Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Review: Breaking Through the Lines (2023)

By David Lee Morgan Jr. 

It would be relatively accurate to say that Marion Motley was the Julius Erving of football.

Hear me out on this one. 

Both Motley and Erving did their best work when playing with "lesser" leagues. Motley first turned pro in the All-America Football Conference, while Erving's pro debut came in the American Basketball Association. By the time they arrived the more publicized National Football League and National Basketball Association, they probably were a bit past their prime - although Erving's decline was slower. But that doesn't change the fact that both were fabulous at their peak. 

Motley is the lesser-known figure to today's audiences, since he played in the 1940s. Therefore, it's always good to see new material on his football career. David Lee Morgan Jr. obliges with his biography of the standout, "Breaking Through the Lines."

Motley is an important figure in football history, as he helped reintegrate the sport. A few Blacks had participated in pro football in the 1920s and early 1930s, but a line was drawn in 1933 by the NFL. The sports was lily-white until 1946. That's when Motley and teammate Bill Willis both arrived on the roster of the AAFC's Cleveland Browns. They didn't just break the color line, they smashed it. (Two other African Americans played for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams that year.)

Since Motley played for the less established league during the 1940s, his exploits were generally missed. There was no television coverage, and fewer big crowds. But Motley was a fullback who resembled a tank on cleats. He was simply too big and strong for most defenders. If there was a piece of territory on the football field that was unclaimed, Motley usually knocked over an opponent to claim it. A couple of tight ends in the 1960s, Mike Ditka and John Mackey, had that same reputation as receivers. Motley also could play defense, where his size and speed also served him well. So he was too strong to tackle, and too strong to block. That sounds like a successful football player. 

Morgan outlines his career well enough. Motley moved from the South to Ohio as part of the Great Migration, and played college football. Eventually he encountered Paul Brown, who coached the original Browns and made the decision to keep Motley on the roster. 

The future Hall of Famer's career ended with something of a whimper. He developed knee troubles soon after the NFL-AAFC merger in 1950. Marion hung on as long as he could, but eventually had to retire a little prematurely. The transition to life after football was difficult for the Black players of that era. Doors to coaching jobs usually were locked, and in those days no ex-player could live off his sports reputation. 

This has the makings of a good biography, since the idea is to bring a legend back to life. But Morgan comes up short in presenting new material here. The pages - less than 200 - go by really quickly in a rather superficial telling of the story. That's particularly true of Motley's days in the AAFC, which could have been expanded rather easily. 

Morgan had previously worked on a PBS documentary on Motley. The writer comes across as very fond of his subject in the book, and not without good reason. It's easy to root for the pioneers in this area. But this approach leaves the reader wondering if there's any more to the story. 

"Breaking Through the Lines" does provide the basics on an important figure in pro football history. Still, I would guess that many will come away from this wanting more. 

Three stars

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