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Steinbrenner remembers watching Otto Graham
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Graham won seven pro titles
CLEVELAND -- For 10 seasons, Otto Graham personified perfection, the Cleveland Browns and greatness. No quarterback has done it better.
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.
Before Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath or Joe Montana, Graham set the bar for all NFL quarterbacks by winning more consistently than anyone else.
"The test of a quarterback is where his team finishes," said Paul Brown, Graham's coach in Cleveland. "By that standard, Otto Graham was the best of all time."
Graham helped the Browns become a football dynasty -- first in the All-America Football Conference and later in the NFL. He quarterbacked Cleveland teams in the 1940s and '50s that included Hall of Famers such as Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, Lou Groza and Bill Willis.
"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."
"Automatic Otto" never missed a game as a pro while passing for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns. Graham finished his career with an astounding 105-17-4 regular-season record.
He took Brown's teams to the title game in each season from 1946 to 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 AAFC and three NFL titles. He was MVP of the AAFC three times.
Graham, who wore uniform numbers 14 and 60, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1994, Graham was picked for the NFL's 75th anniversary team, joining quarterbacks Baugh, Unitas and 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 as the Browns stunned the sports world with a 35-10 win.
Cleveland went 12-2 during the regular season, 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 Detroit.
After 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, 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."
Graham later coached the Washington Redskins from 1966 to 1968 -- 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.
Graham, who also made history as the first player to wear a face mask, 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 a state record 14 pounds, 12 ounces at birth.
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.
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.
In 1959, on the recommendation of Steinbrenner, Graham became athletic director and football coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He left the Coast Guard to become general manager and coach of the Redskins in 1966.
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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