Big Ten Icons: Otto Graham

Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf obviously had his Northwestern football team in mind when he spotted a strong-armed freshman throwing feathery-soft spirals in an NU  fraternity football league in the fall of 1940. Waldorf suggested the youngster might want to give the Wildcat varsity a try the following season. He did, and football’s gain was something of a loss for basketball, baseball and music. Otto Everett Graham Jr. was Waldorf’s discovery. Few athletes have ever been as accomplished, not to mention as versatile. Graham would win eight varsity letters in three sports at Northwestern and make All-America in football and basketball. He won a total of eight championships in the two sports as a professional and is a member of the College and Pro Football halls of fame.

And if his music-teacher parents had their way, Graham might have made a comparable mark in music — Otto Everett Graham Sr. was band director at Illinois’ Waukegan High School, and Otto Jr. was proficient in four instruments before he really discovered sports. Once he did, there was no stopping him, in anything.

Graham grew up in Waukegan and attended Northwestern on a basketball scholarship. He also was a .300-hitting center fielder in baseball, but he achieved his greatest renown after Waldorf convinced him to play football.  A single-wing tailback, he completed 36 of 75 passes for 579 yards as a Wildcat sophomore and threw two TD passes in a 14-7 upset of top-ranked Ohio State that would greatly affect his future.

As a junior he completed 89 of 182 passes for 1,092 yards and ran for 335 yards, setting a school record for total offense that stood for 20 years. In the season’s most memorable game he was 20-for-29 for 295 yards in a loss to Michigan.

Northwestern had more balance in its offense in Graham’s senior year. He passed for 401 yards, ran for 355 and set a school record with 61 points. He scored 27 of them in a 41-0 rout of Wisconsin that still stands as NU’s single-game record. Although the spread offense and other recent innovations have turned much of college football into basketball on grass, Graham remains 12th on NU’s career total offense list with 2,938 passing and running yards.

Graham, sturdily built at 6 feet and 205 pounds, won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football as Big Ten MVP his senior year and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. In basketball, he was team captain and leading scorer for a Wildcats squad that improved to 12-7 after successive eight-win campaigns.

Graham’s professional sports career was delayed by World-War II-era military service in the Army Air Corps, but he stayed sharp playing for a base football team coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant. As Graham was mustering out of the service, Paul Brown was in the process of assembling the team that would dominate the postwar pro game as the Cleveland Browns. Brown was the Ohio State coach in 1941, and he remembered the passing artistry Graham demonstrated in underdog Northwestern’s upset victory that year. He envisioned him as an ideal T-formation quarterback.

He was, of course, but before committing to football, Graham spent a basketball season with the Rochester Royals and helped them win a title in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA. He was merely setting the stage for a pro football career and a partnership that still surpasses anything Walsh-Montana, Shula-Marino or Belichick-Brady would accomplish in decades to come.

With Brown as coach and Graham as quarterback, the Browns would play in 10 consecutive league championship games: four in the All-America Conference and six in the NFL after a merger. They would win seven of them while compiling a 105-17-4 record over Graham’s 10 seasons. More than 50 years after he retired, he’s still regarded as one of the NFL’s most skilled passers, “Automatic Otto,” having thrown for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns and joining Sammy Baugh, John Unitas and Montana as the four quarterbacks chosen for the NFL’s 75-year anniversary team in 1994.

Graham was also an influential figure in the now-defunct College All-Star Game. As an All-Star player, he returned a Baugh interception 97 yards for a touchdown in the 1944 game. As the All-Stars’ coach he beat the Detroit Lions in the 1958 game and the Green Bay Packers in 1963.

A cancer survivor, Graham was 82 when he died of an aortic aneurism in Sarasota, Fla., in 2003. He was married to his wife, Beverly, for 58 years. They had five children and 16 grandchildren.

Graham was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. Northwestern presented him with its Alumni Merit Award in 1954, and the Otto Graham trophy case occupies a place of honor in Nicolet Hall, the Wildcats’ football headquarters.

“If you go by results,” Paul Brown said, “Otto Graham was the greatest player in the game’s history.”

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