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'Automatic Otto' defined versatility
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
What are the odds of Northwestern, known more for scholars than athletes, producing a quarterback who would compete in a championship game every season as a professional? What are the odds of that player winning seven of those 10 title games? What are the odds of that athlete not even starting out as a football player at Northwestern, but as a basketball player?
True story: Northwestern football coach Pappy Waldorf was watching an intramural game when he saw a freshman with a terrific arm. He convinced the kid to try out for his team. Pro football owes a great deal of thanks to Pappy Waldorf.
Back before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders received so much publicity for participating in two sports, there was Otto Graham. All he did as a Northwestern senior was earn first-team All-American honors in basketball and finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting in football. Then, in his first year as a professional, he played on championship teams in basketball for the Rochester Royals and football for the Cleveland Browns. After that season, he concentrated exclusively on football and led the Browns to six more championships.
"Imagine a quarterback leading his team to 10 straight Super Bowls today and you have a measure of the kind of man Otto Graham was," wrote the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.
Graham, nicknamed "Automatic Otto" for his precision passing, was four-for-four when it came to All-America Football Conference championships (1946-49). Then, after Cleveland and two other AAFC teams were admitted to the National Football League in 1950, Graham shut up the cynics who said the Browns couldn't compete in the more established league. His pinpoint passing led them to three NFL titles, including the championship that first year.
"The test of a quarterback is where his team finishes," said his coach, Paul Brown. "By that standard, Otto was the best of them all."
Graham said, "When Paul Brown talked contract, the championship game was part of it. We took the championship game for granted."
Graham was not only the top AAFC quarterback, but he became an NFL all-pro four times and MVP twice. He was rated the league's top passer twice and led in completion percentage three times and in yardage twice. His 8.63 yards per attempt remains an NFL record. In his 10 pro seasons, he completed 1,464 of 2,626 attempts (55.8 percentage) for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns with 135 interceptions.
"I could throw a pass to a spot as well as anyone who ever lived," Graham said. "But that's a God-given talent. I could never stand back and flick the ball 60 yards downfield with my wrists like Dan Marino does."
Graham was born Dec. 6, 1921 in Waukegan, Ill. He was a triple-threat tailback (he also kicked) for Waukegan High School, where his father was the band director. Hoops, though, was Graham's best prep sport, and he accepted a basketball scholarship to Northwestern, where he majored in music. He was a triple-threat musician, too, playing violin, cornet and the French horn.
Graham earned eight letters in three sports (he also starred in baseball). As a junior, he was second-team All-American in basketball before joining George Mikan, the best player of the first half of the 20th century, on the first-team in 1944.
As Northwestern's tailback from 1941 through '43, he smashed the Big Ten record book in passing. He threw for 2,072 yards in his career, 1,092 as a junior. He set still-standing school records by returning a punt 93 yards in one game and scoring 27 points in another. In 1943, he finished behind Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli and Penn's Bob Odell in Heisman balloting. But it was a 1941 game that paved the way for his pro career: Against Ohio State, he threw two touchdown passes to give Northwestern a 14-7 upset. The coach of the Buckeyes was Paul Brown.
After leaving Northwestern, Graham became a commissioned officer in the United States Navy Air Corps and served for two years. Brown, who was forming a team to play in a new league (the AAFC), approached the passer who beat him. He thought Graham would be the perfect quarterback for the T formation.
"I was getting a naval cadet's pay in World War II when Brown came out to the station and offered me a two-year contract at $7,500 per," Graham said. "He also offered me a $1,000 bonus and $250 a month for the duration of the war. All I asked was, 'Where do I sign?' Old Navy men say I rooted for the war to last forever."
When it ended, he returned to sports. First, it was basketball, and Graham was a substitute on the Rochester Royals in 1946 when they won the National Basketball League championship. The 6-foot, 205-pounder then turned to football, and as a T-formation quarterback led the Browns to a 52-4-3 record and those four AAFC championships.
The Browns were supposed to get their comeuppance in their first game in the NFL, playing the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. It was no contest. No. 60, the remarkable Graham, threw for three touchdowns and 346 yards in a 35-10 rout. The Browns tied for a league-best 10-2 record. On the day before Christmas, in their 30-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the championship game, Graham threw for four touchdowns and accounted for all 58 yards in the final 1:48 to set up Lou Groza's game-winning 16-yard field goal with 20 seconds left.
On Oct. 4, 1952, Graham had his only 400-yard NFL game when he completed 21 of 49 passes for 401 yards and all three Cleveland touchdowns in a 21-20 win over Pittsburgh. But with Cleveland losing championship games in 1951, 1952 and 1953, Graham became depressed. He was 2-of-15 in the 17-16 loss to Detroit in the 1953 title game. "Emotionally, I was so far down in the dumps those three years," he said. "I was the quarterback. I was the leader. It was all my fault."
He redeemed himself as Cleveland won the 1954 title, destroying Detroit 56-10 in the title game with Graham running for three touchdowns and passing for another three. Graham considered retiring, but Brown convinced him to return, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL at $25,000. Graham won his second MVP, completing 98 of 185 passes for 1,721 yards with 15 touchdowns and only eight interceptions as Cleveland went a league-best 9-2-1. Throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more, he went out a winner as Cleveland routed the Rams 38-10 for the 1955 championship.
From 1958 through '65, Graham kept his name before the public by coaching the College All-Stars against the NFL champion. In 1959 he became football coach and athletics director at the Coast Guard Academy for seven years, producing the first undefeated, untied team in the school's history in 1963.
Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams enticed Graham, a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame, to become coach and general manager of Washington in 1966. He compiled a 17-22-3 record in three seasons with his passing-oriented offense before returning to the Coast Guard as AD in 1970.
While at the Coast Guard, he faced his most dangerous opponent. "Graham licked a lineup that made the Bobby Layne Detroit Lions look like a set of wimps," the LA Times' Murray wrote. "He picked apart a zone defense few people can penetrate -- cancer. It's a pass rush that won't let you stay in the pocket, the ultimate blitz. Graham handled this adversary as coolly as he did the 1950 Rams. It was the old quarterback's finest hour."
Graham had a portion of his colon and rectum removed in 1978. When he left the Coast Guard six years later, he became a spokesman in the fight against colo-rectal cancer.
Graham, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, was picked in 1994 for the NFL's 75th anniversary team, joining quarterbacks Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.
"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."
On Dec. 17, 2003 in Sarasota, Fla., Graham died of an aneurysm to the heart. He was 82.
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