When people are walking across the University of Nevada campus’ sedate Hilliard Plaza, with its fall foliage and the stately brick façade of the Reynolds School of Journalism fronting the expanse’s north side, they can be surprised by an odd and uneasy realization. Especially if they once played defensive back and wore a leather football helmet.
From 1940 to 1942, Nevada’s Hall of Fame fullback and linebacker Marion Motley charged through this placid lower quad known as Mackay Field, a place where Head Coach Jim Aiken tromped back and forth on sidelines shaded by pine trees and the new construction of a building now called the Virginia Street Gymnasium. Wearing his blue No. 41 jersey, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Motley ran through tacklers like a battering ram.
The Leesburg, Ga., native ran a kickoff back against San Jose State in 1941 for a 105-yard touchdown, still tied for the Nevada record. He scored a 95-yard touchdown on an interception return against the University of San Francisco in 1942.
By the beginning of the 1950s, he was far from Reno but now becoming a national legend.
Stoking silver and blue spirit
The University’s Alumni Association honored Annette Whittemore as Alumna of the Year at its annual Homecoming Gala, sponsored by Hometown Health, Oct. 15 in the Joe Crowley Student Union ballroom. Whittemore is a 1974 Nevada graduate. The association also honored 14 other alumni who excel in their professions and communities.
In addition to the gala, the Alumni Association is co-sponsoring two Homecoming events for the first time with the Associated Students of the University of Nevada (ASUN). On Oct. 17, a Blue Flu barbeque will be held in the plaza in front of the student union from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to “catch the blue flu” to leave work and wear the school colors to the barbecue.
The annual bonfire will kick off that day at 6 p.m. in the North Parking Lot. There will be many activities for the community, including performances by Nevada’s Pride of the Sierra Marching Band.
The University will induct four individuals and one team — former Wolf Pack student-athletes Tiffany Neumeier Breeden, James Cannida and Andy Dominique, former baseball and football coach Bill Ireland and the 1956 national championship rifle team — into the University of Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 17. Honorees will also be recognized at halftime of the Homecoming/Hall of Fame football game against Utah State on Oct. 18 at Mackay Stadium. Tickets for the Hall of Fame Dinner event are $50.
The evening begins with a no-host cocktail hour at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 in the Silver Baron Room at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino in Reno. For more information or to purchase tickets call (775) 682-6902 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Homecoming events wrap up with Nevada’s football game against the Aggies. Kickoff is at 1:05 pm.
The University, amidst the fun and frivolity of its annual Homecoming celebration, hasn’t forgotten Motley, who died in 1999 at age 79. It continues to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the induction of the former Cleveland Brown and Pittsburgh Steeler into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And, from high above the north side of the Mackay Stadium scoreboard, Motley’s image from one of his 1940s games will symbolically peer down on chilly participants in the North Parking Lot at the Oct. 17 Homecoming bonfire, set to kick off on the eve of the Nevada-Utah State game this weekend.
Motley was not Nevada’s first African-American player (Arthur James of Elko is the earliest documented black football player on a Nevada team, lettering in 1921). Nor was he the first player of his race inducted into the Hall, (Emlen Tunnell, 1967) which, coincidentally, sits next to Fawcett Stadium, a facility in which Motley scored the third touchdown in history as a high school player at Canton McKinley.
He is pre-eminent to Wolf Pack fans as the only Nevada player inducted into pro football’s assemblage of all-time greats. Sports historians revere him as a pioneer. With Browns teammate Bill Willis and Los Angeles Rams Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, Motley broke pro football’s color line for good in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson achieved national fame for the same feat in baseball.
Motley recounts the story of how he wound up playing in Cleveland for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown in Myron Cope’s 1970 book, The Game That Was.
“In 1946, after the war ended, I was getting ready to go back to college, but in the meantime I had wrote to Paul Brown and asked him about trying out for the Cleveland Browns. He wrote me back and told me that he had all the backs he needed. So I forgot about trying out for the pros. Matter of fact, my coach at the University of Nevada (Aiken) sent me a train ticket and I was all set to go back to school. But then one day I heard where Bill Willis had went to camp to try out for the Browns and was doing very well. And then one night I got a call from one of Paul Brown’s assistants.
“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. They wanted another colored fellow to room with him. I learned about this later. After my first season I got the word from a man who had heard it through the front office. I was only supposed to be a roommate for Willis.”
In his 2007 article on the team’s Hall of Fame players, Cleveland Browns.com staff writer Steve King wrote that Motley’s thighs “were the size of tree trunks.” Head Coach Brown devised a go-to play with Motley on the field, “the trap,” and the Browns won five consecutive pro football titles, the first four in the All-America Football Conference and then once again after the team joined the NFL in 1950.
Named to the NFL’s 75-Year Anniversary Team, Motley gained 5.7 yards per carry in his nine-year pro career. Along with his roommate Willis, Motley was the first black player named All-League in the NFL. He led the way for other African-American football stars like Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Walter Payton and Terrill Owens to reach greatness and fame.
“Marion Motley is truly one of the best players not only in the history of Nevada football but in the history of the sport, and his legacy reaches far beyond his accomplishments on the playing field,” said Nevada Director of Athletics Cary Groth. “By commemorating the 40th anniversary of Motley’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we can share his story with many fans who may not be aware that the ground-breaking path he took toward ending segregation in professional football and achieving the sport’s highest honor started here at the University of Nevada.”
Nevada will honor Motley’s legacy at the Wolf Pack’s home season finale, Nov. 22 against Boise State.