By Mike Carlson
Cold, Hard Football Facts Ambassador to England
You'd assume it doesn't take much to get your average troll to tip his glass.
In fact, it's a rare thing that we take off our hats, or lower our sweatshirt hoods, and drink a toast to a real football hero. But that's what we're doing this weekend, downing a drink or 10 for Pro Football Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli, who died Tuesday at age 85 in the same Cleveland area where he spent his whole pro career with the Browns, when they were the classiest and most successful team in football.
Lavelli was a hero both on and off the field, turning pro after only three games of college football, but three years of fighting to save the world from Hitler.
Lavelli was a star on the original Browns, in 1946, when, as a first-year pro, he led the brand-new All-American Football Conference in catches with 40, and caught the winning TD pass from Otto Graham as they beat the New York Yankees 14-9 in Yankee Stadium for the first of their four AAFC titles in as many years.
He joined the Browns right out of the Army, and he had joined the Army after playing just three games as a sophomore at Ohio State before getting injured.
He landed at Omaha Beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and when he got back home his old college coach, Paul Brown, was assembling his team for the brand-new league competing with the NFL.
As a serviceman, Lavelli got free tickets to a 1945 NFL game between the Redskins and Giants at Yankee Stadium: he watched Sammy Baugh work his magic with Steve "00" Bagerus, and the itch to play returned. Brown was already loaded with ends, particularly Mac Speedie, but he remembered how hard Lavelli had worked at Ohio State, and figured three years of war might have prepared him pretty well for pro football. Turned out, as usual (but not always), that Brown was right.
Lavelli stayed with the Browns for 11 seasons. He was first team all-AAFC in 1946 and 1947, second team in 1948 and 1949. The Browns were utterly dominant over those years, too, with a record of 52-4-3, including victories in all four league championship games.
When the Browns moved into the NFL in 1950, they immediately won the league title, beating the Los Angeles (formerly Cleveland) Rams 30-28 in the championship game; Lavelli caught 11 passes in that one – no small feat back in that day. Hell, it's no small feat today: 11 remains the record for catches here in the modern Super Bowl Era.
Lavelli was first-team all NFL in both 1951 and 1953, and although he played in only three Pro Bowls, they played the Pro Bowl only in the last five years of his career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975, the year after his teammate Lou "the Toe" Groza went into Canton. Graham followed in 1965, Paul Brown in 1967, Marion Motley in 1968, while Bill Willis followed Lavelli in 1977, making six members of those upstart 1946 Browns enshrined in Canton.
He didn't have to travel far for his induction. Lavelli was born in Hudson, Ohio, where he was a star quarterback in high school. His cousin, Tony Lavelli, was a local legend where I grew up in Connecticut, as a basketball star at Yale, who went on to play for the Celtics and the Knicks. But Dante went to college in Columbus, where as a freshman he was moved to halfback, and then, on the varsity as a sophomore, to end, where injury cut his 1942 season short.
By the next fall, Lavelli was a GI. While he was playing in Cleveland, he opened a furniture store in the suburbs, and after retiring stayed there the rest of his life. In a recent interview he said he missed the sense of loyalty you felt to your teammates and your city in those days.
In the 10 years that Graham played quarterback, 1946-1955, the Browns went to 10 championship games, winning all four in the AAFC, and three in the NFL. This was the greatest pro football dynasty of all time, but if you read CHFF you already know that.
Lavelli hung around only one year after Graham retired, thus missing Jim Brown's debut in 1957. He caught "only" 386 passes in his 11 years (a great number for his era) and probably 366 of them were thrown by Graham. Lavelli's nickname, bestowed by broadcaster Bob Neal, was "Gluefingers," and it stuck. Brown said he'd never seen anyone with such strong hands. And because Lavelli could come down with any ball he went up for, Brown always called him "Mr. Clutch."
Though Graham and Lavelli are in the Hall of Fame, you won't find them in the 2008 list of the top 10 quarterback-wide receiver pairs. It's actually not that bad a list, but there are a couple of pretty good reasons why Lavelli and Graham don't make it.
The first reason, of course, is that they just didn't throw the ball as much in those days. Of the 10 teammates listed, only one predates Lavelli and Graham: Arnie Herber and Don Hutson, and as we've pointed out before at CHFF, the stats for those Hall of Famers were so amazingly out of line with their era that they virtually defined the modern pass game.
John Unitas and Raymond Berry followed immediately after Graham and Lavelli, and John Hadl and Lance Alworth tore apart the AFL in the 1960s. All the others played in the 1970s or later – the Live Ball Era – and when they bump someone to make room for the record-setting Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison team they can merge both Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to Jerry Rice into a single entry.
The second reason is that, like Hadl and Alworth, Graham and Lavelli played in a rebel league, but when a handful of AAFC teams were absorbed by (not merged with) the NFL, their records were never treated as being equal. In fact, the NFL does not count AAFC stats in its official records. But there's little doubt that the Graham-Lavelli Browns were the class of the NFL in the early and mid 1950s, just as they had been in the AAFC in the 1940s.
The final reason that you won't find Graham-Lavelli listed among top pass-catch tandesm is that, for his first eight seasons, Lavelli shared Graham's bounty at end with Mac Speedie.
You have a similar problem with the 1950s Rams: two great quarterbacks (Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin) throwing to two great ends (Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears).
Note we said "end," not "wide receiver." Lavelli, at 6-0 195, played in-line as well as split, and was a strong blocker. Speedie was one of those rare players whose name really does describe him; he was Crazy Legs to Lavelli's Fears.
Speedie's story is almost as good as Lavelli's: Brown scouted him during the war while coaching the wartime powerhouse Great Lakes Naval Station team (don't laugh, they won the 1919 Rose Bowl just after the end of the first world war), while Speedie played for Fort Warren.
Speedie was one of Brown's first signings in 1946. But he was in many ways the prototype modern TO-style wideout: his growing resentment of Brown's parsimonious pay scale wound up with him bringing a skunk to training camp one year, and calling it "Paul Brown." This was not a common event in the early 1950s NFL: as Lavelli said "We were all competing for spots on about 12 teams, so you didn't say boo ... you did what you were told and toed the line."
Unless you were Speedie. In 1953, at the height of his game, he jumped to the CFL, for better money, but an injury cut his career short. Had he stayed in the NFL, he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame too.
By contrast, Lavelli was an early campaigner for the players' union, arguing against the practice of making them pay for their own uniforms or their meals on the road, and lobbying for a pension. But as you'd expect from a man who did his duty when it was needed most, Lavelli respected loyalty above all.
He was regular at Browns' reunions, and at Hall of Fame inductions. And when the class that will be announced later this week gets inducted into Canton next summer, this football star and American hero will be sorely missed.