Honored by a plaque and tree in the Buckeye Grove, Bill Willis is remembered as Ohio State’s first black All-American in football. The Columbus native played for the Cleveland Browns for his entire professional career, and was a trailblazer during the NFL’s period of segregation.
But, according to those who knew him best, he was a family man first.
His life outside of the game, in which he was known as “Poppa” by his grandchildren and family, was rarely shared or publicized. This inspired his daughter-in-law, Linda Fleming-Willis, to write a children’s book on his legacy, “Poppa’s Ring.”
Set in Columbus, “Poppa’s Ring” looks into the personal life of Willis through the eyes of his grandchildren. While he is legendary to football enthusiasts, Willis was also a role model to his family. He exemplified positive values, respect and strived for excellence in every aspect of his life, Fleming-Willis said.
“The things that I want children to take away from the book is the importance of doing their best, being people of their word and being respectful, because those were the values that he was also stressing with his grandchildren,” Fleming-Willis said.
But the book isn’t only for children.
“Adults who like a bit of history and Ohio State can find that in the book and get a different perspective of him,” Fleming-Willis said. “I think that was my challenge. Is it a children’s book? Is it an adult book? What is it? And in the end, I think it’s a blend.”
Willis’ lifelong partner and wife of 55 years, Odessa Willis, known as “Nana” also stressed and reinforced good values with their grandchildren. In the book, when their youngest granddaughter, Imani, loses Poppa’s championship ring, it provides an opportunity for Nana to share some football history with her grandchildren. The lesson includes Bill Willis’ football success at East High School in Columbus, at OSU and with the Cleveland Browns. It also highlights some of the challenges he encountered during the racial integration of the sport.
The two-time Heisman Trophy winner was the first and only Buckeye defender to have his number retired. Former OSU football coach Jim Tressel commented on Bill Willis’ impact after his death in 2007.
“Bill Willis made a profound impact on the game of football throughout his lifetime,” Tressel said in a press release. “Even as recently as this fall, Mr. Willis was serving as a powerful role model for our players and coaches. Number 99 will be missed greatly, but we will draw strength from his life, accomplishments, and his Ohio Stadium recognition.”
Aside from his football career, Willis was chairman of the Ohio Youth Commission, and implemented new approaches in treatment and rehabilitation. Just as he influenced Ohio youth, he influenced his own family members.
“(He taught me) the importance of integrity … being a person of your word, standing by good values and beliefs, letting people see that in what you do and once you do that, then you’re someone that people can choose to emulate,” Fleming-Willis said.” I think a lot of what he stood for, his grandchildren seek to emulate now.”