Ford's adjustment to the NFL was harsh. Early in the Browns' first game of 1950 at Philadelphia, he got called for clipping, nullifying a long touchdown. Brown looked at the film and declared it "not a clip, but instead one of the greatest blocks ever thrown on a punt return -- Len Ford had wiped out three Eagles' players in one move!"
The Browns won anyway, but Ford would soon face a much tougher recovery. An elbow from Chicago Cardinals' fullback Pat Harder fractured multiple facial bones and cost him several teeth. Harder, pass blocking, swung at the relentless Ford's cheek, which in this era was unprotected by a face mask. Ford needed extensive plastic surgery and his jaw wired shut, and he missed the rest of the regular season rehabbing. By the way, there was an ejection for that play: the officials tossed Ford.
Ten weeks later, sporting a custom cage and down in weight from a liquid diet, he returned to stuff Ram runners and harass passer Bob Waterfield mightily in the epic 1950 title game, which ended, by the way, not with Lou Groza's famous field goal, but with #80 Warren Lahr's second interception of the game.
That off-season, after her law school graduation, Geraldine Bledsoe and Ford married in Detroit, where their family soon included two daughters.
Brown recalled Ford as a "gentle soul" off the field, and one of his favorites on it, "a fierce player and something to behold when he uncoiled and went after a passer." Sadly, little film of that era exists to behold, and no quarterback sack statistics were kept, official or not. Glass is credited with the team's single-season sack record (14.5), with Clay Matthews owning the career record of 76.5.
Ford's exceptional determination as an athlete, it should be said, was undermined by being "his own worst enemy in the way that he took care of himself," as Brown put it.
Some teammates were more direct. In Alan Natali's Brown's Town, team captain Tony Adamle, later a physician, recalled Ford at practice one day: "[T]he snow was all over the ground, except around him. He had so much booze in him that the snow all melted." Dub Jones said Brown didn't press the discipline issue when it came to the league's best defensive end. "He backed off, and the players recognized that he backed off." Don Colo said Ford "had no peers on the field but was a lousy person off the field. . . drunk all the time."
No longer running pass routes, Ford's bow-legged frame filled out to a formidable 260 pounds. The team revamped its defense to maximize his talents, dropping back two of their six linemen, the origin of the 4-3 alignment. Cleveland allowed the fewest or second-fewest points in each of his eight seasons. Ford was All-Pro five straight years.
He intercepted two Bobby Layne passes in the 1954 title game triumph over the %%MATCH_4%%, returning one 45 yards in the 56-10 rout. "They beat the hell out of us," Layne said from the post-game locker room.
Throughout his career, Ford's dogged quest for quarterbacks led to several on-field skirmishes with offensive linemen (including the Rams' Bill Lange in 1952, the Lions' Andy Miketa in 1954, the Steelers' Bob Gaona in 1956, and the Cardinals' Len Teeuws in 1957), and ejections often ensued.
Beginning of the end of the end
Ford's last game as a Brown, and as number 80, was in Detroit in 1957. The Lions avenged 1954 to win their last championship, 59-14. Lineman Lou Creekmur, a future Hall of Famer, said he'd never seen the Browns "as dead or flat as they were Sunday. I blocked Lenny Ford and Don Colo most of the afternoon and I don't ever think I've had an easier day in my entire football career."
The next month, Ford had shoulder surgery, kicking off an awful year. In May, Brown traded the declining 32-year-old to Green Bay for a fourth-round draft pick used on another All-America end from %%MATCH_7%%. Gary Prahst of Berea didn't make it in the NFL.
Ford was briefly hospitalized with the flu as Packers training camp opened. In October, facing Creekmur again, he got frustrated by the officials' failure to call holding, lost his temper and was ejected.
It was the Packers' worst year ever. In November, they lost 56-0 to Baltimore, then against the Bears had a golden chance for an early touchdown. They called a fake field goal, with holder Bart Starr to pass instead.
Who was all alone in the end zone? Len Ford, the former two-way threat who hadn't seen a pass thrown for him in nine years. Starr lobbed the ball right to him, but it fell to the ground through Ford's battle-ravaged fingers. They lost 24-10 and didn't sniff victory the rest of the year.
But Ford didn't even make it that far, fired before the finale for allegedly breaking training rules. Rather than finishing in Los Angeles, site of his old Rose Bowl glory and AAFC exploits, he got flown home. He later claimed in a lawsuit that broken fingers disabled him for the last game, and that the termination not only cost him his $916.66 game check but damaged his reputation.
That month, the golden age of televised football began with the so-called "greatest game ever played," the sudden-death championship matchup between the Baltimore Colts and %%MATCH_5%%. Among the dozen future Hall of Famers suiting up that day were defensive ends Andy Robustelli of New York and Gino Marchetti of Baltimore.
But Ford's career was now over, and months later, so was his marriage. Geraldine would later be elected the first African American woman judge in Michigan. She served on the bench through 1999, and their daughter Deborah followed suit in 2004 through the present.
Ford remained a Detroiter, but little is known beyond his football life. His autographs are considered rare, and some feature a long, exaggerated crossing stroke midway down the "F," as if to negate his name. He apparently dabbled in real estate and studied law for a time. He later worked as assistant director of a city recreation center.
Ford was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 1971, the year Robustelli was inducted. Marchetti was announced as an honoree in early February of 1972.
According to press reports, Ford was admitted to Detroit General Hospital on February 15, 1972, with a heart condition. He never made it out. He suffered cardiac arrest on March 6 and died a week later. He was 46 and rests in the same %%MATCH_6%% cemetery that now also holds another famous athlete with his given name: young basketball star Len Bias.
Respected veteran sportswriter and artist Murray Olderman made an offhand reference to Ford in a 1976 column, that he "died drunk and broke in a rundown hotel." This seems both uncharitable and, if taken literally, in conflict with reports of Ford's hospitalization. It does, however, leave a vivid impression.
The summer after Ford's demise, Turkey Joe Jones tore up his knee against Paul Brown's team in the Horseshoe, and the fate of the Browns' wearers of 80 turned 180 degrees.
Ford's legacy, meanwhile, lives on. He was chosen for posthumous enshrinement in Canton in 1976, his fifth time as a finalist. His presenter was his high school coach, Theodore McIntyre. Deborah, then in her early 20s, represented the late Browns great, concluding her speech poignantly.
"Daddy, you've made it."
Never to Rison again
One more honor remains overdue. Teams today are reluctant to retire numbers because they might run out. But if any exception is appropriate, indeed necessary, it's this one.
In the names of Lenny Ford and Bill Glass specifically, but also in Lahr's memory, and to recognize all Browns hurt in the line of duty, and really for the franchise's own good going forward, the Browns ought to retire number 80.
Promptly, permanently, and officially.
Let it rest in peace.
Ace Davis is a freelance Browns writer, historian, and fan who began the first Browns blog back in 2002.