Graham, Otto Everett, Jr.
Graham, Otto Everett, Jr.
(b. 6 December 1921 in Waukegan, Illinois; d. 17 December 2003 in Sarasota, Florida), college and professional football player who led the Cleveland Browns to ten consecutive league championship games and who came to be considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Graham was one of four sons of Otto Everett Graham and Cordonna (Hayes) Graham, both of whom were music educators in the Waukegan public schools. Graham’s father also conducted the high school band. As a youth Graham followed in his parents’ musical footsteps. He played the French horn, the violin, the piano, and the cornet. Representing Waukegan Township High School, Graham was the Illinois state champion in the French horn and played for the school’s national champion brass sextet.
Graham also demonstrated athletic talent. He played football, basketball, and baseball in high school, winning All-State honors in basketball (1937) and football (1938). Graham’s success earned him a basketball scholarship to Northwestern University, where he planned to major in education and play for the school marching band. When the Northwestern football coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf chanced to see Graham playing in an intramural football game, though, Graham was soon recruited to join the Wildcat squad.
At the time, freshmen were ineligible for varsity play. By the start of his sophomore year in 1941, Graham was the starting single-wing tailback and defensive back. That year the Wildcats were the only team to beat the Paul Brown–coached Ohio State Buckeyes. The following year Graham set a Big Nine (later Big Ten) record, completing 89 of 182 passes for 1,092 yards. As a senior he set more records for single-game and single-season passing, was the Big Nine’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), was an All-American, and finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting. He was also named to the All-America basketball team and had the third-highest batting average on North-western’s baseball team.
Graham graduated in 1944 with a BA in education and a minor in music. He was then drafted into the U.S. Navy’s V-5 carrier program. After completing preflight training, Graham married the Northwestern coed Beverly Collinge. They had three children. When a fourth child died in infancy, they became involved in foster parenting, eventually adopting two daughters. Graham was then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a cadet regimental commander.
While at Chapel Hill, Graham was approached by the former Ohio State coach Brown. Brown knew that following the war a group of investors planned to start a new professional football league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), to challenge the older National Football League (NFL). Brown had already signed on to coach the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns and believed that Graham would be the perfect choice to lead the team as a T-formation quarterback. Graham had never played in the T-formation, but when Brown offered him a contract that would pay him $250 a month for the duration of the war, he signed.
When Graham mustered out of the service in the fall of 1945, he signed with the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League. Starting at point guard, he led the team to the league championship, then prepared to join the Browns. Graham quickly mastered the T-formation and became a team leader. For Brown, who emphasized teamwork and respectable off-the-field behavior from his players, the clean-cut Graham was a perfect role model. Graham neither smoked nor drank and was often compared to a Boy Scout because of his attitude. At six feet, one inch and 196 pounds, the quarterback proved to be an incredible playmaker on the field. The Browns opened AAFC play in 1946 with a 44–0 victory over the Miami Seahawks, claimed the Western Division title with a 12–2 record, and beat the New York Yankees for the first league championship. In 1947 Graham won league MVP honors, passing for 2,753 yards and twenty-five touchdowns. The Browns finished with a 12–1–1 record and another victory over the Yankees in the championship game. In 1948 Graham shared the MVP award with Frankie Albert of the San Francisco 49ers, as the Browns rolled to a perfect 14–0 record and a 48–7 victory in the championship game. Graham and the Browns continued their winning ways in 1949, again winning the championship with Graham getting his third consecutive MVP award. In four seasons Graham had passed for 10,085 yards and eighty-six touchdowns, won three MVP awards, and led his team to the championship each year.
The Browns’ success was wonderful for Cleveland. Municipal Stadium was full as the team annually set pro football attendance records. Unfortunately, the result was the opposite for the rest of the league. With Cleveland losing only four games in four years, other teams had little hope of success. Their fan base drifted away. The AAFC disbanded after the 1949 season, with the Browns, 49ers, and Baltimore Colts being absorbed into the NFL.
The Browns’ AAFC success had won them little respect in the NFL. Many in the older league believed that Cleveland had put up gaudy numbers against inferior competition. Graham in particular came under criticism because he did not call his own plays. Brown was the first coach to send in plays from the sideline. The Browns opened the 1950 NFL season playing the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. Graham said, “We’d have played those guys anywhere, anytime, for a barrel of beer or a milk shake, just to prove we were a good football team.” Cleveland stunned a partisan Eagle crowd with an easy 35–10 win. Many Browns players believed the margin of victory would have been even greater if biased officials had not called back three touchdowns on penalties. Cleveland finished the season 10–2, losing only to the New York Giants, whose coaches had designed a special “umbrella” defense to contain Graham’s passing.
After beating the Giants in a special American Conference playoff game, the Browns met the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL championship. In one of the most exciting playoff games ever, the Rams struck first on an eighty-two-yard pass from Bob Waterfield to Glenn Davis. Graham brought the Browns back, tossing the first of what would be four touchdown passes. The two teams traded scores, and the lead, until a poor snap led to Cleveland’s missing an extra point. With one minute, fifty seconds left, trailing 28–27, the Browns got the ball back one last time. A fourteen-yard Graham run and series of sideline pass completions set up Lou Groza’s sixteen-yard field goal, as the Browns pulled out a 30–28 victory and their first NFL championship in their first year in the league. Graham finished the day with 298 yards passing and 99 more rushing.
The next three seasons saw Cleveland win the American Conference each year but lose in the championship game. Graham was still voted the league’s MVP in 1953. In 1954 the Browns returned to their winning ways, beating the Detroit Lions 56–10 in the championship game. Graham tried to retire after the season but was lured back by a then record $25,000 salary. In 1955 he was again league MVP and led the Browns to their third NFL title, beating the Rams 38–14. Graham ran for two touchdowns and passed for two more in what was his final contest.
In Graham’s ten years with the Browns the team had a combined 113–20–4 record and played in the league championship game each year. Graham had passed for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns, scoring an additional forty-four touchdowns rushing. A durable and versatile athlete, he never missed a game with the Browns, despite several injuries, including one that forced him to wear an early version of the facemask. Graham occasionally played defense and intercepted seven passes during his career. He was awarded the 1955 Rae Hickok Belt as the best American athlete in any sport, and his number fourteen jersey was retired by the Cleveland Browns. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1956) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1965). In 1994 the NFL chose Graham as one of four quarterbacks on its seventy-fifth anniversary all-time team. His career average of 8.63 yards per pass attempt was still an NFL record at the time of his death
Following his retirement Graham continued to be involved in football. He coached in the college All-Star game from 1958 to 1965 and in 1969–1970. In 1959 he became the head football coach and later the athletic director at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In seven years his teams compiled a record of 43–33, highlighted by the academy’s first undefeated regular season in 1963. That team lost to Western Kentucky in the Tangerine Bowl. Graham left the coast guard in 1966 to spend three disappointing seasons as head coach of the Washington Redskins. In 1969 he returned to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he remained as athletic director until his retirement in 1985. Graham spent his final years in Florida, where he was a nine handicap golfer. He died of complications brought on by a tear in his aorta and was buried in Palms Memorial Park, Sarasota, Florida.
Graham was a football player who in many ways personified the clean-cut postwar era in America. A genuinely humble man, he once said, “I never realized until I started coaching what a God-given talent I had. I was surprised that everyone couldn’t do what I did.” In reality he was the best quarterback of his generation. In modern times others playing more games per season and in more pass-friendly offenses eclipsed most of his statistics, but as his old coach Brown said, “The test of a quarterback is where the team finishes. By that standard Otto Graham was the best of all time.” With ten championship games in ten seasons, few could argue the point.
Graham was interviewed extensively for Mickey Herskowitz, The Golden Age of Pro Football: A Remembrance of Pro Football in the 1950s (1974). Mervin D. Hyman and Gordon S. White, Jr., Big Ten Football, Its Life and Times, Great Coaches, Players, and Games (1977), gives a good account of Graham’s college career. Other insightful books are the autobiography of Paul Brown, PB, the Paul Brown Story (1979), with Jack Clary; and John Keim, Legends by the Lake: The Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium (1999). Obituaries are in the New York Times (18 Dec. 2003) and the Atlanta Journal–Constitution (21 Dec. 2003).
Harold W. Aurand Jr.