The Cleveland Browns was a franchise known for hard work, dedication and winning during their early years in large part to Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham.
Graham is arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and is the only player in Cleveland Browns history that can give legend Jim Brown a run for his money when pertaining to success with the franchise.
Graham was the first player signed by former Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown when he was starting up the organization in the All-America Football Conference. He was first team all-league quarterback in 9 of his 10 seasons in the NFL, leading the Browns to 10 straight title games including 4 AAFC and 3 NFL championships.
The 7-time football champion attended Northwestern University and had planned to focus on basketball during his collegiate career. However, the Northwestern athlete played football at the varsity level for three seasons and became quite the quarterback. He got an invite by Northwestern coach Lynn Waldorf to attend a spring practice after witnessing Graham launching deep passes in a fraternity intramural league. He thrived as a basketball player even earning MVP of the College All-Star upset of defending NBA champion Washington bears. He was named the Big Ten MVP of football and basketball in the same year and he also attained one of the highest batting averages on Northwestern’s baseball team. 8 letters later and being named All-American in football and basketball twice, Graham was expected to do big things.
In the middle of his senior year, Graham was enrolled in the Navy’s V-5 carrier program after the Pearl Harbor attacks and was transferred to Chapel Hill to become a cadet Regimental Commander. He was widely recruited to play both football and basketball professionally, even receiving an offer to play professional basketball with the Rochester Royals. Graham accepted the offer by the Royals and in his lone year playing basketball in Rochester the team won the 1946 NBL championship.
Although, he declined to play for the Detroit Lions due to his intrigue with the Rochester Royals, he eventually signed with the Cleveland Browns later in the year after earning his first professional championship. Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown was drawn to Graham’s talent, attitude and dedication and truly believed the former Northwestern star had what it took to succeed in the AAFC.
“Otto has the basic requirements of a T-quarterback – poise, ball-handling and distinct qualities of leadership,” Brown said of Graham.
Then, Graham shocked the sports world and won the AAFC Championship with the Cleveland Browns in his rookie season, becoming the first player ever to win championships in separate sports. Graham would continue to be the face of the franchise winning four straight AAFC championships and totaling a 52-4-3 record.
Due to the Cleveland Browns success in the AAFC, the team struck a deal to move the team into the NFL in 1950 but that didn’t slow Graham or the Browns as they would go on to win the 1950 NFL Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams, 30-28. Graham shined bright in the game throwing 4 passing touchdowns.
The following years would be more of the same as there was no season short of a title appearance while also adding 2 more NFL championships. Graham’s last two championships came against the Detroit Lions in a thrashing 56-10 victory as he threw for 3 touchdowns and ran for 4 others in for scores. After the game, he announced his retirement, although would return for one more season in 1955 only resulting in yet another championship game victory over the Rams again.
Apart from the championships, Graham helped shatter records in his time with the Browns. The team went undefeated in 1948 and also broke attendance records that same season – that also included the NFL’s attendance records as well. His success with the Browns unfortunately led to the AAFC coming to an end, as the Browns with several other team’s moved to the NFL. His No. 14 jersey was the first number retired by the Cleveland Browns organization and he also was awarded the 1955 Hickock Belt for being the nation’s top professional athlete. Among others, he was also the first gridiron recipient for leading the Browns to 10 straight Championships in his 10-year career.
His accomplishments were unmatched back then and he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1955, and it eventually led him to a head coaching position with the Washington Redskins in 1966 through 1968. In those seasons as head coach, the Redskins broke numerous passing records before Graham was replaced by coaching legend Vince Lombardi in 1969. After his brief, yet successful stint as a head coach Graham went back to the Coast Guard Academy until his retirement in 1985.
His achievements never went unnoticed after his retirement as he was selected to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team along with quarterbacks Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Montana. He was also named as one of the top 100 athletes of the millennium by ESPN, the sixth best football player of all-time by Sports Illustrated, and the fifth of all time by NFL Films while also quarterbacking the all time All-Madden team.
Graham passed away due to a dissecting aneurysm on December 17, 2003. He was 82 years of age and had celebrated his 58th wedding anniversary with his high school sweetheart Beverly.
Otto Graham is perhaps one of the best, true football players of all time and is without a doubt a pioneer for the quarterback position. While many experts discuss if Joe Montana or Tom Brady are the greatest quarterbacks ever with, neither accomplished 10 straight championship games like Graham did.
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