Acclaimed as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Otto Graham has the distinction of having played in a championship game every season of his 10-year pro football career.
In 1946, he set a standard by playing in the title games in two sports, leading the Cleveland Browns to the All-America Football Conference title and the Rochester Royals to the championship of the National Basketball League, a forerunner of the NBA.
But not even Graham, whose golden touch carried him into the college and pro football Halls of Fame, could carry Northwestern to a championship game during his college career in the early 1940s.
Now 74 and the grandfather of 16, Graham--an all-American for the Wildcats in 1943 at halfback in football and guard in basketball--is enjoying Northwestern's astonishing run to the Big Ten title and its first Rose Bowl berth since 1949 almost as much as if he were playing himself.
"It's tremendous, just great," Graham said from his home in Sarasota, Fla. "They've done a fantastic job. We've got a group of 30-40 alumni here, and Coach [Gary] Barnett and Rick Taylor [director of athletics and recreation] were here and put on a show last summer. They said they were going to get a group of athletes in and not let the academic part suffer. They did it, and we couldn't be happier.
"Dr. Don Buffmire, who played with me at Northwestern, and I had said we and our wives were going to go to whatever bowl game Northwestern was in. Speaking very selfishly, I was hoping Ohio State would beat Michigan [which would have sent Northwestern to the Citrus Bowl] because it would have been a two-hour drive. Now, we've got to get on an airplane and go across the country. But believe me, we don't mind."
Graham and his wife, Beverly, who met at Northwestern, have maintained strong ties to the school, which honored Graham by naming him grand marshal of the homecoming parade a few years ago. Still, he was surprised to see the Wildcats compile a record of 8-0 in the conference and 10-1 overall to set up a New Year's Day game against USC.
"At the beginning of the year, I would have bet my thousand against your 10,000 that Northwestern would not beat Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State," he said. "I mean, the academic requirements are so doggone tough. It's a tremendous job those coaches have done getting better athletes who still have good grades, and the coaches have a tremendous desire to win.
"I was talking recently with Ara Parseghian and he said the loss to Miami of Ohio [in Northwestern's second game] probably did more to make them a good team than anything else. They gave that game away. From that time, I'm sure they were determined to play good, hard football."
Recruited by Northwestern to play basketball, Graham was playing intramural football when he was spotted by varsity Coach Pappy Waldorf, who persuaded him to try out for spring football. From 1941 to '43, Graham passed for 2,072 yards, which ranks 14th in the school's history, and his career average of 4.8 points per game was a record until this season, when kicker Sam Valenzisi improved his career average to 6.3 points a game.
The 61 points Graham scored in nine games in 1943 is the sixth-highest single-season total in school history. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that season, still the best showing by a Wildcat player, and was an All-American. His career yardage total of 2,938 ranks ninth in school history and his 93-yard punt return against Kansas State in 1941 remains a school record.
When he wasn't playing football or basketball or studying--Graham was a music major, and played the cornet, violin and French horn--he played third base and center field on the baseball team. He said he was unaware he had set any school records and so never checked his statistics, but he recalled his career average was about .380. The school's records from those years are incomplete.
"Our drills were hit one, bunt one, so I never saw a curveball. I became a good bunter," he said. "In two years of baseball, I had 40 hits, and I guarantee 39 were bunts.
"The funny thing was I was at a golf tournament not long ago and a guy came up to me and said, 'My son beat one of your records at Northwestern.' I said, 'That's great. Records are made to be broken. And by the way, was it a basketball record or a football record?' I just about fell over when he said it was a baseball record, that I had had the second-highest average in history. Now I brag about my baseball."
After leaving Northwestern, Graham spent two years in the Navy Air Corps during World War II. While at the Glenview Naval Air Station, Paul Brown approached him about playing for the professional football team Brown planned to start in Cleveland after the war. The $7,500 contract sounded great to Graham, who was making $75 a month in the Air Corps, and when Brown gave him a $1,000 bonus, he signed.
He also played for Rochester of the NBL in 1945-46, averaging 5.2 points. When he decided to instead concentrate on football, the course of NFL history was changed.
The Browns were a powerhouse in the AAFC and in the NFL. With Graham at quarterback, they won four consecutive AAFC championships and were 52-4-3 before joining the NFL in 1950. Their success carried over into their new league, as Graham and the Browns won the NFL title in 1950, 1954 and 1955.
Graham, who passed for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns, earned all-league designation in nine of his 10 seasons. Last year, as part of the NFL's 75th anniversary celebrations, he was named to the league's all-time team at quarterback with Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh. His top salary was $25,000 in 1955, when he was the highest-paid player in the league.
"I always say the guys today make fantastic salaries and are overpaid. But with the taxes they pay on their salaries, they're paying my pension," said Graham, who spent 25 years as coach and athletic director at the Coast Guard Academy, with a three-year break to coach the Washington Redskins. "I'm not jealous of their salaries. I blame the owners."
One owner he may never forgive is Art Modell, who intends to move the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore.
"It has hit me hard, but it made me angry more than anything else," Graham said. "Mr. Modell, I have a hunch he wishes he could roll the calendar back. He's taken a lot of heat because of this. . . .
"Things have changed. Back in my day, you honored contracts. Now, players don't honor contracts, coaches don't and teams leave town."
One thing that hasn't changed is his affection for Northwestern and his hope the Wildcats will win the Rose Bowl.
"I know nothing about USC," he said. "I don't know much about Northwestern, either, but I know they're well coached and I know they're not going to make any more stupid plays. At least I hope not. But I've been in football long enough to know you don't take anything for granted."
USC vs. NORTHWESTERN
Jan. 1, Channel 7, 2 p.m.