Cleveland native watched QB growing up

Updated: December 18, 2003, 3:34 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- For teenager George Steinbrenner, there was nothing better than sitting in old, cold Municipal Stadium, rooting for rugged Otto Graham.

"I remember a game against the San Francisco 49ers where he got hit and the whole side of his face was split open. He had a scar the rest of his life.

"Man, he was tough. You're not going to find a tougher guy," the New York Yankees owner told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday night.

Graham, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Browns to 10 straight championship games, died Wednesday. He was 82.

Steinbrenner grew up in Cleveland, and later became longtime friends with Graham. They were golfing partners, attended banquets together and helped each other with charity events.

In 1959, boosted by Steinbrenner's recommendation, Graham became athletic director and football coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Steinbrenner said he got a call from Graham's wife, Beverly, earlier Wednesday. Graham was in the hospital in Sarasota, Fla., and Beverly held the phone up to her husband's ear.

"He couldn't talk, but I could hear him breathing," Steinbrenner said. "I spoke to him, and she told me they could see his heart rate jump. That meant a lot to me."

Steinbrenner, an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue before turning his attention to baseball, fondly recalled Graham's heyday.

Graham's teams made it to the title game in every year he played in the old All-America Football Conference and NFL. The streak started in 1946, when Steinbrenner was 16 and still just a fan.

"He was as great of a quarterback as there ever was," he said. "He was a god in Cleveland.

"We'd go out there when it was freezing. Those were great days," he said. "I'd root for Otto and Lou Groza and Dante Lavelli and all those guys. There aren't many of them left, but they could tell you how great he really was."

Without any prompting, Steinbrenner vividly remembered the details of one of Graham's greatest victories. That was in 1950, when the Browns moved into the more-established NFL and opened in Philadelphia against the defending champion Eagles.

"No one gave us a chance. We went in there and whipped them," Steinbrenner said.

Graham's first NFL pass went for a touchdown and the Browns won 35-10. A neat start for a player who never missed a game in his pro career.

Many years later, in the late 1970s when the Yankees were winning World Series championships, Steinbrenner got a call from Graham's family. The old quarterback had suffered a seizure, and Steinbrenner rushed up to see him in New London, Conn., where Graham was athletic director at Coast Guard.

"I saw him and told him, 'You can't go now! You're not going to get out of the game that easily!' " Steinbrenner said.

"Fortunately, he recovered and we had him for many more years."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press