BIGPLAY’s NFL 100: 100 Personalities From the NFL’s First 100 Years: #22 Otto Graham

Otto Graham would have been happy with being a hero of World War II. When the war ended, Graham decided to become a hero of professional football instead.

photo courtesy of Codey Dauch

We are racing towards the top of our BIGPLAY NFL 100 countdown of personalities from the history of the NFL. While the quarterback position is considered the most important position in the sport, there were several players who made that come true. Today’s we will feature a player who may have been the league’s first true franchise quarterback, Otto Graham.

Graham’s formative years made him an unlikely candidate for turning out to be one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Graham had an early interest in pursuing a career in music, and attended Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship. However, Graham also took a shot at playing on the football team. Perhaps Graham’s biggest victory on the football field was against the powerhouse Ohio State Buckeyes in 1941. The victory made quite an impact on then Ohio State coach Paul Brown. When Brown decided to make a jump to coaching professional football, he had kept Graham in mind to be his quarterback. The issue was that World War II was looming and that caused many young athletes at the time to put any sports dreams on hold and enlist in the military.

Otto Graham was a two-time First Team Big Ten Selection at Northwestern University. Photo courtesy of

Graham was no different, he finished his collegiate career at Colgate University in order to receive training to be a naval pilot. Despite being in the midst of war, Graham had football options open to him. He had been drafted by the Detroit Lions of the NFL, and had an open offer to join the brand new Cleveland Browns who would play in the upstart All-American Football Conference. Graham agreed to the Browns offer, but when the war in Germany ended in 1945 he would have to wait until the 1946 season for the AAFC to begin operations.

Graham’s service caused him to report late to the Browns’ first training camp for the 1946 season. Although not initially the starter, Graham quickly assumed the role and led the Browns to the league’s first-ever championship. For the four years of the AAFC’s existence, the Browns won every championship the league awarded. The Browns were so dominant in the AAFC that in 1949 an All-Star Game was organized that featured the league’s top players in a matchup against the Browns.

Otto Graham and legendary Coach Paul Brown together won seven league championships for the Cleveland Browns. Photo courtesy of

In 1950 the NFL merged with the AAFL, keeping a few of their franchises operational. With a strong fan base and a stadium that held 80,000 people at their disposal, the Browns were certainly set up to compete with the top football league in the country. However, most people dismissed the Browns that season as a team that dominated an inferior football league. With Graham at quarterback, the Browns silenced critics by posting a 9-2 record and storming the playoffs the Browns won the NFL Championship in their first year in the league.

Graham would go on to play for six seasons in the NFL, winning the NFL Championship two more times. Graham still hold the NFL records for yards per attempt and quarterback winning percentage. Under Graham, the Browns never finished below .500 in a season. Graham added two Most Valuable Player awards and five Pro-Bowls to his impressive resume.

In an interesting side note in Graham’s career, he is widely credited with being the player to popularize the face mask. In a game in 1953 Graham took an elbow to the jaw. Coach Brown decided to fix a clear strip of acrylic to his helmet to protect Graham’s face from another blow of that nature. Fearful the acrylic would become brittle in colder temperature games, the league banned that style mask for use in games. However, a similar metal bar substitute soon became the standard that is used to this day.

Otto Graham with the precursor to the modern metal bar face mask. Photo courtesy of

Graham’s legacy was that of one of the most dominant players of his era. He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. After football Graham held a job as the athletic director for the Coast Guard Academy. He put that job on hold to become the Head Coach of the Washington Redskins for three seasons, but returned to the Coast Guard Academy after his firing in 1968. After retirement, Graham enjoyed golfing and loved organizing charity outings until his health failed him in his later years. Graham passed in 2003 at the age of 82 leaving behind a great legacy.

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