Otto Everett Graham, Jr.
Otto Everett Graham, Jr. set his first state record at birth in Waukegan, Illinois on December 6, 1921, weighing in at 14 lbs., 12 ozs. His music teacher parents mixed family values and the arts in raising their four sons. Otto learned the piano, violin, and cornet before focusing on French horn in high school. Bigger than most kids his age, Otto’s versatility became apparent early when he became Illinois French horn champion and conference basketball scoring leader at age 16. As a senior, he was a member of Waukegan High’s National Champion brass sextet while also being selected to the ’38 All-State Basketball and football squads. Otto scored 20 points in the Bulldogs stunning defeat of state champ Dundee High, ending a three-year 44 game Dundee win streak. Graduating early, Otto pared numerous scholarship offers to Northwestern or Dartmouth and eventually accepted a full basketball offer from the nearby Evanston campus.Made aware of a freshman throwing long accurate passes in the intramural league, Northwestern Coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf watched the basketball recruit win the fraternity championship and invited Otto to spring football. Following a promising freshman basketball season, Otto capped his ’39 Wildcat spring football debut by running for three scores and throwing for three more in the annual spring scrimmage. Missing a year due to knee surgery, Otto’s ’41-43 college football career was highlighted by 2 upset victories over Paul Brown’s National Champion Ohio State football squad; connecting on a national single-wing record 20 for 29 passes for 295 yards in a loss to Michigan; scoring 27 of 41 points in a shut out of Wisconsin; shattering Tom Harmon’s Big Ten career and Angelo Bertelli’s season passing marks; and by returning a Sammy Baugh interception 97 yards for a touchdown in the College All-Star game against the World Champion Washington Redskins. Otto finished third in ’43’s Heisman voting to Notre Dame’s Bertelli and was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions.As a Wildcat ’41-44 basketball star, “Automatic” Otto was the second leading Big Ten scorer and All-American as a junior and senior, Wildcat captain and MVP his senior year, and was named MVP in the College All-Star upset of the reigning NBA champion Washington Bears. Named Big Ten football and basketball MVP in the same scholastic year, Otto also played baseball for two seasons, posting NU’s third highest batting average while earning 8 varsity letters in his collegiate career. Few athletes have ever been All-American in two sports, yet Otto managed the task back-to-back in the same collegiate year.
Enrolled in the Navy’s V-5 carrier program after Pearl Harbor, Otto received training orders during his senior basketball campaign, finishing the season with Colgate University. Transferred to Chapel Hill, NC, Otto was named cadet Regimental Commander and learned the T-formation in service ball under Glen Kilinger and Paul “Bear” Bryant. He was named a ’44-45 service All-American in football and basketball. Drafted in the ’44 first round by the Detroit Lions, Otto married college sweetheart Beverly Collinge from Wabash, Indiana and signed instead with Paul Brown’s newly formed Cleveland Browns of the All America Football Conference. After his Naval discharge and before football, Otto won his second College All-Star football game and was recruited to play pro-basketball with the Rochester Royals for the winter. Along with teammates Red Holtzman, Chuck “Rifleman” Connors, Al Cervi, Del Rice and Tom Rich, etal., the Royals won the ’45-46 NBL Championship a year before the NBL reformed into the NBA.
Starting his second rookie season of ’46, Otto retired from basketball to join the Cleveland Browns who proceeded to stun the football establishment by winning the AAFC Championship. Otto is the only professional athlete to win World Championships in different sports. Once again, he accomplished the feat in back to back seasons. The Browns dominated the AAFC in ’46, again in ’47, and were undefeated in ’48 while shattered existing attendance records including those of the reigning NFL. After winning their fourth title in ’49, with Otto being named league MVP for the third time, the Brown’s dominance resulted in the league’s demise, thus ending any hopes of a super game between the AAFC and NFL.
In 1950, the Browns, 49ers, and Colts were absorbed into the NFL. Commissioner Bert Bell, intent on teaching the upstarts a lesson, scheduled Cleveland’s regular season debut against two time World Champion Philadelphia. Otto’s first pass in the NFL was a touchdown as the Browns stunned the Eagles, 35-10. The Browns lost two games enroute to a 30-28 Championship victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the team which had left Cleveland after winning the ’45 title. Lou “The Toe” Groza kicked the game winning field goal giving the Brown’s their first NFL title and Otto his first league MVP honors.The Browns fought their way to the title game again in ’51, ’52 and ’53, but lost the championship to the Rams once, and Lions twice. Rebounding in ’54, with Otto throwing three TD’s and running for three more, the Browns buried the Lions, 56-10. Retiring after the season, Otto was coaxed back by Coach Paul Brown for one more year and led Cleveland to his final Championship, throwing for two TD’s and running for two more in a career ending 38-14 victory over the Rams.Named league MVP for the second time, Otto retired at age 33 after ten seasons. Otto’s helmet and uniform, including his original number 14 Jersey, the first retired by the Browns, is on display at the Professional Football Hall of Fame along with his ’55 Hichcock Belt, awarded to the nation’s top professional athlete. Otto became the first gridiron recipient by leading the Cleveland Browns to ten Championship games in ten years, winning seven. With Otto under center, the Browns lost only 17 regular season games. An original iron man, Otto played in every game of his career.
In 1959, thanks to longtime pal George Steinbrenner’s recommendation, Otto accepted the Athletic Director and football coaching position at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Appointed a reserve Commander by President Kennedy, and later Captain by LBJ, Otto led the academically selected Bears to an undefeated season in ’63, culminating in a Tangerine Bowl loss to Western Kentucky. He was also named to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. With two wins in the College All-Star game as a collegian, and two more as a Brown, Otto was asked to coach ten All-Star squads resulting in victories over the ’58 Detroit Lions and ’63 Green Bay Packers. Leaving the Coast Guard to become Head Coach and General Manager of the Washington Redskins from ’66-68, Otto’s offensive squads, behind the arm of future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, shattered league passing marks earning Otto the opportunity to coach the east team in the ’68 NFL Pro Bowl.
When replaced by Vince Lombardi in ’69, Otto returned to the Coast Guard Academy. Diagnosed with rectal cancer in ’77, which required a colostomy, Otto won a golf tournament with Joe DiMaggio a month after his release from the hospital. His matter-of-fact approach to cancer resulted in Otto’s being named honorary chairman of the National Cancer Society by President Carter. Retiring as coach, Otto remained at the Coast Guard Academy as AD and good will ambassador until his retirement in ’85.
- Otto Graham was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in ’65, his first year of eligibility and is consistently ranked high on all-time quarterback ratings.
- In 1994, Otto was selected along with QB’s Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Montana to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team and represented his peers by tossing the game coins at Superbowl XXIX and the Hall of Fame inaugural between the Jaguars and Panthers.
- In 2003, the United State’s Coast Guard Academy established “The Otto Graham Athletic Legacy Fund” to develop and maintain high caliber athletic programs, culminating with “The Otto Graham Pavilion”.
- In 2004, Northwestern University unveiled ‘The Otto Graham Honor Roll’ at Ryan Field, highlighting Wildcat legends on the stadium’s facade.
- In 2010, the Cleveland Browns unveiled a franchise ‘Ring of Honor’ on the stadium facade with Otto and Paul Brown’s names overlooking midfield.
- In 2010, the Big Ten Network named Otto number 14 on their list of 75 ‘Big Ten Icon’s, featuring a network program with Duey talking about his dad.
- In 2011, Otto was named number 16 in a NFL Films production of the top 100 NFL football players of all time.
- In 2011, the Big Ten Conference renamed their Offensive Player of the Year Trophy the ‘Graham-George Trophy,’ after Otto and Ohio State’s Eddie George.
- In March, 2012, ground will be broken for the ‘Otto Graham Gymnasium and Activity Center’ at the Waterford Country School in Waterford, Conn. Otto was an invaluable supporter of WCS’s ideals and committment to the special needs of children and at risk families.
- In November of 2013, Northwestern University announced the Otto Graham Society, a foundation dedicated to supporting student athletes achieve excellence both on the field and in the classroom. Just as Otto dedicated much of his life to helping others achieve personal and athletic success, members of this society also do so by donating their own money year over year to Northwestern’s Athletic programs and it’s young athletes.
Otto, who celebrated his 58th wedding anniversary with Beverly in October ‘2003, and 82nd birthday at his home in Sarasota, Florida, died peacefully of a dissecting aneurism on December 17, 2003 surrounded by his family. He is survived by Bev, 5 children, Duey, Sandy and Dave, Kay, and Charee; 16 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
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