the high command, Motley was removed from the list of sailors bound for Shoemaker, Calif., and a port of embarkation known as Fleet City. He was going to stay, instead, at Great Lakes and play football.

But that morning on the railroad platform, Motley said he couldn't go back to the Great Lakes station because his seabag, carrying uniforms and personal items, had previously been placed in a boxcar for bulk shipment to the West Coast. So a search committee went through the enormous pile of seabags until they found the one carrying the tag of Seaman Apprentice Motley.

He said farewell to his friends and stayed behind as they departed. Like a good sailor, he followed orders and excelled at carrying the ball for the Great Lakes Bluejackets. "I'll never forget that day," he says. "It would be hard to believe that, had I been an admiral, instead of a 'swabbie,' that any more fuss could have been made over me."

Brown was so impressed once again with Motley that when the war was over and he prepared to coach the newly formed Cleveland franchise in the All-America Football Conference, he signed Motley, who followed guard Bill Willis as the second black to join the Browns and help integrate pro football. (Motley later became the first black elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

With the Browns, Motley was the complete fullback, running, blocking, catching passes and even playing linebacker on goal-line defense. Doing it all with thunderous impact.

Was he better than a later fellow Hall of Fame back of the Browns, Jim Brown? Yes. It wasn't that Brown couldn't block; he just exhibited little desire to do so and rarely did.

In a survey of 14 NFL sportswriters and historians two years ago, an impossible attempt was made to name the greatest single player of all time. Two Cleveland fullbacks, Motley and Brown, quarterback Sammy Baugh and end Don Hutson tied for the honor with the rest of the votes scattered.

Motley's support came from this reporter and Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated. Teammate Otto Graham, likewise a Hall of Fame member, says only that "Jimmy Brown was a better runner but Motley the more complete player."

Marion Motley, still living in Cleveland and now age 75, drove through tacklers with the thrust of a wrecking ball eating its way into the side of a brick building.

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