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.
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.
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."
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."
Herskowitz, Mickey, The Quarterbacks, William Morrow, 1990.
Korch, Rick, The Truly Great: The 200 Best Pro Football Players of All Time, Taylor Publishing, 1993.
Rosenthal, Harold, Fifty Faces of Football, Atheneum, 1981.
Sports Illustrated, August 17, 1998.
"Graham was the ultimate winner," NFL.Com, http://www.nfl.com/news/Wherenow/graham.html.
"Graham: the Browns' first star, NFL.Com, http://www.nfl.com/news/hof/40s/graham.html
"Otto Graham," www.ottograham.net
"Otto Graham," Notable Northwestern Alumni, University Archives, http://www.library.nwu.edu/archives/exhibits/alumni/graham.html.