American football player
Otto Graham was one of the great quarterbacks in National Football League (NFL) history. Possessed of a powerful arm and pinpoint accuracy, Graham almost single-handedly transformed pro football from a running game of the 1940s to the passing game of the 1950s and later. In every one of the ten years Graham played, his team, the Cleveland Browns, reached the championships—first in four seasons in the All America Football Conference (AAFC) and then in six seasons after the Browns joined the NFL. In 1946 he was the first and only athlete to play in the championship game in two pro sports—basketball and football—in the same year. He was elected to the National Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
Otto Everett Graham, Jr. was born December 6, 1921 in Waukegan, Illinois (some sources say Evanston, Illinois). One of four brothers, he grew up in a world of sports and music. Both Graham's parents were music teachers and by the time he left high school he could play piano, cornet, violin and French horn. When he was sixteen
years old, Graham was named the Illinois French horn champion; the Waukegan High School brass sextet he played on as a high school senior also won a national championship. Graham majored in music at Northwestern University but stopped playing altogether when he entered professional sports. After he retired he said that giving up music was his one great regret.
Graham excelled in sports in high school too. As a senior, he was named to the All-State squads in both basketball and football. His prowess on the basketball court won him an athletic scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The six-foot, 200-pound Graham proved a versatile athlete at Northwestern. While captain of the school's basketball team, he was the second-highest scorer in the Big Ten conference. He was named the most valuable player on a team of college basketball all-stars that beat the Washington Bears, then the champions of the National Basketball League (NBL). Graham racked up the third-highest batting average in the school's history as a member of the Northwestern baseball team. Graham was given a chance to join the university varsity football team, when coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf saw his performance in an intramural football championship. Knee surgery interrupted Graham's college career briefly, but he was back in the line-up to lead Northwestern to two victories over Ohio State, then the national champions. Ohio State's coach Paul Brown would remember the young man's talent and poise on the field.
Becomes Pro Athlete
After the outbreak of World War II Graham joined the Navy, marrying Beverly Collinge after his training was completed. Transferred to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Graham worked briefly with Paul "Bear" Bryant, who later won fame as the coach of the University of Alabama's "Crimson Tide." After the conclusion of the war, Graham began playing pro basketball with the Rochester Royals of the NBL. The team, whose roster included Red Holtzman, Chuck Connors, and Del Rice, went on to win the NBL championship in 1946.
Although Graham had been drafted in the first round by the NFL's Detroit Lions, he accepted a $7,500 contract and a $1,000 bonus to play with the Cleveland Browns, a team being organizing for the upstart All America Football Conference (AAFC) by Brown—whose powerful Ohio State team Graham had helped defeat as a college player. Graham later told Fred Goodall of the Associated Press "I wasn't that smart, but I made the best move of my life to go there and work with Paul. I didn't always love him, but he ran the show and taught us the basics of everything." Brown thought just as highly of Graham. "Otto was my greatest player," Brown is quoted in Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement. "He had the finest peripheral vision I had ever seen, and that is a big factor in a quarterback. He was a tremendous playmaker. He had unusual eye-and-hand coordination, and he was bigger and faster than you thought."
"Automatic Otto"'s powerful and accurate arm, his coolness under pressure and his ability to execute Paul Brown's playbook transformed pro football from a running game to the passing game of the contemporary sport. "I could throw hard if I had to, I could lay it up soft, I could drill the sideline pass. God-given ability. The rest was practice, practice, practice," Graham told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated in 1998. "I had the luxury of having the same receivers for almost my entire career. We developed the timed sideline attack, the comeback route where the receiver goes to the sideline, stops and comes back to the ball, with everything thrown on rhythm." Graham became one of the leading passers of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He led the NFL in passing twice, and in 1952 passed for 401 yards in a single victory against Pittsburgh, completing twenty-one of forty-nine.
Paul Brown's System
Graham ushered in another revolutionary change. Paul Brown inaugurated a system in which the coach decided all plays from the sidelines and used substitutes as messengers to shuttle plays into the huddle before each scrimmage. More ego-driven quarterbacks would have rebelled. Graham was reportedly unhappy with the system, but he never challenged Paul Brown's leadership. Graham sometimes changed Brown's plays, but he recognized Brown's right to determine a game plan. "He was the admiral, the general, the CEO," Graham said of Brown in Sports Illustrated. The sideline pass and draw play were among the many innovations introduced by Graham and the Browns.
Whatever Graham's reservations, the proof was in the pudding—Paul Brown's system worked. With it, Graham and the Browns compiled one of the most remarkable string of winning seasons in professional sports history. Beginning in 1946, the same year the Royals were pro basketball champions, Graham led the Browns to ten championship games—every year of Graham's career. During the AAFC's brief four-year history, the Browns dominated the league with a remarkable record of 52 wins, four losses and three ties, and won the league championship every year. Graham led the league with seventeen touchdown passes in 1946 and twenty-five in 1947; he had a league-leading passing percentage of 60.6 in 1947, and led the AAFC in total yardage in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In 1948 Graham led the Browns to a 15-0 season, finishing up with four road games. Those wins were part of an unbroken string of twenty-nine wins that stretched over three seasons. Graham was named the AAFC Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1947, 1948, and 1949.
Plays In the NFL
In 1950 the AAFC folded and the Browns, along with the Baltimore Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, joined the National Football League. Intent on putting the upstart AAFC champs in their place, the NFL scheduled the Browns to play their first game against the two-time world champion Philadelphia Eagles. Graham's first pass of the game went for a touchdown. By the time the clock had run out, the Browns had handed the Eagles a 35-10 upset defeat. Graham later called that game the highlight of his entire career. When the 1950 season ended, the upstart Browns were NFL champions, having defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28. That same season Graham was named the NFL MVP.
|1921||Born December 6 in Waukegan, Illinois (some sources say Evanston, IL)|
|1938||Named high school conference scoring champion|
|1939||Selected for All-State basketball, and All-State football squads|
|1941||Enters Northwestern University on basketball scholarship, invited by Northwestern football coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf to try out for varsity team|
|1942||Throws for 1,092 yards|
|1943||Finishes third in Heisman Trophy balloting|
|1943||Drafted in first round by NFL's Detroit Lions|
|1945||Marries Beverly Collinge; enters Navy|
|1945||Joins Rochester Royals of National Basketball League|
|1946||Appears with Rochester Royals in NBL title game and with Cleveland Browns in NFL title game|
|1946||Joins Cleveland Browns of All America Football Conference|
|1946-49||Cleveland Browns AAFC champions|
|1946-55||Leads Browns to ten league finals|
|1949||Cleveland joins National Football League (NFL)|
|1950, 1954-55||Cleveland Browns NFL Champions|
|1955||Becomes highest paid player in pro football|
|1955||Elected to College Football Hall of Fame|
|1958, 1963||Coast Guard team beats NFL champion teams|
|1958-65||Coaches College All-Stars team in games against NFL champs|
|1959-66, 1969-85||Head coach at United States Coast Guard Academy|
|1965||Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|1966-68||Head coach and general manager of Washington Redskins|
|1968||Coaches East team in NFL Pro Bowl|
|1977||Diagnosed with colorectal cancer, becomes national spokesperson for National Cancer Society|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1943||Third in Heisman Trophy voting|
|1943||College Basketball All-Star Most Valuable Player; Big Ten football and basketball Most Valuable Player|
|1946-49||AAFC All-League Quarterback|
|1947-49||Most Valuable Player, All American Football Conference|
|1950, 1954-55||Most Valuable Player, National Football League|
|1951, 1953-55||NFL All-Pro|
|1952||NFL Leader, Touchdown Passes|
|1952, 1953||NFL Leader, Total Yardage|
|1953, 1955||NFL Player of the Year|
|1953-55||NFL Leader, Pass Completion|
|1955||College Football Hall of Fame|
|1965||Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|1994||Elected to NFL 75th Anniversary Team|
|1996||Lifetime Achievement Award, Northwestern University|
|1999||100 Top Athletes of the Millennium, ESPN|
|1999||Six All-Time Top Football Players, Sports Illustrated|
|1999||#6 Top Football Player of All-Time, Sport Magazine|
|1999||#5 Top Football Player of All-Time, NFL Films|
Cleveland unfortunately lost the NFL championship games the three subsequent years, 1951 through 1953. Although he was named the NFL's MVP in 1953, Graham held himself personally responsible for the championship defeats. "Emotionally, I was so far down in the dumps those three years," he told Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com. "I was the quarterback. I was the leader. It was all my fault." After losing the 1953 title game 17-16 to the Detroit Lions, he led the Browns to a crushing victory over Detroit the following year, winning the championship game 56-10. Wanting to leave the game at the top of his form, Graham planned to retire after the 1954 season. The Browns lured him back for one last year with a $25,000 contract in 1955, making him the highest paid player in the game. Far from resting on his laurels in 1955, Graham turned in one of his finest years on the gridiron. He completed 98 of 185 passes for a total of 1,721 total yards and fifteen touchdowns. Cleveland led the NFL with a 9-2-1 record and beat the Rams for the championship. Graham won his second NFL MVP in 1955 too, capping off a fine season and an extraordinary career in pro football. He retired at the close of the 1955 season at the age of thirty-three.
With the Browns, Graham passed for a total 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns. One of his most remarkable achievements is that in his ten years with the team, Graham did not miss a single game. Injury rarely saw him leave games. In one 1954 contest, he was elbowed so hard it opened a cut that required thirteen stitches, administered on the sidelines. During halftime, a Graham's helmet was rigged with a clear plastic bar to protect his face. "That's my real claim to fame right there," Graham told the Associated Press's Fred Goodall. "I was the first guy who ever wore a face mask—college, high school or pro." The injury didn't interfere with Graham's performance. He came back and played one of the best second halves of his career, hitting around ten of twelve passes.
Coaches College Football
Despite his retirement from pro football, Graham remained active in the college game. From 1958 until 1965 he coached the College All-Stars in their annual game against the NFL champion team. His teams won in 1958 and 1963. In 1959, on the recommendation of George Steinbrenner —who later became the controversial owner of the New York Yankees baseball franchise—Graham became Athletic Director and football coach at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Except for the years 1966-68, Graham remained with the Academy until 1985. The high point of his years as a college coach came in 1963 when he led the Academy to a season without a defeat and an appearance in the Tangerine Bowl.
Graham was not nearly as successful as a pro football coach. In 1966—a year after he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—he was hired as head coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins. After three seasons and a 17-22-3 record with Washington, Graham was replaced, but he took it goodheartedly. "My best claim to fame—and nobody else in the world can say this—is it took Vince Lombardi to replace me as coach of the Washington Redskins," he told Jason Butler of the Austin American-Statesman.
Graham was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1977 and underwent a colostomy. As a result he became an outspoken advocate of early cancer check-ups. He was later named honorary national chairman of the National Cancer Society.
By the end of the century, although Graham had been out of football for nearly fifty years, his football achievements lived on in memory. In 1994 he was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. Five years later in 1999, ESPN recognized him as one of the 100 Top Athletes of the Millennium. The same year he was number six on Sports Illustrated 's All-Time Top Ten Football Players list. And pro football is still a passing game.
Where Is He Now?
In 2002 Otto Graham lived with Beverly, his wife of fifty-six years, on a golf course in Sarasota, Florida. Forced by arthritis to give up golf and recently diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, Graham nonetheless continues to speak his mind about pro football to sports reporters. He and his wife have three children, two foster daughters, sixteen grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
|CLE: Cleveland Browns.|
"Otto Graham." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 21. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
Affleck, John. "Older Browns Remember '50." Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) (August 8, 1999): D8.
Butler, Jason. "Maestro of the Browns; Multitalented Otto Graham, 77, has one regret." Austin American-Statesman (July 21, 1999): C7.
Daly, Dan. "'48 Browns: Perfectly fine." Washington Times (November 22, 1991): D1.
Elliott, Helene. "He Otto Be Happy." Los Angeles Times (December 22, 1995): C1.
Goodall, Fred. "Graham: It's impossible to say who's best QB ever." Associated Press Sports News (October 19, 2002).
Oates, Bob. "He's Calling New Signals—This Time Against Particularly Threatening Foe." Los Angeles Times (April 10, 1985): C1.
Zimmerman, Paul. "Revolutionaries." Sports Illustrated (August 17, 1998): 78.
"'Otto' Biography." http://www.ottograham.net (January 4, 2003).
Schwartz, Larry. "'Automatic Otto' Defined Versatility." http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/graham_otto.html (January 4, 2003).
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan
Otto Graham (born 1921) was one of professionalfootball's greatest quarterbacks and most accurate passers. In every one of his ten seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he led his team to the league championship game.
"Otto was my greatest player," said legendary Cleveland coach Paul Brown. "He had the finest peripheral vision I had ever seen, and that is a big factor in a quarterback. He was a tremendous playmaker. He had unusual eye-and-hand coordination, and he was bigger and faster than you thought."
Otto Graham was a huge baby, weighing 14 pounds and 12 ounces when he was born on December 6, 1921 in Evanston, Illinois. He was one of four sons of two schoolteachers who both loved music and encouraged their children to play instruments. Young Otto became proficient in violin, cornet, piano, and French horn. At Waukegan High School, he became Illinois French horn state champion and played in a brass sextet that won the national championship. That same year, at age 16, he was the state's basketball scoring champion and named to the All-State basketball squad. The next year, 1938, Graham was named to the All-State football squad.
Graham's athletic versatility flowered at Northwestern University, which he entered on a full basketball scholarship. Nicknamed "Automatic Otto," Graham became the basketball team captain and was the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten. Selected to the collegiate All-Star team, he was named most valuable player when the All-Stars beat the National Basketball League champion Washington Bears in an exhibition game. Graham also played baseball and compiled Northwestern's third-highest batting average.
But it was on the gridiron that Graham really excelled at Northwestern. Invited to spring football practice as a freshman, Graham threw three touchdown passes and ran for three others in the annual intramural scrimmage game. In his college days, he set new single-season and career passing marks for the Big Ten. In one game against Michigan, he connected on 20 of 29 passes for 295 yards. Graham became one of only a few college players to be named an All-American in both football and basketball. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting for the best college football player of 1943.
Entering the Navy, Graham married Beverly Collinge during preflight training for the V-5 carrier program. They would soon start a family of three children. In the service, Graham became cadet regional commander and also played football for Paul "Bear" Bryant, who went on to enjoy a legendary college coaching career. In the Navy, Graham learned how to quarterback in the new "T" formation, where the quarterback stood directly behind the center.
After World War II ended, Graham played one season with the National Basketball League's Rochester Royals as part of a league championship squad. He retired from basketball after that single pro season in favor of football. Cleveland's Paul Brown had trained his sights on Graham ever since 1941, when he had been coaching Ohio State University and Graham beat him by throwing off-balance while running for a touchdown. As the war wound down, Brown decided to form a new team, and Graham was his first pick. Brown signed him to a contract while Graham was still in the Navy, paying him a $1,000 bonus and $250 a month until the war was over so he wouldn't be tempted to sign elsewhere. Sure enough, Graham was drafted by the Detroit Lions but instead signed with Cleveland to play in the newly formed All America Football Conference.
Emerging from the war with a solid core of collegiate players who had been in the service, the Browns became a juggernaut. In their first season, the Browns won the AAFC championship, making Graham the first player to be on two world championship teams in different sports in the same year. After that season Brown tore up Graham's initial two-year contract and raised his pay to $12,000 a year.
An Innovative Team
Brown quickly became football's most innovative coach, and Graham was his ideal quarterback, a deadly accurate passer and a creative playmaker. Together, Brown and Graham shifted the emphasis in football from running to passing. But Graham was forced to submerge his ego to Brown's. Brown became the first coach to call plays regularly for his quarterback, instituting the rotating messenger guard system to bring plays from the sideline to the huddle.
At the time, it was widely reported that Graham chafed at the arrangement. But in an interview in Sports Illustrated in 1998, Graham said he hadn't been unhappy. "[O]n the Browns there was room for only one ego, and it wasn't mine," he told interviewer Paul Zimmerman. "I never criticized the coach. He was the admiral, the general, the CEO." Under Brown and Graham, the Browns dominated the league in the four seasons that the AAFC existed, winning four championships with a total of 52 wins, four losses and three ties. Graham, who was cool under pressure and remarkably consistent, was named AAFC Most Valuable Player three of those four seasons, in 1947, 1948 and 1949, leading the league in passing yardage each year.
"What I loved was that we were a passing team in an era of the run," Graham recalled. "I could throw hard if I had to, I could lay it up, I could drill the sideline pass. God-given ability. The rest was practice, practice, practice." Though he threw with a modified sidearm technique, Graham was uncannily accurate on long passes.
A Classy Competitor
In 1950, the National Football League absorbed the Browns and two other teams from the AAFC, the Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers. In their first game in the NFL, the Browns were paired up against the defending champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. The idea behind the schedule was to teach the upstarts a lesson. But the Browns had a different plan. "When we went into that game, I can assure you that no team in the entire history of the sport was as well prepared mentally as we were," Graham said in an interview after his retirement. Graham's first pass in the new league went for a touchdown, and the Browns stunned the Eagles with a 35-10 victory. Years later, Graham said: "It was the highlight of my whole career."
Graham went on to win the MVP award in his new league. The Browns won the divisional title and faced the Los Angeles Rams in the league championship game. Graham led the team on four touchdown drives, but the Browns were a point short in the closing minutes. After fumbling a ball, Graham thought he had lost the game, but Brown told him there would be one last chance. He was right. With the clock running down, Graham took the Browns into field goal territory and they pulled out the championship game, 30-28.
In the six seasons he played in the NFL, Graham's team won the divisional title each year. Graham cemented his reputation as a modest, classy, uncomplaining star who was nonetheless fiercely competitive in clutch situations. "If there was one game on the line that you had to win, I would pick Otto Graham," said New Orleans Saints general manager Jim Finks. Graham was the instrument for Brown's ceaseless offensive innovations that helped define modern football, such as the sideline pass and the draw play. He was also an excellent runner who could scramble out of trouble.
Nothing could keep Graham out of a game—not even an injury. After one game in which Graham was knocked out by an opponent's forearm to the mouth, Brown invented the facemask on the spot by having his equipment manager weld a metal bar onto Graham's helmet. One day, Graham started against the San Francisco 49ers with a heavily taped injured knee. On the first series of plays he threw a touchdown pass. The 49ers coach had so much respect for Graham that he had told his players not to hit him hard.
"We had the greatest coach in the game and an esprit de corps you find very seldom on a football team today," recalled Graham in a 1999 interview. "It didn't matter who got the credit, who made the headlines, who scored." Yet Graham sometimes complained about Brown's obsessive need to control even the personal lives of his athletes. "I was a clean-cut kid," Graham told sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz. "I didn't drink, I didn't smoke. When they came around to check my room I resented it. They knew I was in there."
In 1954, Graham led the league in passing yardage for the third consecutive season and won another MVP award. In the championship game against the Lions, Graham threw three touchdown passes and ran for three others, and the Browns won, 56-10. Graham wanted to retire after that season, but Brown coaxed him back for a final year, giving him $25,000 to make him the highest-paid player in the game at the time. But Graham said later that the money wasn't important: "I'd have played for the fun of it, and a lot of guys felt that way then." In 1955, the Browns again won the league title game, with Graham throwing two TD passes and running in two other scores. Graham was again named the league MVP but made good on his pledge to retire.
In ten professional seasons Graham's team had been in a league title game ten times, winning seven of them. Graham was his league's most valuable player in six of those ten seasons. He led his league in passing yardage six times, and in touchdowns three times. For his career, he racked up 174 touchdowns and 23,584 yards passing, completing 55.8 percent of his passes. Until the 1980s he remained the top-rated professional passer of all time. In games he quarterbacked, the Browns won 114 games, lost 20 and tied four.
"Paul Brown was just light-years ahead of everybody," Graham told Herskowitz. "I'm grateful I got to play under him. I learned a lot about football, about organization, about life. There were times when I hated his guts. I could have killed him. Other times I felt something close to love."
Coaching Like His Mentor
With his playing days over, Brown turned enthusiastically to coaching, where he adopted many of Brown's techniques, though with much less success. "I found myself doing and saying the same things that used to make me so mad at him," Graham told Herskowitz.
Beginning in 1958, Graham coached the Collegiate All-Stars for many years in their annual game against the defending NFL champions. Twice he led the college team to victory, in 1958 over the Detroit Lions and in 1963 over the Green Bay Packers. In 1959, Graham became athletic director and football coach for the United States Coast Guard Academy. Under his tutelage, the Coast Guard had an undefeated season in 1963 and appeared in the Tangerine Bowl.
After being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, Graham became head coach of the Washington Redskins for the 1966 season. He coached the Redskins for three years with mixed success. His squads set league passing marks, thanks to quarterback Sonny Jurgenson, but in 1969 Graham was let go in favor of the legendary Vince Lombardi.
Graham returned to the Coast Guard Academy for 16 more seasons as athletic director before his retirement in 1985. In 1994 he was named to the NFL's 75th anniversary team. In 1996 Graham received Northwestern University's Lifetime Achievement Award.
In an interview with NFL.com in 2000, Graham expressed one regret, that he had given up music for football: "I would trade every trophy, every honor I've ever had, to have just continued playing the piano."
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Korch, Rick, The Truly Great: The 200 Best Pro Football Players of All Time, Taylor Publishing, 1993.
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"Otto Graham," www.ottograham.net
"Otto Graham," Notable Northwestern Alumni, University Archives,http://www.library.nwu.edu/archives/exhibits/alumni/graham.html. □