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Marion Motley: Nevada Athlete, All-American Hero

by Shelby Harris


Marion Motley
Mackay Field Homecoming
Homecoming football game 1926

Coming to Nevada


Marion Motley was born in Leesberg, Georgia on June 5th, 1920 to Shakeful and Blanche Motley. His family moved to Canton, Ohio (birthplace of the National Football League) when he was two. When Motley went to high school at McKinley High in Canton, he was discriminated against because of his African American heritage and was denied football pads and a uniform. Motley reportedly practiced without the equipment, bowling through the other players who did have pads. His high school team lost only three games in Motley’s three years there, each to rival school Massillon, coached by future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.


Motley enrolled at South Carolina State College, where he played football for three months before transferring to the University of Nevada in 1940. Upon joining the football team at Nevada, Motley (6’1’’, 220lbs) was already one of the largest players on the football team. But Motley was a

talented and versatile athlete, running track, throwing the javelin, and boxing, all in addition to playing as football coach Jim Aiken’s star fullback. Motley’s combination of size, speed, and toughness would soon make an impact not only on the Nevada football team, but on the fate of the Civil Rights movement in America. Motley would eventually go on to become one of the most important athletes to compete at the University of Nevada.


Overcoming Adversity


Jim Aiken

Motley faced a constant uphill battle against racism during his football career. One such example was during Motley’s first season at Nevada, when the Wolfpack traveled to the University of Idaho to face off against the Vandals. During warm-ups, Vandal coach Ted Bank spoke with Motley and Wolfpack coach Jim Aiken. Bank told Aiken “That boy can’t play in the game,” indicating Motley because of his African-American heritage. Aiken was enraged, but Motley calmly restrained him. After threatening to take his team home, Aiken finally struck a deal with Bank to allow Motley to enter the game in the second half. The Wolfpack eventually lost the match six to zero in part because of a pair of “phantom penalties” called by referees who were afraid Idaho fans would riot. One penalty nullified a touchdown, the other a long run that set the Wolfpack up a mere five-yards from the endzone.

Last Game


But Motley railed against racism on the football field as well as in his personal life. Motley became a regular topic of discussion in the Nevada State Journal’s “Old Grad” column. After a game against New Mexico in October 1940, the Old Grad commented that he “heard certain remarks from the New Mexico players that were a direct insult to a man of Motley’s race … I watched Marion closely to see his reaction, and he seemed absolutely unconcerned.” The Old Grad called him a “gentleman, but tough,” remarking that “the only noticeable effect on Motley was that he played a little harder, and instead of side-stepping players, he bowled them over and when he tackled a ball carrier, he hit ferociously.”

Motley is also noted as saying "I just wanted to be treated the way I treated others. I never played dirty unless it was done to me first, and it was more to let them know that I wouldn't put up with anything. And I would always speak up if I had to, but I just wanted to play football." When Motley’s opponents stomped on his hands with cleats or gouged at his groin while trying to tackle him, Motley would stand back up and promise them “If I don't get you now, I'll get you later,” showing no fear and a willingness to fight the tide of racism.

It was Motley’s ability to handle himself on the football field that quickly led to a growing respect from Nevada fans, with the Old Grad laying on the praise: “every time I see Marion Motley in action I like him better. All along we have contended that he is all-American timber… That boy is not only a champion but he’s a true sportsman.” The Old Grad also later bragged that Motley “proved beyond all doubt that he is an All-American.”

In September 1941 Motley suffered what he described as a “cheap shot” at the hands of an opposing player. This led to the first of what would be recurring knee injuries throughout the remainder of his football career. In 1942, another such knee injury effectively ended Motley’s career at Nevada.


Pro Football and Beyond


After the 1942 season, Motley moved back to Canton and got a job at the Republic Steel Plant while rehabbing his knee. In 1943, Motley married Eula Coleman and in 1944 he was inducted into the Navy. During his time at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, near Chicago, Motley was recruited to the base’s football team by coach Paul Brown. With Brown coaching and Motley running the ball, Navy beat the juggernaut Notre Dame team that year.


Running the Football

When the war ended and Motley was discharged, he planned on returning to Nevada to finish his degree. Jim Aiken, his former head coach, had even bought him a train ticket for the trip. But Motley had heard stories that another African-American athlete, defensive lineman Bill Willis, had been doing well in try-outs with the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference. Paul Brown, Cleveland’s new head coach, had his office call Motley and offer him the opportunity for a try-out. Motley once recalled the situation surrounding his try-out: “He asked me how I would like to come up and try out for the football team. Willis had made the ball club, see, and they had to have someone to go along with him… I was only supposed to be a roommate for Willis.” In the end, Motley and Willis both made the football team in 1946, smashing the race barrier in professional football the year before Jackie Robinson did the same in professional baseball (Kenny Washington and Willie Strode joined Motley and Willis in integrating into pro-football that year by signing with the Los Angeles Rams).


Motley Cleveland Browns

Motley immediately made an impression on his new teammates. Future Hall-of-Fame defensive lineman Lou Groza once likened tackling Motley to “being hit by a truck.” Center Frank Fatski paid him the compliment “Marion was pretty big, and he was pretty bad.” Motley also quickly became a trusted blocker for future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Otto Graham. The Browns played in eight championship games in Motley’s nine year career, winning five of them. Motley sat out the 1954 season to rehabilitate his knee and was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, where he played one final season.

Motley became a role model and mentor for young black athletes such as defensive lineman Rosey Grier and future Hall-of-Fame running back Lenny Moore. Motley is the only Nevada athlete to have been elected to the Pro-Football Hall-of-Fame to date, having been inducted in 1968. He was also elected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994. Motley died of prostate cancer on June 27, 1999 at the age of 79.

Suggested Reading

Cope, Myron. The Game that Was: The Early Days of Pro Football. Omaha, Nebraska: World Pub. Co., 1970.