Graham: It's impossible to name best QB ever

Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002

SARASOTA, Fla. -- One of the greatest quarterbacks ever sits in the cozy little den of his home, surrounded by reminders of his Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns.

The memories are hazier now for Otto Graham. There's a lot he doesn't recall about the teams he led to championships in the '40s and '50s, yet many details of his life stand out with amazing clarity.

Graham, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, is returning this weekend to Cleveland, the city he ruled a half-century ago. He will be honored along with teammates from the 1950 Browns, who won the team's first NFL title.

The 80-year-old Graham lives on a golf course but gave up the game more than a year ago because of arthritis in his hands. He's done with throwing ceremonial passes, too, after recently discovering he can no longer control his aim.

''I'm the type of guy, if I can't do it halfway decent, I don't do it,'' he said.

While the late Johnny Unitas is often referred to as the best quarterback ever, a strong argument could be made for Graham.

Cleveland won seven championships in his 10 seasons, including every title in the four-year history of the All-America Football Conference from 1946 to 1949.

The Browns entered the NFL in 1950 and appeared in six consecutive title games, winning three. Graham retired after leading the Browns to championships in 1954 and 1955.

''The 10 years I was there, we played in the championship game every year. That'll never happen again because they've got so many good teams now,'' he said.

''My last year, I was the highest-paid player in pro football. I made $25,000. Now guys get that, if not more, in the first quarter of the first game.''

Graham, a two-sport star at Northwestern, played one season of pro basketball and helped the Rochester Royals, also featuring Red Holtzman and Chuck Connors, win the 1946 NBL championship.

With the Browns, he threw for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns while guiding Cleveland to a 105-17-4 regular-season record, including 58-13-1 in the NFL.

Amazingly, he never missed a game, one of the stats that makes him the proudest.

Graham laughs when he tells the story of sliding out of bounds during a game in 1954 and being elbowed in the face by San Francisco's Art Michalik.

The blow opened a cut that needed 13 stitches in the corner of his mouth. Determined to get him back on the field for the second half, the Browns attached a clear plastic bar to the front of the quarterback's helmet.

''That's my real claim to fame right there,'' Graham said. ''I was the first guy who ever wore a face mask -- college, high school or pro.''

His wife of 56 years, Bev, remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

''The blow was so hard that Otto didn't need any Novocain or anything. He wasn't even feeling this guy stitching him up. Then the guy started trying to sell him insurance. Right there in the locker room!'' she said.

''Otto came out and played the best second half of his career. He was something like 10-for-12, just tremendous. I didn't know how bad he was hurt until after the game. They kept telling me he was fine.''

The next day, television viewers in Cleveland witnessed what Graham said was another first.

''We had a show called 'At Home With The Grahams.' We probably had the greatest rating ever for it that day,'' he said. ''Well, I'm sitting there talking, and blood just starts dripping down my face. I was the first guy to bleed for a sponsor.''

Graham's career included a stint as coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, as well as a less successful run as coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins from 1966-68.

These days he spends much of his time at home.

Most of the major awards and other mementos from his playing days are on loan to Northwestern and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But there's more than enough left to line the shelves and walls in Graham's den.

There are trophies from golf and tennis tournaments, pictures of him with former Presidents Nixon and Carter, game balls signed by Jim Brown and other former Browns and NFL stars, and the facsimile of a $10,000 check he shared with Joe DiMaggio for winning a celebrity event.

A replica of his Hall of Fame bust sits on a mantel.

Graham knows he had a huge impact on the development of the pro game, but he wants no part of the debate over who is the greatest quarterback of all time.

''It's impossible to say who's the best,'' Graham said.

''I can be the greatest quarterback in the world. If I don't have good blockers in front of me and good receivers, I'm not going to do anything. You've got to have everything, and the coach has to give you the freedom to do what you have to do.''

Graham felt fortunate to have that in Paul Brown, who persuaded him to sign with his AAFC team, even though he had been drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions.

''I was at Northwestern and he was at Ohio State. We beat them and I guess I impressed him,'' Graham said. ''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.''

Graham is not sure where he would rank himself on the all-time list. There was no other quarterback he respected more than Unitas, who benefited from being tutored by Graham before his rookie season. Unitas died of a heart attack Sept. 11 at age 69.

''Weeb Ewbank, one of our assistants, went to the Colts. He called me and said: 'I've got this young guy up here who looks like he's got a lot of potential. I would appreciate it if you'd come up here and work with him a little bit,''' Graham recalled.

That was the beginning of what would become a close friendship.

''He wasn't as good an athlete as I was, but he was a good athlete. He ran the show and was tough. He didn't care if a lineman was 6-foot-10 and 500 pounds, he called the signals and would chew a guy out,'' Graham said.

''He was one of the best quarterbacks they ever had in professional football. ... He was a great friend. But every time I used to see him, I'd needle him and say: 'John, you realize if it hadn't been for me, no one would have ever heard of you. I taught you everything you know.'''

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