Lou “The Toe” Groza played for the Cleveland Browns longer than anyone (1946–1967), becoming a beloved football icon along the way. His autobiography vividly recalls a golden age of professional football that spans the sport’s most important formative years. Filled with great personal anecdotes about fellow Browns legends like Jim Brown, Paul Brown, and Otto Graham. Groza was a gentleman in a rough game; he tells his story with warmth and humor.
|Publisher:||Gray & Company, Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
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A Cleveland Brown
Coach Brown used the kicking game like no other coach had done. Because I had the ability to kick a field goal from over 50 yards, and because of my accuracy from anywhere inside the 50, Paul Brown possessed an offensive weapon that no other team at that time (or before) had owned. (Remember, a missed field goal in those days was sometimes as good as a punt. If, for instance, my errant field goal landed in the end zone, then the other team would have possession at their twenty yard line.) Most offenses who just crossed midfield could only entertain two possibilities on fourth and short: go for the first down or punt. Paul, unlike his competition, had a third choiceI could kick a field goal and give us some points. And, as it turned out, those field goals often translated into Browns victories.
The Browns also benefited from my kickoffs, which usually soared long and deep and into or near the end zone. (My strategy on a kickoff was always the sameto try to kick the ball out of the end zone so that it could not be returned.) This feature of the kicking game provided the Browns with great field position, because our stingy defense often forced the opposition to punt from deep in their own territory.
Paul Brown directed me to kick field goals to a greater degree than anyone had before, and because I was regularly either breaking or establishing new placekicking records, I soon captured the attention of fans and sportswriters. One local writer, James E. Doyle of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, originated my enduring nickname, “The Toe,” in 1946, our first year. Doyle first tried the rhyme “Lou the Toza” with “Groza”. Then he compressed this expression to “The Toe.”
I got along wonderfully with the media, particularly with the Browns play-by-play announcer for many years, Ken Coleman. Gib Shanley replaced Ken Coleman when Ken moved back home to Boston, and we also got along well. Gib was from Shadyside, near Martins Ferry. I always kidded Gib about Shadyside being a suburb of Martins Ferry. Cleveland had some terrific broadcasters and sportswriters during my playing daysJim Graner, Bob Neal, Whitey Lewis, Gordon Cobbledick, Chuck Heaton, Bob August, Frank Gibbons, Hal Lebovitz, Herman Goldstein, Bob Yonkers, and Regis McAuley, just to name a few.
Before kicking an extra point or a field goal, I used to extend my arms and plant my right foot under my right hand and drag my cleats in the turf to draw a line. The line pointed toward the center of the goalposts and insured proper alignment. Consistency is the hallmark of success in kicking, and I wanted every kick to be the same.
This procedure, however, required more time than was offered in a game situation. Don Greenwood, my first holder, suggested that I get a piece of adhesive tape and lay it down in place of the earlier, cleat-dragged line. Don’s tip seemed like a good idea. For the next four years, before each kick I pulled from my helmet a 72-inch rolled piece of adhesive tape. (I took two sticky sides of one-inch adhesive tape and stuck them together, one on top, one on the bottom, creating one long strip). This ritual received enough attention to warrant an article and photographs in America’s most popular magazine, Life. I employed this tape until our first year in the NFL. The NFL ruled the tape illegal because it was a “theatrical device,” whatever that meant.
Sometimes training camp provided good theater. Chubby Grigg, a big tackle who played with us from 1948 to 1951, was a real character. At Bowling Green we didn’t have any air conditioning; we only had electric fans. And Chubby used to slip inside these pink bloomers and walk around the dormitories in them. He weighed over 300 pounds. When training camp broke we usually played an exhibition game at the Akron Rubber Bowl. An assistant coach was standing in the lobby of an Akron hotel while Chubby got one of those big horse blanket pins and hid it in his bloomers. The coach was standing with his hands in his pockets, and his coat was all bunched. So Chubby sneaked up behind him and pinned the bloomers to his coat. Everybody was laughing and the coach couldn’t figure out that we were laughing at him.
The Browns moved the training camp from Bowling Green to Hiram in 1951. I enjoyed the facilities at Bowling Green, but I preferred Hiram College because it was nearer to my home in Berea.
At Hiram Paul kept us busy. We practiced twice a day. And the only time we had any free time was right after practice, just before dinner. I could go and meet Jackie somewhere at that time. I remember Jackie and I, along with teammate Don Colo and his wife, enjoyed an early evening picnic off the training camp grounds and proceeded to get lost in some park. Darkness approached and we needed to hurry back to training camp to avoid breaking curfew. We were frantic. Somehow we found the right country road which took us back to Hiram just in time.
Equipment manager Morrie Kono began a tradition at Hiram known as the “Turkey Hunt.” Morrie informed the rookies on the first day of training camp each year that a large, fresh, delectable turkey would be theirs for a future meal if they carefully followed a map and a series of cryptic instructions. In reality, though, there was neither a secret destination nor a turkey to be discovered. Morrie would randomly pick an address out of the phone book, miles away in the country, and the directions led these amateur sleuths to one very embarrassing findno turkey and some bewildered expressions on the faces of confused homeowners. Some rookies detected Morrie’s insidious plans before they got in their cars and drove off in search of the turkey treasure, but more than a few rookies fell for this joke to the delight of Morrie and the veterans.
Once Morrie hid Tommy Flynn, another equipment manager, in a storage trunk. Our end Horace Gillom reached in the trunk to pull out a clean jersey when Flynn jumped out at him. Horace about dropped to the floor in shock.
Morrie’s wry sense of humor would enliven my days with the Browns for many years.
Leo Murphy, our trainer, was always “one of the guys” despite not being a player. Leo provided us with music (piano) and with a lot of laughs through the years. He and Morrie made a great team, and they added to the family atmosphere that contributed to the Browns success.
Although he was more visible to the players when the regular season began, our owner, Arthur McBride, would sometimes visit his team at camp. And occasionally we’d see Arthur at practice or in the locker room before or after a game. But basically he stayed in the background and allowed Paul to run the program. Paul Brown had complete control of the team. Paul was lucky to have this; it was an ideal situation for him. I don’t know how they got along personally, but professionally it seemed a perfect match.
Arthur McBride was often called Mickey. He was a self-made millionaire and owned a local cab company plus a lot of real estate on Cleveland’s far west side. He was very friendly and enthusiastic.
McBride became famous for inventing (with Paul Brown’s assistance) the “taxi squad.” In those days football teams could carry thirty-three players on their rosters. The Browns had some athletes who the coaches thought would develop into roster players but who needed some more seasoning, more practice and experience. Reluctant to release these players because of the risk of other teams snatching them, the Browns carried about five extra players on “the cab squad” or “taxi squad.” They were technically on Mickey McBride’s cab company’s payroll (even though they never once got behind the wheel of a yellow cab) instead of the payroll of the Browns. That’s how the expression (“cab squad” or “taxi squad” originated). These “cabbies” would practice everyday with the regulars but not dress during game time. Some members of the cab squad did make the actual roster.
McBride was the owner from 1946 to 1953, when Dave Jones, a Cleveland industrialist, bought the club for $600,000. Art Modell followed Jones as principal owner in 1961.
Longtime assistant coach Blanton Collier replaced Paul Brown as head coach of the Browns amid much controversy in 1963. Paul was fired by Art Modell during a local newspaper strike, which added to the drama. I remember Blanton calling me and asking for some advice. He knew that I was close to Paul, and Blanton had some very strong reservations about taking over the position from the guy who had hired him many years before and who was also his friend and mentor. I told Blanton that he should take the position because Paul would want him to be his successor. Blanton, as decent and kind and capable a coach as you could find, after much thought agreed to become the second head coach in Browns history,
Prior to World War II Blanton had been a high school coach in Paris, Kentucky. He was at Great Lakes Naval Training Station as a seaman when Paul Brown was the head coach. Paul Brown noticed a man who came to every practice and who busied himself with taking down notes. Paul thought that this guy might have been a scout or something. Impressed with this man’s attentiveness and eagerness, Paul found out that Blanton was a high school coach, so he put him on his staff. And that began a relationship that lasted a long time. Blanton was the defensive coordinator at first. Later Blanton became the offensive coordinator, so he understood both sides of the line. A brilliant tactician, in the off-season he took the game film (movies) home with him and graded us as to how well we did in our particular positions.
When training camp opened in 1963, there wasn’t any noticeable difference between Collier’s camp and Paul’s. The format was essentially the same. The transition from Paul to Blanton went smoothly. The Browns continued to be a potent franchise, and in 1964, Blanton’s second year, the Browns would become champions for the only time during Art Modell’s reign, and for the eighth and last time in my twenty-one years of service.
* * *
My brother Alex played several basketball games for Kentucky at the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in New York City during spring break in 1948 and 1949. At the time Alex knew a girl by the name of Jackie Lou Robbins, who was from Martins Ferry. Five years younger than me, Jackie was in junior high when I was in high school. She was a popular radio personality for a time at WWVA in Wheeling and had just graduated from high school and had gone to New York to model. But I didn’t know her personally because of our age difference. I knew about Jackie from a radio show called “Wheeling Steel Hour” on which she performed.
Jackie went with her dance teacher to New York City in 1947 after graduating from high school. She worked as a designer’s model in New York City from the summer of 1947 until 1949.
The first time that I saw Jackie was at Ebbets Field when we played the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-America Football Conference. After the game we were introduced. She arrived at the ballpark with this young musician from Martins Ferry.
Our first date happened solely by chance. I went to New York in 1948 with my ATO fraternity brothers to watch Alex play in the NIT. During this visit Alex asked me to take his place at a dinner date with Jackie because he had caught the flu bug. Remembering her from Ebbets Field, I agreed (without much arm twisting) to be a substitute for my brother. Agreeing to this date was the best decision I made in my life. I fell in love with her right on the spot. We’ve been “dating” ever sincewe’ve been married for forty-five years.
We were married in Martins Ferry on May 13, 1950. Jackie is not Catholic and I was, and at that time you couldn’t be married in the Catholic church if both partners were not Catholic. Father Connelly performed the 9:30 a.m. ceremony at the St. Mary’s rectory. Jackie and I had a small family wedding and afterwards enjoyed our wedding breakfast at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling.
We quickly departed for a month-long honeymoon. That first weekend was spent in Washington, Pennsylvania, and then we started driving south and stayed a week at The Cloister at Sea Island. We also visited Myrtle Beach. We took our time and stopped when we felt like it and eventually made it to Florida.
When we returned home we noticed a note on our apartment door saying to call our good friends the Rymkuses. Lou Rymkus and his wife Bette had been like parents to us. We called them only to find out that my father had died that very same day of our return, June 13, exactly a month after we were married. The death was not sudden. Dad was, in fact, too sick to attend our wedding. He was in the hospital when Jackie and I exchanged vows.
* * *
The All-America Football Conference devised a curious numbering system to distinguish itself from the NFL. In 1946 the AAFC required that the centers wear numbers in the 20s; guards in the 30s; tackles, 40s; ends, 50s; quarterbacks, 60s; fullbacks, 70s; halfbacks, 80s and 90s. In our second season in the NFL (1951) we conformed to the NFL system: centers, 50s; guards, 60s; tackles, 70s; ends, 80s; quarterback, teens; fullbacks, 30s; halfbacks, 20s. I wore number 46, since I was a tackle, and I didn’t inherit my more famous 76, the number the Browns later retired, until we moved into the NFL. Marion Motley wore number 76 before me. More importantly, the rules of the game of football were identical between the two leagues.
The league was divided into two divisionsthe Eastern (Brooklyn Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, Miami Seahawks, and New York Yankees) and the Western (Chicago Rockets, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Dons, and San Francisco 49ers). I spoke of our supremacy already. Our team’s success probably was a major reason why the AAFC folded. Fans were not interested in watching their teams get hammered by the Browns. We easily outdrew the other AAFC franchises, but even our loyal fans grew apathetic. Those consistently record-sized football crowds that many associate with Cleveland Browns football didn’t start until we joined the NFL.
In 1950 the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and San Francisco 49ers became members of the NFL. The rest of the players from the defunct AAFC were placed in a pool and selected by NFL teams.
Despite our four consecutive championships, we only heard from the detractors who claimed that we won in an inferior league. These commentators, mostly NFL players and coaches, believed (and secretly hoped) that the Browns would get roughed up in the NFL. We were taunted with expressions like “Go get a football.”
George Marshall, owner of the NFL Washington Redskins, declared that the NFL’s “weakest team could toy with us.” Legendary Bears coach George Halas believed that the Browns did not stand a chance of winning many games in the NFL. His attitude may have been altered, however, after we defeated his team in a pre-season game that first year.
But the regular season, some thought, would prove Halas right. Our first NFL opponent would surely determine if we were ready to play with the big boys. We were matched against the defending NFL champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, at their own stadium. Greasy Neale, the Eagles head coach, derisively stated, “Cleveland is just a basketball team. All they can do is throw.”
Neale and his overconfident Eagles, along with 71,237 fans in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, soon learned who was pro football’s best team. Otto Graham threw touchdown passes to Dub Jones, Mac Speedie, and Dante Lavelli. And Graham and Rex Burngardner ran for the other two scores as we humbled the Eagles (and the rest of the NFL) 35-10.
I bruised my left shoulder while throwing a block on a punt return, the first time we had the ball, and I had to watch from the sidelines. My replacement, Chubby Grigg successfully booted five extra points.
I remember that after the game the NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, visited our locker room and told us that we were “the best football team that I have ever seen.”
Coach Brown, however, wisely muted Bell’s compliment and his team’s enthusiasm by saying, “We are not going to gloat over this victory. There is a long season ahead.” But the win over Philadelphia provided the impetus to go 10-2 that first year in the NFL, and the confidence needed to win two post-season games.
To get to the NFL title game we had to get past conference-rival New York, who also owned a 10-2 mark. The Giants had given us our only two defeats, by the scores of 6-0 and 17-13, so they had a psychological edge. Their ingenious coach, Steve Owens, developed an “umbrella defense” that effectively thwarted our vaunted passing attack.
For the conference playoff, all the players on both teams wore sneakers because of the icy turf at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. In these near-zero temperatures, I wore a sneaker on my left foot and a football shoe without the cleats on my right foot. I broke a 3-3 tie with a 29-yard field goal in the last 58 seconds of the game to give us the win. I was carried off the field by my teammates.
But an even bigger play was made earlier by middle guard Bill Willis when he chased down Giants speedster Choo Choo Roberts on the four-yard line. Roberts had 47 yards of open field to cross for the winning touchdown. Incredibly, though, Willis finally caught up with Choo Choo and tackled him from behind.
I couldn’t have imagined that the 1950 season would yet provide an even more thrilling conclusion.
Ironically, the former Cleveland Rams, now the Los Angeles Rams, would battle the Cleveland Browns for the 1950 NFL title at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where the Rams had won the NFL championship in 1945 over the Washington Redskins, 15-14, in bitter cold conditions.
The game would match the league’s best offense (the Rams) vs. the league’s best defense (the Browns). In twelve games the Rams averaged nearly 40 points a contest, while our defense allowed an average of 12 points per game. Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield, Tom Fears, and Elroy Hirsch were the future Hall of Famers who led the attack for the Rams. Fears, in fact, had caught 84 passes that year.
For the championship game against the Rams, held on Christmas Eve, the field was again frozen as it was the previous week against the Giants. The game swung back and forth, and with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter we were down 28-27. We missed an extra point in the first half when a snap sailed away from my holder, Tommy James. Tommy picked up the ball and tried to throw a pass, but the toss went incomplete.
Otto Graham marched us into field goal range (near the thirty-yard line) but fumbled away the ball as he stretched for extra yardage and was blindsided. I remember Paul Brown putting his arm around Otto’s shoulder as our dejected quarterback walked to the sidelines. I heard Paul say to Otto, “Don’t worry. We’ll get it back. We’ll win this thing yet.”
Our defense stopped the Rams in three plays. Had they converted a first down, the game would have been over. Cliff Lewis carried the punted ball to our 32-yard line after catching it on the 19. One minute and 50 seconds remained.
In the most dramatic last-minute football drive I’ve ever seen or participated in, Graham rushed and passed our offense to the 9-yard line of the Rams with 28 seconds left. Now it was my turn.
Otto left the field of play as the field-goal unit stepped in. Despite the obvious significance of the kick, I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t have time to think about it.
I retreated from my tackle position. Nothing was differentI lined up as I did on any other field-goal effort. I was kicking toward the bleachers, the open end of the stadium, where a right-to-left crosswind was whipping across the frozen turf. If I struck the ball properly, then the wind would not be a factor from this distance.
As I had done on all of my field goals, in my mind I focused on my checklist: stance and approach, contact, and follow-through.
Frank Gatski snapped the ball cleanly to Tommy James who precisely set it down. The protection from the guys up front was excellent. Everything advanced like clockwork. I struck the ball solidly and instantly realized that the ball would easily sail over the crossbar and between the uprights.
Before the referee signaled that the kick was good, Tommy James leaped in joy as he watched the flight of the ball. The football soared straight and true as the rest of my teammates joined Tommy in the celebration.
Warren Lahr intercepted a long pass thrown by Van Brocklin a few moments later to secure the win and ignite a frenzied jubilation. Fans streamed onto the field, and one reveler tried to rip off my jersey, almost choking me in the process.
I flipped this young man over my shoulder and sprinted toward the dugout, which led to the locker room tunnel. I noticed near the steps that Paul Brown had suddenly stopped and was bent over, hyperventilating, trying to catch his breath and attempting to gather his composure.
Pandemonium engulfed our locker room as players shouted and laughed in complete abandonment. Reporters and photographers converged on the players and coaches as we hugged each other. I had removed my kicking shoe, and some of my teammates (and even owner Mickey McBride) raised the shoe in tribute before kissing it. This particular shoe was later bronzed by my good friend Harry Leitch. (By the way, even the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D. C. displays one of my kicking shoes.)
Paul Brown spoke only briefly to us, telling us how proud he was of our performance. Commissioner Bert Bell visited our dressing room and announced that we were “the greatest team ever to play football.”
What a thrillour first year in the NFL, and after most NFL players and fans telling us during the previous four years that we were minor leaguers. We felt vindicated. We proved that we could win in the NFL. And, personally, to have a chance to win a championship with a last-second field goal was something placekickers usually only dream about. All those years of practice and hard work made this miracle come true for me.
There was no downtown parade in Cleveland following our historic triumph, because the next day was Christmas Day. Jackie and I drove to Columbus, where Jackie’s folks lived. The full and satisfying realization of our win over the Rams didn’t sink in until we got to Columbus.
From Columbus we went down to Martins Ferry, and there the fire department took me for a ride on a fire truck through town, just as they did when my high school team had captured the state basketball championship nine years ago.
* * *
Father Connelly was our parish priest at St. Mary Catholic Church in Martins Ferry when I was in high school. He would often watch the Martins Ferry sports teams practice. Father wondered why he didn’t see me in church. Out of respect for this kind and gentle man, I started going to church regularly, and we became close friends.
I remember at the state basketball tournament, in a district game in front of a full house at Steubenville, our Protestant coach asked Father Connelly to come over and sit on our bench. Father said at a banquet later that he knew we were going to win that game because we had a priest on our bench and Steubenville Catholic, our opponent that night, didn’t. Father Connelly would continue the tradition of joining the Martins Ferry athletes on the playing field (or court, diamond, etc.) for many years.
Father Connelly served as a military priest in Casablanca in the African Campaign during World War II. When the war was over and I became a professional football player, Father Connelly worked at Lancaster Industrial School, a boys school (or reform school) for delinquents and incorrigibles. While I was pursuing my degree in marketing from Ohio State in the off-season, I occasionally visited Father Connelly in nearby Lancaster.
At the school I talked with some of the kids and played Ping-Pong with some of them. I developed a friendly relationship with a few of the boys in the hope of providing some guidance and direction in their lives. I remember one boy, a real affable kid. When I returned to Lancaster on a subsequent visit, this youngster apparently had seemed ready for society and had been released. I asked Father Connelly about this young man and how he was getting along in the outside world. He told me that boy had just returned to Lancaster Industrial School. I asked why. And Father Connelly said that the boy’s environment at Lancaster was better than it was in his neighborhood. So the young man intentionally went out and stole a car to get back into the school.
Father Connelly used to drive up to Detroit during the summers, and Bowling Green, the Browns first training camp, was on his route. He’d always stop and see me at Bowling Green where we’d be practicing. The first time he stopped at Bowling Green was on a hot summer’s day, and he had taken off his collar and black priest’s shirt. He placed these items on the seat beside him. He wore only a T-shirt.
At camp he immediately recognized Paul Brown and asked him, “Where can I find Lou Groza?”
Paul snapped, “Who the hell wants to see him? Who the heck are you?”
Then Father Connelly calmly introduced himself to a startled and chagrined Paul Brown who had only just now noticed the priestly attire on the seat next to Father. Paul was won over immediately by Father Connelly’s warmth and politeness. They soon became friends, and Father Connelly became the Browns chaplain.
My faith in God has comforted me through a lot of tough times. And I credit my relationship with Father Connelly for turning me around spiritually. He passed away about ten years ago. Father Connelly’s housekeeper told me that in his last moments before his death, Father asked her to “Thank Lou Groza for me.”
* * *
To be successful at kicking (or at anything else) you must understand and apply the fundamentals. I learned a lot from my brother Frank. He showed me the basic principal of finding the spot on the ball where to kick. That spot is right below the center of the football. You hold your heel down, and you jam your foot through the ball, so that when your toe hits the ball, the toe projects up through the middle of the ball from below. In other words, the foot does not go through the ball on a straight line as you kick it.
The ball should be positioned vertically by the holder because this gives the ball more resistance, and the ball absorbs your foot more efficiently and powerfully. Pointing the laces forward also is important. Placing the laces toward the kicker affects accuracy because a kicker’s vision is disrupted when the laces are conspicuous. And a kicker hits the ball more solidly when the laces are placed toward the goalposts.
When you kick the ball just under center, in a geometric sense you are drawing a plane at the angle that rises through the middle of the football, coming from under the center of the ball, that goes through the ball. You’re trying to protect your foot from straying from the parameters of this imagined plane. And with your heel down the ball is struck and then lifted with the power of kicking the football directly through the middle. Your kicking foot should now land in front of the spot where the ball was kicked for your follow-through.
And this is what I used to practice all the time, whether it was an extra point or field goal. I kicked every kick the same way because I didn’t want to develop any bad habits. Starting with my right foot, I would take two stepsone short and then one long, culminating in a long, lunging step into the ball. I used to work on fundamentals: stance approach, contact, and follow-through. And when I was having any difficulty I’d work in practice on finding out what the problem was. (Usually, my problem was that I would get too close to the football in my approach to the ball.) My left foot always came down about six inches behind the ball. Because my momentum was driving through the ball all the time, rather than hitting it and falling back, I was hitting it and going through it.
In practice I kicked field goals of over sixty yards. My longest field goal in a game sailed 52 yards in a loss at home against the New York Giants in 1952. I possessed a strong leg (in 1957, for instance, I kicked 5 field goals over 50 yards), but I was more concerned with accuracy than distance. In 1953, for example, I made 23 field goals in 26 attempts (88.5%). This was accomplished while I also played as a starting offensive tackle, and long before the centering of the hash marks and emergence of artificial turf, two developments that have greatly benefited the modern placekicker.
The straight-ahead placekickers of my generation always kicked with a specially designed shoe with a hard-leather squared toe. (When the field was frozen I would I wear a tennis shoe, instead of a regular football shoe, on my left foot for better traction.) I had worn a kicking shoe in high school and college. Today’s soccer-style booters don’t use a specifically designed shoe because they don’t kick...
Table of Contents
In the Pacific
A Cleveland Brown
Football in the Twilight
Life After Football