Hall of Famer Graham dies

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2003

CLEVELAND Otto Graham was the perfect quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

The Hall of Famer, who led the Browns to 10 championship games in the 10 seasons he played for them, died Wednesday of an aneurysm to the heart. He was 82.

Graham died in Sarasota, Fla., team spokesman Todd Stewart said. Graham was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital earlier in the day with a tear in his aorta, said his son, Duey Graham.

''He was as great of a quarterback as there ever was,'' said longtime friend George Steinbrenner, who grew up in Cleveland. ''He was a god in Cleveland.''

Nicknamed ''Automatic Otto,'' Graham never missed a game as a pro while passing for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns. He finished his career with an astounding 105-17-4 regular-season record.

He took coach Paul Brown's teams to the title game in each season from 1946-55.

''That's hard to beat,'' said Sammy Baugh, a contemporary of Graham's and also a Hall of Famer.

With Graham as their quarterback, the Browns won four championships in the old All-America Football Conference and three NFL titles. He was MVP of the AAFC three times.

Graham was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, and the Browns retired his uniform No. 14, which he wore from 1952-55. Graham wore No. 60 during the first part of his career, from 1946-51.

''The test of a quarterback is where his team finishes,'' Brown once said. ''By that standard, Otto Graham was the best of all time.''

In 1994, Graham was picked for the NFL's 75th anniversary team, joining quarterbacks Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.

''Otto Graham was the superstar of the 1950s, when the NFL was gaining stability and growing in popularity,'' NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Wednesday night. ''He helped glamorize the sport by winning championships and elevating the role of quarterback as the NFL entered the television era.

''He also played a major role in building the tradition of the Cleveland Browns.''

After dominating the AAFC with an innovative offense that was ahead of its time, Graham and the Browns moved into the more-established NFL in 1950.

They opened in Philadelphia against the defending champion Eagles, and Graham's first pass in the NFL went for a touchdown. The Browns stunned the sports world with a 35-10 win.

Cleveland went 12-2 during the regular season and then defeated the Los Angeles Rams, who had defected from Cleveland after winning the 1945 title.

The Browns lost in the NFL title game the next three years, before winning the 1954 championship behind Graham, who ran for three TDs and threw three more in Cleveland's 56-10 rout of the Detroit Lions.

Following the game, Graham announced he was retiring. But he was talked into making a comeback on the eve of the 1955 season opener and led the Browns to yet another title.

In his final game, the 33-year-old Graham threw two TD passes and ran for two more as the Browns beat the Rams 38-14.

''I liked all his quarterback skills,'' Baugh told The Associated Press on Wednesday. ''I thought he was one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He had a smart head and a good arm. I just thought he did a good job.''

Graham later coached the Washington Redskins from 1966-68 he compiled a 17-22-3 record and was replaced by Vince Lombardi in 1969. Coaching the Redskins was just a lark, according to the team's quarterback, Sonny Jurgensen.

''He said he was not cut out to coach professional football, but he did it for (Redskins owner) Edward Bennett Williams,'' said Jurgensen, also a Hall of Famer. ''What he really enjoyed was coaching the Coast Guard Academy.''

Graham made history as 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 Nov. 15, 1953, at old Cleveland Stadium. Graham returned 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.

Graham took great pride in his many career records and that they all came with his beloved Browns.

''How many players stay with the same team for 10 years these days? It's a different time, a different game,'' he said on a visit to Browns Stadium in 2002.

Otto Everett Graham Jr. began setting records on the first day of his life in Waukegan, Ill. He weighed 14 pounds, 12 ounces at birth the state record for largest male.

The son of music teachers, Graham learned the piano, violin, cornet and became Illinois state champion in the French horn at age 16 when he also led his basketball conference in scoring.

As a senior, he was all-state in basketball and football and scored 20 points in a stunning upset of Dundee, ending that school's three-year, 44-game basketball winning streak.

Graham went to Northwestern on a basketball scholarship and played intramural football, leading his team to a fraternity championship. Wildcats football coach Lynn ''Pappy'' Waldorf noticed the freshman and invited him to a spring tryout.

Despite missing one season with knee surgery, Graham led Northwestern to two upset wins over powerful Ohio State, then coached by Paul Brown.

He was an All-American in both basketball and football in 1943 and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting won by Notre Dame's Angelo Bertelli.

After his discharge from the Navy, Graham signed with Cleveland's new team formed by his old adversary, Brown.

''I guess I had impressed him,'' Graham recalled nearly 60 years later. ''He gave me the highest contract on the team in 1946, a whopping $7,500. Going to Cleveland to work with Paul was the best move of my life. I didn't always love him, but he ran the show and taught us the basics of everything.''

Graham also won a pro basketball title with the 1946 Rochester Royals in the National Basketball League.

In 1959, on the recommendation of Steinbrenner, Graham became athletic director and football coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He guided the club to an undefeated season in 1963, but lost in the Tangerine Bowl to Western Kentucky.

During that time, he was appointed a reserve commander by President Kennedy, and later a captain. He also was selected for the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

He left the Coast Guard to become general manager and coach of the Redskins in 1966. Graham returned to the Coast Guard and was the Academy's athletic director until his retirement in 1985.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Beverly; three children: Duey, Sandy and Dave; two foster daughters; 16 grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.



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