Otto Graham, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Cleveland Browns to a championship game in every season he played, died Wednesday December 17 in Sarasota, FL. He was 82.
Graham who was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease in 2001, was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital earlier in the day with a tear in his aorta, the same heart condition that killed actor John Ritter, said his son, Duey Graham.
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 1946-1955. "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.
Otto 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," Paul 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 Everett Graham Jr. began setting records on the first day of his life in Waukegan, IL. He weighed 14 pounds, 12 ounces at birth the state record for largest male. The son of music teachers, Graham learned the piano, violin, and 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 3-year, 44-game basketball winning streak.
Graham would go 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 2 upset wins over powerful Ohio State, and then coached by Paul Brown. He was an All-American in both basketball and football in 1943 and finished 3rd 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, Paul 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.
After 4 years in the AAFC Otto Graham and the Browns moved into the more-established NFL in 1950. They debuted 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 30-20 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 3 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 for the 1955 NFL Championship.
"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."
Otto Graham made history as the first player to wear a facemask 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 n 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.
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.
In 1959, on the recommendation of longtime friend George 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.
Otto Graham later coached the Washington Redskins from 1966-1968, where 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 Fame QB. "What he really enjoyed was coaching the Coast Guard Academy."
After being fired by the Redskins Graham returned to the Coast Guard and was the Academy's athletic director until his retirement in 1985.
Otto Graham 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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