Gameday: Otto Graham: Northwestern’s greatest athlete

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

“Otto Graham, darkly handsome 21-year-old Northwestern University senior and Navy V-5 candidate, can pound a line, throw a pass, shoot a basket, hit for extra bases — and play classical music on the French horn,” begins a Nov. 2, 1943 Look Magazine profile. “Or on a violin, piano or cornet. Also — these are among his minor accomplishments — he is skilled at badminton, trap-shooting and water-skiing.”

Such was the versatility of the greatest athlete in NU history, a man who played three varsity sports and earned All-American honors in two of them.

A multi-threat quarterback who put up numbers unprecedented in conference history. A baseball and basketball star who played his way into those record books as well. A music major who won the Illinois state championship in the French horn. A mythical figure who was superlative even in birth, allegedly the biggest baby in state history.

Graham died of an aneurysm in December 2003 but maintains a heavy presence in Evanston. The Wildcat Honor Roll above Ryan Field is named for Graham, and on Wednesday the University unveiled the Otto Graham Society, a new athletic department fundraising initiative.

As part of the program’s rollout, Ryan Field will host 15 members of Graham’s family on Saturday for the Cats’ game against Michigan. Four of those relatives — including Otto’s wife Beverly — will be honorary captains for the opening coin toss. Between the first and second quarters, the entire Graham crew will be invited on to the field as the Otto Graham Society is announced to the crowd.

“Otto Graham truly was one of the best student-athletes in Northwestern history,” athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement. “So it’s fitting to honor him and his accomplishments in this way.”

All-American Boy

NU achievements momentarily aside, Graham is best remembered for his post-college playing days, when he became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

During a 10-year pro career from 1946 to 1955, Graham topped his league in passing yards five times and in completion percentage four times. He led the Cleveland Browns to title games in 10 straight seasons, winning four AAFC and three NFL championships. Almost 60 years later, he still holds the NFL record for yards per pass attempt.

A 1965 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Graham has been named on numerous lists of top-10 all-time quarterbacks. In 2009, Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King even tabbed him the best ever at the position.

But before all that, Graham was, as his son and biographer Duey put it, “your typical All-American boy.”

“He was good at everything he touched,” the younger Graham said. “He was campus pingpong champion. First time he ever played golf he shot an 88. He had the third–highest batting average in Northwestern baseball history, and that was good until the ’80s. He was the quintessential big man on campus. You look at pictures and he has co-eds draping all over him, much to my mom’s chagrin.”

A 1942 article in The Purple Parrot, an extinct NU comedy magazine, confirms Graham was a hit with the ladies.

“Grab him girls,” the passage implores. “You won’t be the only ones who have tried.”

A star multi-sport athlete, accomplished musician, irresistible ladies man.

“He did it all,” Duey Graham said. “And he did it all well.”

From IM to All-American

The story of how Graham came to play college football is almost unbelievable.

By the end of high school, the Illinois native had received countless basketball scholarship offers but none for football. He chose NU over Dartmouth because of the school’s music program and its proximity to his Waukegan, Ill., home.

But fall of his freshman year, Graham suited up for an intramural touch football team, playing for the fraternity he would eventually join. The Daily’s first mention of Graham came on Oct. 3, 1939, in an article about Alpha Delta Phi’s 26-0 victory over Sigma Alpha Epsilon, in which the freshman threw touchdown passes of 50 and 65 yards.

The team won the intramural championship without ceding a point, and along the way its quarterback attracted the attention of varsity coach Pappy Waldorf, who enlisted Graham for the Wildcats’ squad.

By 1943 Graham was one of the nation’s best players, throwing, running, kicking, punting and playing defensive back. That year, he won Big Ten MVP, was an All-American selection (for the second time) and finished third in Heisman voting.

Graham departed for the Navy before school year’s end, having broken every significant Big Ten passing record. As the sport has changed, contemporary NU quarterbacks have bested his career totals, but none have come close to matching his accomplishments.

The Archives

Last spring, Graham’s family donated to NU 56 scrapbooks compiled by his wife and mother throughout his athletic career. They’re a trove of insight into all things Otto, lined with fawning game stories and disbelieving newspaper profiles.

Kevin Leonard, NU’s archivist and an unabashed Otto Graham junkie, manages the collection. Leonard says Graham was not only “unquestionably” the best athlete in school history but also, by all accounts, “a prince of a guy.”

Substantial footage exists of Graham’s NU career, and even when his number 48 is obscured in grainy video, it’s easy to spot Graham on the field. He flings perfect passes and scampers around helpless defenders.

Most striking is the quarterback’s effortless throwing motion. Under all amounts of pressure, Graham slowly pulls back his arm, then flips the ball forward like dad in the backyard. More often than not, the effortless release spirals into the arms of a receiver.

Duey Graham says his mother often compares Otto to Joe Montana and Tom Brady.

Honor Roll

The Otto Graham Wildcat Honor Roll covers the upper deck facade on the east side of Ryan Field. Erected and dedicated in 2004, it lists the names and numbers of every Cats player to be named All-American.

Only one player is listed twice.

Pat Fitzgerald is as close as NU has come to an Otto Graham-caliber athletic hero in the 70 years since Graham’s career. The former Cats linebacker twice won the Bronko Nagurski award for best collegiate defensive player and is, like Graham, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

But even Fitzgerald, now NU’s coach, is awed by Graham’s persona.

“I’m humbled to have my name up in the Otto Graham (Honor Roll) a couple times,” he said. “That makes a bold statement about really what our athletic department and university thinks of his legacy, that his name is on where we honor our All-Americans. His legacy lives on every day here.”