Graham, Otto, 1921-2003

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1921-12-06
Death 2003-12-17

Biographical notes:

On November 2, 1943 Look Magazine published an article entitled “All-Round Otto: Northwestern’s Graham Excels at Everything He Tries.” This title perfectly encapsulates the remarkable talent of Otto Graham: Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, state champion French horn player, All American and pro Basketball player and Northwestern University honor roll graduate.

            Born in Waukegan Illinois in 1921, Graham set the record for largest male born in Illinois, weighing in at 14 lbs, 12 oz. and 23 inches long. At Waukegan High School, he made a name for himself as the school’s first All State basketball and caught the attention of many college recruiters. Graham choose to accept Northwestern’s basketball scholarship because of the school’s proximity to his hometown as well as its renowned music program. Graham graduated high school a semester early, and despite what we now know about the dangers involved with his post-graduation job at an asbestos factory, it was the double pneumonia he contracted as a summer camp counselor that postponed his matriculation at Northwestern.

Once at Northwestern, Graham did not delay in making his mark. He was named the campus Ping-Pong champion early in his first semester and was instrumental in his fraternity’s intermural football championship. Rumors of his performance on Alpha Delta Phi’s touch football team caught the ear of head football coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf who invited Graham to try out for the team. His first game on the team in October of 1941 Graham caught a Kansas State punt and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown.

Graham, ever the embodiment of the All American athlete, was lettered in basketball, football and baseball (a sport he never played in high school) while at Northwestern. One game in the 1943 season, he scored four touchdowns and three extra points against Wisconsin, creating a long-standing Northwestern record. By the end of his collegiate career, Graham was honored with the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award as the Big Tens’ Most Valuable Player and finished 3 rd in for the Heisman Award. Graham also left Northwestern engaged to his college sweetheart, Beverly Collinge, who witnessed Graham’s athletic abilities firsthand when he flicked a pea down her blouse while dinning in Scott Hall. This is how they met.

Graham graduated Northwestern early to enroll in Colgate College’s Navel Flight Preparatory School and join the war effort. After a long trip cross-country, Graham was hastily whisked away to join the school’s basketball team in Rochester. Having never met any of his teammates, he suited up and to lead the team to a 53-49 victory against New York University scoring 19 points.

While in the Navy, Graham was offered a two-year, $7,500 contract by Paul Brown to join the Cleveland team in the newly formed All-American Football Conference (AAFC). As the former coach of Ohio State, Brown had suffered multiple defeats against Graham and the Wildcats. Otto Graham was the first player signed to the Cleveland Browns.

With Germany’s surrender in May of 1945 and the Cleveland Browns season not due to start until the following year, Graham began his professional athletics career in the intervening months by playing for the Rochester Royals, a professional basketball team in the National Basketball League. Graham led the Royals to a clean sweep NBL championship playoffs in March of 1946.

Graham played for the Cleveland Browns for ten years, playing in ten national championship games and winning seven of them. During his time with the Browns, the team had a 114-20-4 record and Graham threw for a total of 23,584 yards and scored 174 touchdowns. In the 1953 season, Graham received a vicious face laceration which required 15 stiches at the hand of San Francisco linebacker Art Michalik. Graham finished the game, completing nine out of ten passes, and came to the next game wearing the first facemask in football history. In 1955, he earned the Most Valuable Player award and was enshrined in the National Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1965.

After his premier season with the Browns in 1946, Beverley gave birth to their son Daune “Duey” Collinge Graham. In the years to follow the couple had Sandra Lee, Stevie and David and welcomed two foster children, Kay and Charee, into their home. The Hall-of-Famer also saw success in advertising, sponsoring everything from tires to energy supplements. The couple even hosted a three day a week television series entitled “At Home with the Grahams.”

            Following his playing career, Graham coached the football team at the United States Coast Guard Academy for seven seasons. He later became the athletic director of the school and was appointed a Coast Guard reserve commander by President Kennedy and was subsequently promoted to the rank of captain. In 1966 he left the Academy to coach the Washington Redskins, signing a four-year contract. After three years and a 17-22-3 record, he was replaced by famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. He finished out the last year of his contract “as the highest paid gardener in town” then returned to the Coast Guard where he remained until his retirement in 1984.

            In 1978 Graham survived a bout with colorectal cancer and became an advocate for cancer research and prevention. He was honored for his work by the American Cancer Society in 1980. In 2003, Otto Graham died due to a heart problem at the age of 82.

From the guide to the Otto Graham Scrapbooks, 1936-1985, (Northwestern University Archives)

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  • Football players--United States

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