The greatest

Nina Mandell

By Nina Mandell

Otto Graham never meant to be a football star.

The hall of fame quarterback, voted the best Northwestern athlete of all time, was better known for his musical ability and basketball skills before he came to the university in 1941.

“He wasn’t even supposed to play football,” said Graham’s former NU teammate Hal Hudson. “His daddy was the director in the high school band, and (Graham) could play every instrument in the band.”

Graham died at his home in Sarasota, Fla., on Dec. 17 of a heart condition. He was 82.

The former Cleveland Browns player might not be around anymore, but his legacy is forever embedded at NU.

A trophy case with countless hardware Graham collected during his career adorns the lobby at the Nicollet Football Center.

“We walk by it every single day, ” NU running back Jason Wright said. “We’re always looking at it and talking about it.”

Just last week a concession stand at Welsh-Ryan Arena was named after him.

Born and raised in Waukegan, Ill., Graham came to NU on a basketball scholarship. It was only after then-football coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf saw Graham lead his fraternity’s intramural football team to a league championship that he convinced Graham to come to spring football tryouts.

“He was Pappy Waldorf’s pride and joy,” Hudson said.

Graham made an immediate impact on and off the field.

“I heard that during his freshman year, he would run and change into a band uniform at halftime and play with the band,” said George Beres, NU’s sports information director from 1968-73. “He was quite a talented musician.”

Graham also received All-American honors in basketball and was a member of the varsity baseball team. Had it not been for former Ohio State University football coach Paul Brown, Graham might have given it up after college — he was drafted by the National Basketball League’s Rochester Royals.

“Otto threw the passes that beat Paul Brown,” said Hudson of Graham’s heroics to knock off the then-No. 1 team in the nation. “After the second time, Paul Brown pulled him aside and told him, ‘You don’t sign with anyone but me.”’

The Browns lost only 13 games in 10 years with Graham under center. They went on to win 10 division titles, four All-America Conference championships, and three NFL championships.

Many in the NU community especially remember Graham’s demeanor and personality.

“He was a wonderful person, charming and gracious,” University Archivist Patrick Quinn said. “He was the definition of a true gentleman.”

After graduating early to join the Navy in 1943, Graham remained an integral part of his alma mater. In 1954 he won the alumni merit award, presented to distinguished alumni whose professional work helped NU gain a favorable reputation.

“He’s a paragon to football history,” Wright said. “Not only at Northwestern, but also in the NFL. That’s something to hang our hats on. Especially at Northwestern, where tradition doesn’t run as deep as at other places.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.