Football 101: No. 16, Otto Graham
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In the 1945-46 pro basketball season — the league was still called the NBL rather than the NBA then — Otto Graham was a guard for a team called the Rochester Royals. That Royals team was loaded. They had future Hall of Fame coach Red Holzman, Hall of Fame player Al Cervi and the Blind Bomber, George Glamack*.
*So named because Glamack had very poor eyesight, and he literally had to use the lines on the court to determine how far to shoot the ball. Glamack was a superstar at the University of North Carolina (he was a two-time national player of the year and one of only eight Tar Heels to have his number retired) and he was one of the stars of early pro basketball, but for some reason, he has not been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I have no idea why.
Graham was not on their level as a basketball player — but he mattered. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle would call him a “standout as a floor leader.” Everybody on the team talked about how important he was as a passer and a leader. In March of that year, Graham was a key role player as the Royals beat the Sheboygan Redskins in the NBL Finals.
That was championship No. 1 for Otto Graham.
His teams always won. It’s like you couldn’t help but win with Otto Graham at the helm.
Otto Graham was 14 pounds, 12 ounces at birth and that was some sort of record in the state of Illinois. This doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but it’s the sort of thing that, if you know it, you have to share it with others.
His parents were both music teachers, and in his life, he would study the oboe, English horn, cornet, violin, French Horn and, obviously, piano. He actually won a statewide competition playing the French horn when he was 16. It’s unclear what that did for his football playing. But Graham liked to say that he played games musically.
He was good at basketball first; Northwestern recruited him as a basketball player, and he would become a first-team basketball All-American. But his big moment came in an intramural football game where he was throwing the ball beautifully. The Northwestern coach, the famed Pappy Waldorf, saw this and immediately invited him to try out for the team.
Graham became an All-America football player too (and he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli and Penn’s Bob Odell). Fatefully, Graham led Northwestern to two surprising wins over an Ohio State team coached by a guy named Paul Brown. That would prove important in his life.