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Automatic Otto: The Greatest Wildcat of Them All

Editors Note: Due to the exceptional story of Graham’s life, this article only covers his football exploits. During hoops season we will post a story covering his incredible basketball and baseball careers.     

Otto Graham’s story sounds more like Greek mythology than a football biography. Graham, the greatest NU athlete of all time, lettered in three sports at Northwestern. He was an All-American in both basketball and football, plus played varsity baseball. During his professional career, he led the Cleveland Browns to the league championship game in every one of his ten seasons, winning seven titles. Just for good measure, he spent his only professional basketball season winning a league title with the Rochester Royals (now known as the Sacramento Kings). In his later years he defeated the toughest opponent of all: cancer. He enjoyed rock star status, yet retained the touch of a common man.

Graham was born in Waukegan, Illinois, on December 6, 1921 to a pair of music teachers. His birth weight of 14lb. 12 oz. was a hint that he would be a remarkable physical specimen. He had an extremely well-rounded childhood, playing multiple sports while learning to play instruments such as the violin, piano, and clarinet. His versatility was best exhibited at age 16, when he was named Illinois French Horn champion and led his high school basketball conference in scoring. In 1938 he was an All-State selection in both basketball and football, while also playing in Waukegan High’s National Championship Brass Quartet. Although Graham’s basketball exploits drew numerous scholarship offers, his football skills were ignored by Division I college coaches. As the son of two teachers, Graham was determined to attend a top academic institution – his final two college choices were Dartmouth and Northwestern.

Graham and his family was excited about the chance at an Ivy League education, which made Dartmouth the strongest contender. However, legendary NU hoops coach Dutch Lonborg, along with recruiter Ade Schumacher, was able to sell the notion of a top-notch education closer to home. Naturally, it helped that NU hoops had a strong track record at the time, coming off a pair of Big Ten titles in the early 1930s. NU’s basketball program was so well respected at the time that it hosted the first NCAA Final Four in 1939.

Otto arrived in Evanston in the fall of 1939, and it was an inauspicious beginning. Late in the summer, he contracted double pneumonia while working as a summer camp counselor in Minnesota. Although freshmen were athletically ineligible to play during those days, he met Coach Lonborg and his teammates during the freshman orientation session. Also during this period, he joined the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, which was the frat of choice for many Wildcat athletes. Graham’s pneumonia improved well enough that he won the campus ping pong championship that fall. It was his first taste of athletic success in Evanston, and he liked it. Early in the fall, he was the only freshman asked to join the Alpha Delta Phi intramural football team. He originally declined due to his health, but eventually decided to play as his condition improved. The team reached the NU championship game, which was played at Dyche Stadium. At the time he didn’t realize it, but Dyche would become his greatest stage.

Word was spreading around campus about the prodigy on ADP’s football squad. Rumors said that he could hit long passes with pinpoint accuracy. He also ran circles around everyone else on the field, including many of NU’s top varsity athletes. NU football coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf heard the stories, and went to see Graham in action. Waldorf quickly extended an invitation to Graham to join the varsity football squad for spring practice. Despite the risk of injury to his hoops star, Coach Lonborg strongly endorsed the idea. Why, you ask? Because in addition to being Head Basketball Coach, he was also the Offensive Backfield Coach for football. In these earlier days of college sports, many coaches worked with multiple programs due to budget concerns.

The 1940 NU Spring Game was the Graham’s official debut to the college football world. He ran for touchdowns of 50, 60, and 80 yards. Plus, he tossed two touchdown passes. Graham upstaged sophomore Bill DeCorrevont, the most prized recruit in the history of NU football. DeCorrevont, a Chicago legend, led his Austin High team to the Illinois State Championship game at Soldier Field, where over 100,000 fans attended the game. Wildcat fans anxiously awaited the 1940 season, ready to see the two stars in action.

While at home in Waukegan during the summer, Graham suffered a major injury while working out with one of his high school teammates. Otto’s knee popped while he was running a pass pattern, and he immediately knew it was bad. He tore ligaments in his knee, and would be out of all sports for the entire 1940-41 school year. Among his endeavors during this “lost” year was a part-time construction job. By spring 1941, he was strong enough to push wheelbarrows and stack masonry for the “new” engineering building that was being constructed on the site of historic Patten Gym (site of the first Final Four in 1939). So in a small way, we can say that Tech is “The House that Otto Built”.

The 1941 football season finally arrived, and Wildcat fans were ready to see Graham and DeCorrevont together. However, in one of the worst coaching decisions in NU history, Waldorf refused to team up the backfield stars. Instead, he alternated them. The 1941 opener was a 51-3 thrashing of Kansas State, followed by a 41-14 beatdown of the eighth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Graham’s first career touchdown was a 93 yard punt return against KSU. The most important game of the season occurred in Columbus, where NU handed the Buckeyes their only loss, costing OSU a national championship shot. Graham’s impressive passing performance (two touchdown throws) made a strong impression Paul Brown, OSU’s rookie head coach (more on this later). However, the team would lose the rest of its games, a one-point loss to the #1 ranked Gophers and another one-point loss to #5 ranked Notre Dame.  Graham scored NU’s only touchdown in the 7-6 Irish loss, in which a missed extra point cost the game. Frustration with Waldorf’s rotating system had boiled over… a live post game radio interview, Senior Bill DeCorrevont criticized the coach’s offensive plan. Such as public display of insubordination was almost unheard of in 1941, especially at Northwestern. Despite the turmoil, NU would finish the season ranked #11 nationally with a 5-3 record.

Waldorf and DeCorrevont reconciled in time for the post-season banquet, which took place at the Hotel Sherman in Evanston on Graham’s 20th birthday. The loudest ovation came when Waldorf presented his prized recruit with his final team letter. The ceremony was capped by a speech from a special guest… former boxing champ Gene Tunney. Tunney was now serving as President Roosevelt’s Naval Physical Fitness program director. However, instead of speaking about athletics, he puzzled the crowd with an ominous warning about the threat of war with Japan. That next morning, Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Like all of the US, the NU campus changed drastically. On December 8 all ROTCs were immediately shipped out to duty. Graham, like many of his fellow students, enlisted in the Navy and waited to be called. The call would not come for another two years. The 1942 Wildcat football team was decimated by the large number of military enlistments. However, Otto had a very strong individual season. During a lopsided loss at Ann Arbor, he set a Big Ten record with 295 passing yards, a remarkable number in that era. During the week leading up to the OSU game, NU Athletic Director “Tug” Wilson addressed the Downtown Athletic Club in Chicago. He told the crowd that NU would again beat the Buckeyes and deny them another national championship. Paul Brown posted this press clipping on the OSU bulletin board, providing ample motivation for his team to beat the Cats 20-6. The Wildcats posted a 1-9 record that season, with its only win a 3-0 shutout of the Texas Longhorns. One local columnist wrote that Graham “gets the honor of being the best player on the best team to ever finish in the Western Conference cellar.” Ohio State won both the Big Ten and National Championship that year, enhancing Paul Brown’s status as a legendary coach.

Graham’s senior season at NU did not disappoint. The 1943 team went 6-2, and finished the year ranked #9 in the polls. The season included a second consecutive road win at Ohio State over Paul Brown. Graham scored 27 points in a 41-0 win at Wisconsin….a record that still stands. The season finale was a 53-6 beatdown of the Illini in Evanston. Graham had two running touchdowns early in the game, as the Cats opened a wide margin. Waldorf pulled him very early from the game, allowing the home crowd to give a final cheer. Graham hit the showers and changed to street clothes during the fourth quarter, then joined the student section to watch the end of the game. (Contrary to later legend, he did not grab a french horn and play with the marching band).

During Otto’s NU football career, he shattered every existing Big Ten passing record, was named an All-American and won the Big Ten MVP Award in 1943. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy ballot, best ever for a Northwestern player. The Navy called him to duty during the winter of 1944, the same year that the Detroit Lions made him the fourth player chosen in the NFL draft. The Lions held his NFL rights, and expected to have him in uniform at the conclusion of the war. However, one man made sure that Otto never made it to Motown.

After his third season at OSU, Paul Brown was hired to coach the Cleveland franchise in the brand-new All-American Football Conference in 1944. Brown, who was beaten by Graham’s unique blend of running and passing twice in three years, wanted Otto to be the cornerstone of his team. He offered a $7,500 salary (big money in these days) plus $250 per month for the duration of the war. Graham took the offer, which was an easy decision since the Lions made very little contact with him since the draft.

Paul Brown’s eponymous team took the field in the fall of 1946, and went on to be the dominant pro football team of the next decade. Graham, the engine of the team’s potent offense, led the Browns to league championships in each of their four AAFC seasons. Critics questioned the quality of team, since it was not playing NFL competition. In 1950, the Browns (along with the 49ers) joined the NFL, and promptly won the championship that year. Over Graham’s six NFL seasons, the Browns played in the championship game six times, winning three. The team’s dynasty was highlighted by a ferocious rivalry with the Detroit Lions, the team that had drafted Graham. Bobby Layne, the man who replaced Graham in Michigan, was also a legendary quarterback and an ideal foil to Graham. In stark contrast to Otto’s wholesome All-American image, Layne was well known for his heavy use of profanity and alcohol.

During Graham’s career, pro football evolved from the rag-tag “leather helmet” days to a nationally-known commodity. The Dumont TV Network became the first to broadcast weekly games from 1951 to 1955. This exposure gave Graham a national stage, where he made friends with athletic royalty such as Joe Dimaggio, with whom he would spend many years golfing in his retirement. He also mingled with A-list Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, and Esther Williams. In a scene reminiscent of Graham’s final college game, Paul Brown pulled Graham late in the 1955 NFL Championship Game at the LA Coliseum, his last professional game.  With the Browns leading the Rams 38-14, the Los Angeles crowd gave Graham a standing ovation, the ultimate show of respect for an opposing player.  Among Graham’s millions of fans was a young Clevelander named George Steinbrenner. Later in life, the two would become friends, with Steinbrenner calling him “as great of a quarterback as there ever was”. Many agree with Steinbrenner, as Graham was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

After his retirement from football, Graham had highly successful coaching stints at the US Coast Guard Academy, even taking an undefeated team to the Tangerine Bowl (now Capital One Bowl) in 1963. He had a failed three-year turn as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins. He later contracted colon cancer in the late 1970s, and beat the disease after a colostomy. He became an advocate of cancer screenings for men, giving lectures entitled “check up before you give up”. For his efforts, President Carter named him Honorary Chairman of the American Cancer Society.

Despite his many accomplishments, Graham never forgot Northwestern. He attended the team’s bowl games from 1995 to 2000. Unlike many celebrities, he bypassed any VIP treatment…..he sat in the Northwestern section with regular fans. At the pregame Alumni tailgate of the 1996 Rose Bowl, he graciously signed scores of autographs for his fellow NU fans, most of whom were too young to realize just how great he was. He would miss NU’s next bowl game, the 2003 Motor City Bowl. The game, held in the same city that drafted him in 1944, was played a couple weeks after his death. In his honor, NU wore special “OTTO” stickers on the front of their helmets.

Graham’s memory is alive in well at Ryan Field, where he played that fateful NU intramural championship game in 1939. He and his wife Bev donated many of his trophies to the NU football program, and they are on display in the Stadium Club. In 2004, Athletic Director Mark Murphy introduced the “Otto Graham Honor Roll” inside Ryan Field, a fitting tribute to the greatest Wildcat of them all.


*Graham is widely credited as the first NFL player to wear a facemask. Paul Brown invented the mask in 1953 after Graham suffered a deep gash down his cheekbone in a game vs. the 49ers

*While with the Browns, Graham lived in the quiet suburban community of Bay Village. One of his friends and neighbors was Sam Sheppard, a highly respected doctor. Sheppard was convicted of killing his wife in a sensational 1954 media trial that inspired the TV show “The Fugitive.”

*Graham’s father was a music teacher for many years at Waukegan High School. There he taught legendary comedian Jack Benny how to play violin.