About Otto Everett Graham, Jr.
Otto Everett Graham, Jr. (December 6, 1921 – December 17, 2003) was a professional American football and basketball player who played for the Cleveland Browns in both the All-America Football Conference and National Football League, as well as the Rochester Royals in the National Basketball League.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, USA, Graham grew up with a strong connection to music, with his father serving as Waukegan High School's band director. However, it would be on a variety of athletic fields where Graham's talents would manifest, making him the most famous native of Waukegan since comedian Jack Benny.
Graham graduated from Northwestern University, attending the school on a basketball scholarship. He was an active member of the Alpha Delta Phi social fraternity. In 1944, he was named an All-American in basketball. He was talked into playing football by Northwestern's head football coach, Lynn Waldorf, who saw him throwing a football on campus. By the time he was finished, he had played four years of basketball, three of football, two of baseball and also played the cornet in the Wildcats' school band. Graham's time on the football field would be spent at tailback. He finished third in the 1943 Heisman Trophy voting. Graham left Northwestern with the school record for total offensive yards (2,938), a record which would stand until 1964.
AAFC and NFL career
In 1944, Graham was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions, but was obligated to serve in the United States Coast Guard, serving his time with the Coast Guard while it was still operating in the service of the United States Navy. His football coach during his Coast Guard-Navy career was Bear Bryant. Even before Graham's term was ended, head coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) offered him a two-year contract for $7,500 per season. In addition, Brown offered a $1,000 bonus and $250 per month for the duration of the war, an agreement Graham quickly signed. Brown knew all about Graham's talent having been head coach at Big Ten rival Ohio State during the latter's college days.
However, Graham also found time to play one year of professional basketball for the Rochester Royals. In what would become one of his trademarks, the Royals captured the 1945-46 National Basketball League title.
Upon joining the Browns in 1946, he was switched to quarterback, where he would lead the team to the league championship game in each of his 10 seasons, winning on seven occasions. During the AAFC's four-year existence, the Browns won the championship each year as Graham threw for 10,085 yards and 86 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more. Graham won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1947 and 1948, sharing the honor the latter year with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert.
The Browns joined the National Football League in 1950, and won the league championship in their first NFL season, deflecting the criticism of their domination of the AAFC. Graham paced the team to a 10-2 record on the season, the only two losses coming against the New York Giants, whose Umbrella Defense proved to be a source of frustration for the quarterback.
Graham gained revenge in the 1950, 8-3 playoff win against those same Giants. Playing on a frozen field that hindered both team's passing, Graham rushed for 36 yards in the Browns' 4th quarter drive, leading to Lou Groza's field goal which broke a 3-3 tie and gave Cleveland the lead for good.
Graham's clutch play also led to the NFL title one week later. Trailing the Los Angeles Rams by one point with 1:48 remaining and starting their drive at their own 31-yard line, Graham started with a 15-yard run, then followed with passes to receivers Rex Bumgardner and Dub Jones, before running one more play to set up Lou Groza's game-winning 16-yard field goal.
After signing a contract during the offseason that reportedly made him the highest-paid player in the game, Graham helped the 1951 team to 11 consecutive wins following a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener. The streak helped him win NFL Player of the Year accolades, but more importantly, helped garner a return match against the Rams.
In contrast to the previous season which saw the Browns win with a late score, it would be the Rams that captured the game on a touchdown pass with 7:35 left in the game. Graham had been sharp in the game's first series, when he moved 54 yards on three pass plays for a quick 7-0 lead. Unfortunately, his later fumble helped set up a Ram touchdown, while a fourth quarter interception put a major dent in the Browns' comeback hopes.
During the 1952 campaign, Graham and the Browns proved to be consistent by winning two games, then losing one over the course of the year to finish with a 9-3 mark. The team's 37-34 loss to the New York Giants in the regular season finale proved to be an omen two weeks later when the Detroit Lions stopped the Browns by a 17-7 score. The pain of losing a second straight championship paled in comparison to the tragedy that befell Graham on January 2. While Graham was practicing for the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles, his six-week-old son Stephen died from a severe cold.
During the next season, Graham bounced back, scoring two touchdowns on quarterback sneaks and throwing for 292 yards in the season-opening 27-0 shutout of the Green Bay Packers. That victory would be the first of 11 straight for the Browns, whose bid for a perfect regular season ended one week later with a 42-27 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite the 11-1 mark, the team came up short for the third consecutive year in the NFL Championship, falling 17-16 to the Detroit Lions. Bobby Layne's 33-yard pass to Jim Doran with less than three minutes remaining provided the heartbreak for the Browns.
Graham would go on to win Player of the Year honors that year, but became a painful footnote in the development of the football helmet facemask during a game against the San Francisco 49ers on November 15, 1953. With six minutes remaining in the second quarter, Graham was injured after receiving a blow to the jaw by a 49er player, but returned to the game after receiving 15 stitches. The injury compelled Paul Brown to work toward developing the prototype of what would become the facemask.
Before the start of the Browns' 1954 training camp, Graham's name became connected to the infamous Sam Sheppard murder case. As one of the osteopath's neighbors, Graham and his wife were asked by police for information on Sheppard, with the signal caller noting that the couples had attended local stock car races four days before the murder.
Back on the field, the Browns got off to a sluggish start, dropping two of their first three contests. However, eight straight wins again helped put the team into the title game, facing the Detroit Lions for the third straight season. In what was expected to be his farewell to the game, Graham ran for three touchdowns and passed for three more in a 56-10 rout of the Lions. As expected, Graham announced his retirement following the game.
After his potential successors struggled during the 1955 training camp, Graham was convinced to come back following an appeal from Paul Brown. Shaking off the rust from his brief departure, he led the Browns to a 10-2 regular season mark, then officially closed out his playing career with a 38-14 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship on December 26, 1955.
During the latter half of his career, Graham's popularity was such that he and his wife Beverly hosted a local television show in Cleveland entitled, At Home With the Grahams.
Graham's 57-13-1 record as a starter in the NFL represents the highest winning percentage of any quarterback (.810).
During an astounding career in which the Browns compiled a 105-17-4 record, at the time of his retirement Graham's 86.6 career pass rating (combined AAFC and NFL) served as one of the best of all time, tossing 188 touchdowns in ten seasons of play.
In his final year of play, Graham won the Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year, and ten years later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was ranked number 7 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking player who had played in the AAFC.
Otto Graham is considered by many sports historians to be one of the greatest winners in the history of professional sports, and by many football historians to be the greatest quarterback of all time. Graham played six seasons in the NFL and took the Cleveland Browns to the NFL Championship Game all six seasons, winning three NFL titles. Including four seasons in which his team captured four AAFC titles, Graham played ten total seasons of professional football and made the league championship game all ten seasons, winning seven league titles. In his single season as a professional basketball player, the Rochester Royals (today's Sacramento Kings) also captured the league title. Thus, in 11 seasons as a professional athlete, Otto Graham's teams made the championship all eleven years, winning eight titles.
Midway through his career in 1952, the NFL passed a rule requiring offensive lineman to wear jersey numbers 50-79, in order for the referees to identify an ineligible receiver; this rule has since passed down to every other level of football. Unlike the more rigid numbering system that would go into effect in 1973, players were not given a grandfather clause if they played in the league before 1952, and Graham had to switch his jersey number from 60 to 14. Although Graham was better known with number 60, the Browns retired his number 14 while 60 remains in circulation, currently worn by offensive lineman Steve Vallos. While at Northwestern, Graham wore number 48.
Following his retirement, Graham served as head coach of the College All-Stars in their 1958 clash against the defending NFL champions, leading the squad to a convincing 35-19 victory over the Detroit Lions. The following year, he accepted a full-time position as head football coach at the Coast Guard Academy, where he served for seven seasons, leading the team to an undefeated regular season campaign in 1963. In that same year he coached the College All Stars to a 20-17 upset victory over Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.
Graham found time to return to professional football during the 1964 and 1965 seasons by moonlighting as a radio commentator for the American Football League's New York Jets.
NFL coaching career
Between 1966 and 1968, Graham coached the Washington Redskins, but whatever magic he had as an NFL player disappeared on the sidelines as the team recorded a mark of 17-22-3 during that time period.
After resigning the Redskins' post in favor of the legendary Vince Lombardi, Graham returned as athletic director of the Coast Guard Academy before retiring at the end of 1984.
Graham and Lombardi would be linked again when Graham underwent surgery for colorectal cancer in 1977, the disease that claimed Lombardi's life seven years earlier. Graham subsequently became a vocal supporter of early detection of the disease
Graham's 1963 CGA team was undefeated in the regular season but was trounced by a Western Kentucky team, 27-0 in the Tangerine Bowl.
Graham died of a heart aneurysm in Sarasota, Florida on December 17, 2003. At the funeral held days later, Graham's longtime friend, George Steinbrenner, fainted, leading to extensive media speculation that he was in ill health, but Steinbrenner lived another six years.