Modesty keeps Otto Graham from saying he's the best quarterback in football history, but the record book boldly states that he is the only passer to take his team to a championship game in every season he played.
Graham went 10-for-10 in Cleveland from 1946 through 1955.
"Who is to say, but I doubt that will happen again because they've got so many good teams now,'' Graham said. "How many players stay with the same team for 10 years these days? It's a different time, a different game."
Graham, 80, was at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Oct. 20 along with many of his former teammates as the 1950 NFL champions were honored. The 1950 Browns won their fifth consecutive title -- but first in the NFL after dominating the All-America Football Conference. Overall, Graham went 7-3 in title games, retiring after Cleveland defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 38-14, for the championship in 1955.
Graham won one other pro championship, helping the Rochester Royals win the 1946 National Basketball League title. Among his teammates was Chuck Connors, who later played baseball for the Dodgers and Cubs and still later became known as "The Rifleman" on television.
"It's great to be back in Cleveland and great to see these great men again," Graham said. "We shared a lot of emotions as a team. I see Dante Lavelli and think back to how I felt when he made a great catch, or over there I see Bill Willis and remember his game-saving tackle in the playoff win over the Giants. There's a lot of great memories."
Graham recalls most of them, though he has been diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. You couldn't tell it by listening to him recount one tale after another with clarity as pinpoint as one of his passes 50 years ago.
What he won't say is he or any other man was flat-out the greatest quarterback. "It's impossible to say who's the best,'' Graham said. "I can be the greatest quarterback in the world, but if I don't have good blockers in front of me and good receivers, I'm not going to do anything. You've got to have everything, and the coach has to give you the freedom to do what you have to do.''
Graham said he had all of that within the stringent concept enforced by coach Paul Brown. Their relationship began when Graham guided Northwestern to an improbable victory over mighty Ohio State, coached at the time by Brown.
"We beat them and I guess I impressed him,'' Graham said. "I was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but Brown had gone to Cleveland and started a new team in a new league and gave me a call to play there. He gave me the highest contract on the team in 1946, a whopping $7,500. Coming to Cleveland to work with Paul was the best move of my life. I didn't always love him, but he ran the show and taught us the basics of everything.
"There were only a few times when I would change a play that he sent in because if it didn't work, boy oh boy, you better look out. There was no question who was boss."
Graham recounted one incident that was typical of Brown's insistence on discipline. It came a few days before Cleveland was to play the New York Yankees for the AAFC championship in 1946. Browns captain Jim Daniell was arrested for being intoxicated and charged with disorderly conduct. Brown fired him the next day.
"Think about that," Graham said. "Paul said that as captain, Jim was to set an example. We were going to play in the biggest game of our lives in a few days and Jim was our starting left tackle and captain. That didn't make one bit of difference to Paul. You think a coach would do that these days? They would probably fire the coach and give the player a raise.
"Of course, it is tough to discipline people making millions. My last year, I was the highest paid on the team. I made $25,000. Guys get more than that in the first quarter of their first game these days."
Graham said he sees today's players channelling their energy and emotions into entertainment rather than determination. "We had just as much pride, but our pride was for the team, for each other," he said. "We didn't strut around and call attention to ourselves. But that is just the way society is today. It is not the players' fault. It is just the way America is.
"Back then, there was more focus on getting the job done correctly than in making millions. You never wanted to come out of a game, never wanted to let your team down."
Amazingly, he never missed a game, a fact that he proudly points out. Such durability led to Graham passing for 23,584 yards and 174 touchdowns while compiling an absolutely astounding 105-17-4 regular season record. Graham even made history the one time he missed a bit of playing time. He laughs when he tells of being elbowed in the face by a brutally late hit by San Francisco linebacker Art Michalik on Nov. 15, 1953, at Cleveland Stadium.
"That's my real claim to fame right there," Graham said. "I was the first guy who ever wore a face mask on any level of football. We got this piece of plastic and wrapped it across the lower front of the helmet in front of my mouth. I had this big gash on my mouth and they gave me 15 stitches, but I wanted to play."
Graham completed nine of 10 passes in the second half to lead Cleveland to a 23-20 comeback victory.
"You better believe that was satisfying," said Graham, who coached college ball for several years and was general manager/coach of the Washington Redskins in the mid-1960s.
These days, Graham is satisfied to spend "quality time" at home in Sarasota, Fla., with his wife of 56 years, Bev.
"I still love to watch the game," he said. "I love to see a good young quarterback like Tim Couch get in there and do the job. I get a kick out of that."