|Born: December 6 1921
|Died: December 17 2003 (aged 82)
|NFL Draft: 1944 / Round: 1 / Pick: 4|
|Stats at NFL.com|
|Career Highlights and Awards|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|College Football Hall of Fame|
Otto Everett Graham Jr. (December 6, 1921 - December 17, 2003) was an American professional football and basketball player who played for the Cleveland Browns in both the AAFC and NFL, as well as the Rochester Royals in the NBL.
He became the only athlete ever to win Professional Championships in different sports and accomplished the feat in back to back rookie seasons with the Rochester Royals basketball team in the 1946 NBL Championship and with the Cleveland Browns football team in the 1946 AAFC championship. He also made history as the first player to wear a face mask.
Nicknamed "Automatic Otto," Graham never missed a game as a pro football player while passing for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns. He finished his career with a 114-20-4 regular-season record. He took coach Paul Brown's teams to the title game in all ten seasons from 1946-55 and won the championship game seven of those 10 years.
In 1999, Otto was named one of 100 top athletes of the millennium by ESPN, one of Sports Illustrated's top six football players of all-time, the sixth ranked gridder of all time by Sport Magazine, the fifth of all time by NFL Films and was made quarterback of the all time All-Madden team. Graham was named to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) when it was established in 1954, along with Branch Rickey, Carl Erskine, and Donn Moomaw.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Graham's father served as Waukegan High School's band director. Otto played the piano, violin, cornet and French horn. 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. He would go on to major in music and education at Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship. He was the captain of the Northwestern basketball team, and in his senior year was second-leading scorer in the Big Ten. In 1944, he was named an All-American in basketball.
Excelling in three sports, Graham was named All-America halfback in 1943, All-America basketball in 1944, and was a .300-hitting outfielder in baseball. He is one of just a few student-athletes to earn All-America honors in both football and basketball at a Division I school.
He was talked into playing football by Northwestern's head football coach, Lynn Waldorf, who saw him throwing a football on campus. He was MVP of the Big Ten in football and finished third in the 1943 Heisman Trophy voting. He was also team MVP in basketball.
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.
In 1944, Graham was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions, but became a commissioned officer in the United States Navy Air Corps and served for two years during World War II. After completing his basic training, he married Beverly Collinge and was transferred to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Graham worked briefly with Paul "Bear" Bryant, who later won fame as the coach at the University of Alabama.
Before Graham finished his military service, head coach Paul Brown of the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) offered him a two-year contract for $7,500 per season. "I was getting a naval cadet's pay in World War II when Brown came out to the station and offered me a two-year contract at $7,500 per," Graham said. "He also offered me a $1,000 bonus and $250 a month for the duration of the war. All I asked was, 'Where do I sign?' Old Navy men say I rooted for the war to last forever."
Brown knew all about his talent because he was head coach at Big Ten rival Ohio State University, which was beaten twice by Graham's team.
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 that first 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 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.
In 1954, 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. He passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more. He was named the league's Player of the Year for the second time and received the Hitchcock Belt, awarded to the top professional athlete of the year.
Graham became a painful footnote in the development of the football helmet facemask. He was the first player to wear a face mask after being viciously elbowed in the face on a late hit by San Francisco linebacker Art Michalik on November 15, 1953, at old Cleveland Stadium. Graham returned later in the game with plastic wrapped around his helmet to protect his mouth.
"That was my real claim to fame right there," Graham said. "I had this big gash on my mouth and they gave me 15 stitches, but I wanted to play." After returning, Graham completed 9 of 10 passes in the second half to lead Cleveland to a 23-20 comeback victory. The injury compelled Paul Brown to work toward developing the prototype of what would become the face mask.
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.
In January 1953, while Graham and his wife were in Los Angeles for the Pro Bowl game, their youngest child was taken ill and died before the Grahams could get home. "It set me thinking," Otto says. "It was the first adversity that ever hit me. Until then, the worst that had ever happened to me was to have a pass intercepted. It gave me a more serious outlook. Now, I just want to keep busy."
At his death he had been married to Beverly for 57 years. He had five children that survived him: Duey, Sandy, and Dave; two foster daughters; 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Otto Graham's retirement from the Cleveland Browns at age 33, Otto's son Duey wrote his late father's biography, OttoMatic.
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.
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.
In 1959, on the recommendation of longtime friend George Steinbrenner, Graham became athletic director and football coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where he served for seven seasons. He guided the club to an undefeated season in 1963, but lost in the Tangerine Bowl to Western Kentucky University. During that time, he was appointed a reserve commander by President John F. Kennedy, and later a captain. He also was selected for the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
Graham found time to return to professional football during the 1964 and 1965 seasons serving as a radio commentator for the American Football League's New York Jets.
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 spokesman for cancer awareness and in 1980 received the American Cancer Society’s award for courage.
Graham died of a heart aneurysm in Sarasota, Florida on December 17, 2003. He was survived by his wife of 57 years, Beverly; three children: Duey, Sandy and Dave; two foster daughters; 16 grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.
Otto Graham is considered by many historians to be one of the greatest winners in the history of professional sports. 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.
The Otto Graham Alzheimer's Research Fund was established shortly after his death to accept contributions and donations toward the fight to cure the disease.
In 2006, the campaign began to create the The Otto Graham Gymnasium and Activity Center on the campus of Waterford Country School in Waterford, Connecticut. His wife Betty served on the Board and he was the first president of the Waterford Country School Foundation, a group organized to help raise funds to renovate the campus.
All links retrieved January 7, 2019.
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