Saturday, May 13, 2017

**32 Greats in 32 Days: Cleveland Browns, Lou “The Toe” Groza**

Lou Groza #46, #76

Position: Kicker, Offensive Tackle

Years Played for the Cleveland Browns: 1946-1959, 1961-1967 (268 Games)

Hall of Fame Class: 1974


  • Height – 6 ft 3 in
  • Weight – 250 lb
  • 264/481 Field Goals (Per Pro-Football-Reference)
  • 810/833 Extra Points (Per Pro-Football-Reference)
  • 1608 Points Scored (Per Pro-Football-Reference)

Pro Bowls:

  • 9x Pro Bowler (1950-1957, 1959)
  • 4x First-Team All-Pro (1952-1955)
  • 2x Second-Team All-Pro (1956, 1957)

Championships Won:

  • 4x AAFC Champion (1946-1949)
  • 4x NFL Champion (1950, 1954, 1955, 1964)

Career Achievements:

  • NFL 1950s All-Decade Team
  • NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
  • Cleveland Browns No. 76 Retired
  • Retired NFL all-time leader in points scored (Now 17th)

Never worry about missing a field goal. Just blame the holder and think about making the next one.

When people write about the greats that played for the Cleveland Browns, the flashy skill players like Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Otto Graham and Ozzie Newsome tend to crop up, so I felt like one of the very best players in franchise history wasn’t getting the love he deserved. As an offensive line and special teams fanatic, Lou Groza has always been one of my personal favorite players to suit up in the orange and brown. Groza’s football life began in tiny Martins Ferry, Ohio just west of the Pennsylvania border. The son of Transylvanian immigrants Groza was a second generation American, nobody would have predicted the runt of the litter would go on to outdo his older brother (star basketball player at Kentucky).

When Groza got to high school he lettered in football, basketball and baseball. Judging by what is written about his high school career he was a little bit of a better basketball and baseball player than he was football, captaining the baseball team and winning a state championship in basketball with the Martins Ferry Purple Riders. When it came to leaning football, older brother Frank was the one who taught him how to kick a ball. When playing touch football in the streets he would practice his kicking by kicking balls over telephone wires.

Groza did well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to Ohio State University for both kicking and as an offensive tackle, but he did not last long there. He played in three games in his freshman year, but as world war two intensified he left college in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training in Abilene, Texas he moved on to Brooks General Hospital where he trained to be a surgical technician in the army. Following that training he was sent with the 96th Infantry Division to Okinawa (he also served in the Philippines). The day he landed in the Philippines he saw a soldier shot in the face, and he later spoke about the war saying - ”I saw a lot of men wounded with severe injuries. Lose legs, guts hanging out, stuff like that. It’s a tough thing, but you get hardened to it, and you accept it as part of your being there”. Part of me likes to think this is what shaped him into the hard-nosed player he was, nothing he saw on the football field would be near the horror that met him in the Pacific theater. By the time he was discharged from the army in 1945 he had ascended to the rank of Master Sergeant, I can’t find any record of any medals though.

Now back to football, his football career with the Cleveland Browns actually kick-started towards the end of his army career. One day while in the army he received a package from Paul Brown who had coached him at Ohio State. Brown was going to be coaching a new team in the AAFC (All-American Football Conference) and he enclosed footballs to practice with and a contract for Groza to sign. In May 1945 Lou Groza signed his contract and agreed to play for the brand new Cleveland Browns in 1946 when his military service was up. There was no AAFC draft which is why Groza could sign straight for the Browns (Only listed drafts I can find are dispersal drafts from when teams dissolved and the players were drafted by the teams left in the league).

Groza showed up on the doorstep of the Cleveland Browns training camp still in his army fatigues, with all his clothes in a duffel bag. Humble beginnings for the future NFL star. In his two years in the league Groza saw more action as a kicker than a tackle, even as a kicker he made his impact known though setting a professional record for both field goals and extra points made in a season. Early in his career he had a horrible run of luck in championship games however. His very first season they made the championship game, but he twisted his ankle in the game and ended up missing three field goals in the game, the Browns high powered offense led by Graham and Motley beat the New York Yankees 14-9 though. The very next year he was injured in the championship game again, having to watch from the side-lines as his team won its second championship in a row in 1947.

Groza bounced back in a big way in 1948, as the Cleveland Browns won all 14 of their regular season games, and went on to win the championship. The first recorded perfect season in the history of professional football (fight me Dolphins fans). This is the season where he earned his nickname “The Toe” which was given to him by a local sports writer for his kicking abilities. The 1948 season was also the first season where Groza really started to establish himself as a starting tackle for the Cleveland Browns. To add another highlight to his early career, that season he also set the record for the longest kick in professional football history at 53 yards, seems like nothing now but I imagine it was a big deal for him, and the Browns loved it because they could attempt field goals from a much further range than most teams in the league could. 1949 was pretty clockwork for Groza and the Browns, he would continue to be a star as both a tackle and kicker, and the Browns would dominate the league and win the championship, as they did every year they were in the league. The league would dissolve that offseason, and the Browns would sit atop the all-time standings at 47-4-3 and Groza sat atop the all-time scoring list of the league, in just four years of the eight years the league stood.

From there Groza and the Browns moved to the NFL for the 1950 season, complete underdogs as most of the league didn’t think they would do anything the Browns went about their usual business of winning games on the toe of Lou Groza. In that season he broke yet another record as he kicked his 13th field goal of the season, the record had previously stood for 24 years. This season was also the season where he scored his lone touchdown in his career, a trick play where he caught a pass from Otto Graham. His biggest moment was yet to come, in the playoffs Groza kicked a last minute winning field goal against the New York Giants to send the Browns to the championship game that year. Going into that game Groza was the leading kicker in terms of accuracy and points that year, sitting at 68.4% accuracy in an era when most teams made less than half of their attempted field goals. In the fourth quarter Groza and the Browns were down 28-27 to the Los Angeles Rams, and the weight of the game fell on Groza’s shoulders. He stepped up and sunk the 16 yard field goal right through the uprights with 28 seconds left on the clock. It would be the biggest kick of Groza’s career and he said afterwards: ”I never thought I would miss”.

The next three years (1951-1953) the Browns would face a string of defeats in the championship game that would crush the soul of many a man. Groza set a 42 year record in the 1951 championship game for longest field goal as he sunk a 52 yarder, but the Browns still ended up losing. In 1952 Groza played the championship game with cracked ribs, and ended up missing three field goals. It took until 1954 for him to taste a championship again, as the Browns won back to back championships in 1954 and 1955. In 1956 Groza faced his first ever losing season (It took him until his 11th year to have a losing season). The next few years he continued to be a bright star on the field as the team around him sunk from perennial contenders to missing the playoffs entirely in 1958.

The reason you see two missed seasons in Groza’s illustrious career is because he took some time out of football. In 1959 he sat out due to a back injury sustained playing offensive tackle, Andy Robustelli a defensive end who went against him had this to say about Groza when the league presumed him retired: "Lou never got all the credit he deserved for his tackle play, probably because his great kicking skills got him more notoriety". In 1960 Groza sat out his second consecutive season and did some scouting for the team, he was 36 at this point and even he thought he was probably done playing. It was Art Modell who encouraged Groza to come back to the team in 1960 following his purchase of the team, we all like to hate on Satan himself, but we can’t deny he did some great things for the Browns early in his career as an owner.

The Browns were actually sceptical about using a roster spot just for a placekicker, but Groza’s talent was undeniable and Modell eventually convinced Paul Brown to let Groza remain as just a kicker, at this point his back was too bad for him to continue playing on the line. From 1960 to 1967 Groza was pretty much everything he had been for the rest of his career, a premier kicker in the league who provided the Browns with a weapon the rest of the league was jealous of. His final championship came in 1964 as the Browns took apart the Baltimore Colts 27-0, in the game he scored the first points of the game, and had four touchbacks on kick-offs.

In 1968 Groza made his retirement official, he was 44 years old and one of the longest serving NFL players ever having played in 21 seasons. In the NFL alone he had 1,349 points scored which was enough to put him atop the all-time leader board in points scored. When including his AAFC numbers he had up to 1,603 points scored. In his memoirs he noted that retiring was the saddest day of his footballing life. When he retired he pretty much walked away from football entirely, turning down a playing offer from the San Francisco 49ers and a job as the Browns kicking coach. Later in his life he did become an ambassador for the Brows however, helping out rookies when they first arrived in Cleveland.

Groza left behind quite the legacy in the NFL and even in the college football game. His success kicking from distance can be credited as the reason why kickers developed to the point where a 50 yard field goal was near a certainty, as opposed to the early days of football when it was either unthinkable for some kickers, or made less than 40% by the few kickers that had the leg strength to make the distance. Groza was known as a straight ahead kicker, so he would line up directly behind the ball and hit it with the middle of his foot sweeping up through the ball. The other part of his legacy resides in the college game, and it is the Lou Groza Award which is given to the best kicker in college football each year, established in 1992 it has had some notable names including two time winner Sebastian Janikowski, Mike Nugent, Dan Bailey and recent Browns draftee Zane Gonzalez.

Groza sadly passed away of a heart attack in 2000, although the last decade of his life he had also been battling Parkinson’s disease. I asked people over on r/Browns if they had any stories about Groza that they could share, and a lot of them were nice stories about meeting him and how he was a lovely old man, and one story in particular where someone met him on a skiing trip and he bought his whole family a round of hot chocolates after he introduced himself as a fan. Outside of football Groza seemed like a lovely man, and he will forever be missed by the Browns family.

Submitted May 13, 2017 at 11:00AM by JoeThomasBasedGod
via reddit

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.