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The Pro Football Hall of Fame and Canton Commemorate the Reintegration of the NFL

photo of Bill Willis, Jr., Tony Motley, Clem Motley

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton enshrined the Class of 2016 this weekend, honoring them with the usual pageantry that’s become a hallmark of the annual ceremonies. For the past two years, that’s included the unveiling of pieces of a public art installation commemorating landmarks in NFL history. It's the latest addition to “The 11.”

This story contains language which may be offensive to some.

Artist Paul Collins didn’t let the weather get him down as he took the stage in downtown Canton on Friday just after a brief, intense rainstorm. Collins was here to celebrate the unveiling of his new, 2,700 square foot mural on Cleveland Avenue NW. But the mural celebrates a much more serious event: the reintegration of pro football 70 years ago.

“From 1933-1946, the owners had an understanding that they would not be hiring any black football players,” says Robb Hankins, President of ArtsInStark, which has partnered with the Hall of Fame for “The 11,” a $2.2 million art project.

Hankins says that in the 1920s, more than a dozen black men played professional football. But for 13 years, beginning in 1933, pro football was segregated. Then in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams signed two black players, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington. The two had previously played in the Pacific Coast League alongside Jackie Robinson, who would break the color line in baseball a year later.

The Cleveland Browns reintegrate

photo of David Baker and James Harris
Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker (left) and James Harris -- the first black starting quarterback in the NFL -- both said players concentrate on what's happening on the field, and not on race.

Also in 1946, the Cleveland Browns signed two Ohioans, Bill Willis and Marion Motley. Artist Paul Collins says he remembered their struggle while crafting the piece.

“Marion Motley tells the story of when he got out on the field, everybody was calling him a nigger, and that he was food for alligators. But he didn’t turn around and go violent; he just started running faster and making more touchdowns. And that’s what we gotta remember: violence gets us nowhere.

“We accomplish so much more when we all get together as one. It’s time we forget the color thing, and look for the character thing.”

At the unveiling, Bill Willis’ son, Bill Jr., remembered the special relationship between the two Browns players.

“They relied on each other. There was a lot of shenanigans going on around the field. But Mr. Motley, being kind of the big brother of the two, pointed out to Dad the importance of keeping focus on the task at hand.”

Willis points out that in 1946, Browns Coach Paul Brown signed players for their abilities, regardless of race.

A color-blind league
Jerry Jones has owned the Dallas Cowboys since 1989, and says the NFL judges players based on talent.

“Not only talent. I think of availability, size, athletic ability; I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the word ‘color’ in football. And I’ve been doing football since junior high.”

James Harris was the first black starting quarterback in the NFL in the 1970's. As he stood below the billboard-sized mural, which depicts the players beneath an integrated football hand-off, he reflected on the lessons learned from the two Cleveland Browns players who re-broke the color line and ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I realized that in order to be successful, the one thing that you must do is be prepared to overcome adversity and be prepared to win a job. And be prepared to represent the opportunity of others.”

Artist Paul Collins, whose work includes the Martin Luther King Nonviolent Peace Prize medal, said he wanted this commission because of the message its subjects impart.

“I’m not in it for art for the sake of art. I’m in it for how you bring people together. Pro football is a good example of people getting together and taking racism and putting it in the toilet. And look at the results.”

photo of Paul Collins
Michigan-based artist Paul Collins said the message of the NFL -- and his mural -- is that racism belongs 'in the toilet.'

The 11
The mural is the fourth installation as part of “The 11.” The first three were sculptures, including the life-size statue unveiled last summer depicting the first NFL draft, in 1936. ArtsInStark President Robb Hankins says -- love ‘em or hate ‘em – they’ve attracted a lot of attention.

“When you got five football players, people sit on the players. Kids climb on the players. ‘The Birth of the NFL’ looks a little like a football on a stick. Some people criticize it. The artist would say it’s a seed pod, and the NFL is being birthed. If you ignore it, that’s the horrible thing.”

Hankins says future pieces could include multimedia elements such as lasers or videos. The next one is slated to commemorate the 1967 NFL Championship game, also known as “The Ice Bowl.”