Groza, Lou

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(b. 25 January 1924 in Martin's Ferry, Ohio; d. 29 November 2000 in Middleburg Heights, Ohio), tackle and placekicker with the Cleveland Browns, the team's career scoring leader and one of the game's all-time great place-kickers.

Lou Groza was born above Groza's Tavern in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, into a very athletic family. His father was a tavern-keeper and his mother a homemaker. At six foot three, he was the smallest of three sons, but very much an athlete. He played baseball, football, and basketball in high school and was known as the "Big Chief" because he was the captain of each of his teams.

After high school Groza went to Ohio State University, where he tried out for the freshman football team. It was there that Paul Brown, then a coach at Ohio State, saw him display the ability to placekick a football through the goal-post uprights from forty, fifty, even fifty-five yards away. An extraordinary skill then and now, it was one that would earn Groza the nickname "The Toe." It was something he had learned growing up trailing after his brother Frank. "I used to get a kick out of kicking the ball over the telephone wires when we would play touch football in the street," he recalled. "I liked to see how far I could make it go." Very far, it turned out.

Groza did not go to Ohio State as a placekicking specialist, but as a tackle. He would play only three games on the freshman squad before entering the U.S. Army duringWorld War II. He served as a surgical technician in the Philippines, usually some five miles behind the front lines, assisting doctors as they helped the wounded. When he had time, he kept his football skills sharp as he and his buddies scrimmaged with footballs sent by Paul Brown. After his discharge from the service in February 1946, Groza returned, at age twenty-two, to Ohio State, but instead of finishing his degree he followed Brown to Cleveland. Brown was putting together the Cleveland Browns, a new franchise in the equally new All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Groza would eventually return to Ohio State to complete his degree work.

The man who would become the Toe started with the Browns as a tackle, a position he played from 1946 to 1959, first in the AAFC and after 1950, in the National Football League (NFL). Though weighing 255 pounds, he was fast—he could run the forty-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. During that time Groza earned All-NFL tackle honors six times and was named NFL Player of the Year in 1954. Even when playing tackle, his kicking ability gave Cleveland great tactical range. As Paul Brown recalled, "He was always a great potential weapon when we were inside an opponent's 49 yard line." In 1953 Groza made 88.5 percent of his field goals, at a time when 53 percent was the average. That mark remained as the best in professional football until 1982, when Mark Moseley of the Washington Red-skins made 95.2 percent of his kicks. The numbers still impress; they were achieved at a time when playing and field conditions were considerably more demanding than they have become. Poor playing surfaces and wider hash marks meant harsh angles to the uprights, and defenders could be hoisted up on their teammates' shoulders to try to block the kick.

Groza's career as a tackle ended in 1960 because of a back injury, but he was coaxed back to the Browns as a kicking specialist, making his foot a target for his opponents. He said, "Guys would yell out, 'Step on Groza's foot.' We were playing the Lions once and the guy I was playing against came over and stomped on my foot in the huddle and ran back to the line of scrimmage laughing." Groza used a square-toed shoe—he wore it even when he played tackle—and would kick straight on after taking exactly two and a half steps toward the ball.

Probably the most famous of all of Groza's kicks, the one that resulted in a friend's bronzing the square-toed shoe he wore to accomplish it, was the field goal he kicked against the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 championship game, with twenty-eight seconds left in the game. Here were the upstart Browns, recently brought into the NFL from the now-defunct AAFC that they had dominated during the Conference's four years of existence, playing the Rams, a team that had left Cleveland five years before. The unthinkable possibility, that the Cleveland Browns—wearing sneakers because of the condition of the field—could win the NFL Championship their first year in the League came down to Groza's making a field goal.

As Groza later recalled the moment, "What made it tough was that I have a tennis shoe on my left foot and football shoe on my right, and I took the cleats off the bottom of it so it had a flat sole. I felt like a cat where you put paper on his paws and he's trying to walk around. It was a funny sensation." Groza and his teammates would be the only ones to savor the quirkiness of the arrangement as the Rams failed in a last attempt to score. The Browns had scaled the heights, booted there in no small measure by the Toe.

Also in 1950 Groza married his wife, Jackie, and started a family. They had a daughter and three sons, whom they raised in Berea, Ohio, where Groza had his insurance business and was active in civic affairs. Berea honored him as the twenty-fifth winner of the Grindstone Award and as Berea's Outstanding Citizen for 1990.

Groza retired in 1967, the last of the original Browns to do so. He remained a Browns booster to the end of his life. He was the franchise's career scoring leader and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974. Cleveland retired his number, 76. Groza was seventy-six when he died at Southwest General Health Center of an apparent heart attack; his health had been failing for some time before his death.

For many Browns fans, Groza was what the team was about. He was the only Brown to play in all twelve of their championship games—four in the AAFC and eight in the NFL. He was also the only Brown to play with every one of Cleveland's other twelve Hall of Famers. Groza gave the word reliable new meaning. College football's top place-kicker each year is honored with the Lou Groza Award.

Groza collaborated on his biography with Mark Hodermarsky, The Toe: The Lou Groza Story (1995). His career is discussed in John Keim, Legends by the Lake: The Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium (1999), and Richard Shmelter, The Browns: Cleveland's Team (1999). Obituaries are in the Akron Beacon Journal (30 Nov. 2000) and in Time and Sports Illustrated (both 11 Dec. 2000).

Robert B. Corey