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The Legend of Otto Graham

The remarkable story of Otto Graham is under-appreciated. He was one of the most successful athletes in any professional sport in history.

Otto was born in 1921 in Illinois. He died at the age of 82 from a heart condition. But in between he accomplished feats that are astonishing in the world of sport.

Otto played just 9 years in pro football, all with the Cleveland Browns, between 1946 and 1955. But his route to pro football was not a direct one. He was actually drafted by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 1944 draft. He had attended Northwestern previously and was voted third in the Heisman Trophy competition in 1943. But Otto never played for the Lions because he had to report to the US Coast Guard shortly after the draft. While serving with the Coast Guard, Otto was lured to Cleveland by coach Paul Brown who knew him from his college days. Brown offered Graham a very lucrative contract, and the rest is history. What the Lions lost was only one of the greatest quaterbacks ever to play the game.

Just a few stats will suffice to prove the point. Otto led the Browns to the championship game every single year that he played - all 10 seasons! He helped the Browns win the title 7 of those 10 years. He was named the league MVP three times. He went to the Pro Bowl five times, winning the MVP in 1950. He retired in 1954 after winning the championship against who else - the Lions. The next year the Browns were struggling on offense, so Otto was persuaded to come out of retirement. What difference did he make you might ask - well the Browns won the title again in 1955 against the Rams. Otto then retired for good. His all-time record with the Browns is truly stunning: 105 wins to just 17 losses over 9 years, plus 4 ties. Otto's .810 winning percentage is the highest ever of any professional quarterback in history, and likely will never be surpassed by anyone. It is no surprise that The Sporting News named Otto the 7th greatest professional football player ever in its 1999 review of the game.

Otto was the first Brown ever inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. His number 14 has been retired by the Browns.

But there are other amazing things about Otto. He played one year as a professional basketball player in the NBA for the Rochester Royals in the 1945-46 season. What do you think happened that season - yes you guessed it - the Royals won the championship.

And Otto is to pro football what the legendary Montreal Canadien goalie Jacques Plante is to pro hockey. Plante was the first goalie to wear a mask in a pro game after being severely injured by a flying puck to the face. On November 15, 1953, Otto changed the face of pro football after he received a serious jaw injury requiring stitches during a game against the 49ers. After that game, coach Paul Brown began work on what became the facemask for pro football.

Otto coached 2 years for the Washington Redskins but never managed to repeat his greatness from the sideline. He resigned the post in 1968 to another coach that you might have heard of - the legendary Vince Lombardi.

Otto Graham went to the championship game every year that he played. He won the title in two different pro sports. He won the championship 7 out of 10 years in pro football. He was one of the greatest clutch players ever. In fact he won titles even after experiencing a devastating personal tragedy in 1952 when his six week old son died of a severe cold. The next season Otto won the league MVP.

Otto was a man of courage on and off the field. He battled through cancer in his later years. He dealt with fame and celebrity like a gentleman. He served his country. And he will never be forgotten as being a symbol of the Cleveland Browns that we can all look up to, forever.

Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the poor examples of professional athletes should have taken a page from the likes of Otto Graham.

Thank you Mr. Graham. Let us hope that the current Browns will think of you when they put their jerseys on and take the field. Go Browns!


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