Every great football dynasty needs at least one quality receiver with sure hands capable of catching anything. How else could you describe Cleveland's Dante Lavelli than his nickname "Gluefingers"? In 11 years with the Browns, he led the club to seven championships while proving his worth in the moments with the highest of stakes. This is his story.
The Early Years
Dante Lavelli was born in Hudson, Ohio to a pair of Italian immigrants on February 23, 1923. Seeing his father squeeze out a living as a blacksmith, making horseshoes for the nearby stables, young Dante wanted more, seeing athletics as the road that would take him to a a better life.
As a youth, he honed his catching skills by bouncing baseballs against walls and catching the deflection as well as catching the ping-pong balls that he made his friends throw in his general direction. All the hard work payed off when he entered high school. In three years as a standout running back for Hudson High School, his teams never lost a game and won three county championships.
Upon graduation, he had a choice between the Detroit Tigers and the Ohio State Buckeyes. All through high school, Dante Lavelli had heard rumblings of a legendary coach who led incredible teams from Massillon to multiple state and national titles before adoring throngs upwards of 20,000. Now that coach was coming to Columbus and Lavelli wanted to experience the hype and learn under the guidance of one of the game's greatest innovators, Paul Brown.
After playing on the Buckeyes freshman team in 1941, Lavelli played sparingly for the 1942 national champions. It was his first foray into the world according to Paul Brown. With World War II in full bloom, many Buckeyes left the team to serve America, including Dante Lavelli. He saw a lot in his three years serving in the Army, making his mark on the world by storming Normandy on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne.
By the time he returned home from the war, the boy had become a man who was searching for meaning in the world. Once again, the Tigers offered him a spot at second base and once again, Paul Brown prevailed, luring the sure-handed receiver to a new squad that he founded in Cleveland.
Normally, it takes time for an expansion team to dominate the way that the Cleveland Browns did, but fortunately for them, they played in the AAFC, a direct competitor of the NFL that started when the Browns did, making the entire league an expansion. Early on, Paul Brown proved to be a shrewd evaluator of talent, surrounding quarterback Otto Graham with future Hall of Famers Lou Groza, Marion Motley and Dante Lavelli.
As a rookie, he led the league in receptions (40) and yards (843) while scoring eight touchdowns. In the AAFC Championship Game against the Yankees, Lavelli caught six passes for 87 yards and the winning score, a 16-yarder in the fourth quarter of the 14-9 win.
While he wasn't as dominant in the next two title games, the Browns still won both. In 1949, he was critical in the Browns 31-21 win over the Bills in the first playoff game, catching a 51-yard touchdown in the first quarter to open the scoring and receiving five passes for 95 yards. Lavelli proved to be critical in Cleveland's 21-7 win over the 49ers the following week, catching four passes for 56 yards in the last AAFC game ever played before most of the league shuddered.
Incredibly, despite playing against the grizzled veterans of the National Football League, the Browns shocked the world by making it all the way to the NFL Championship Game where they beat the powerful Los Angeles Rams 30-28 Once again Dante Lavelli proved his value on the sport's biggest stage. Down 14-7 in the second quarter, he caught a 37 yard touchdown pass from Otto Graham. Alas, the Browns missed the extra point, putting them at a one-point disadvantage heading into the half.
After Lavelli caught a 39-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, the Browns found themselves ahead 20-14. But the rest of the quarter went against the Browns as the Rams took the a one-point lead on a short run just after Cleveland had seized the lead. Then, after Larry Brick returned a fumble six-yards for another touchdown, the Browns found themselves down 28-20 going into the fourth quarter.
But these Browns were not ones to bow out quietly. After Rex Bumgardner caught a 16-yard touchdown from Otto Graham, the Browns had cut their deficit to one. Lou Groza finished off the Rams with a 16-yard field goal. It was both quite a game and quite a season for Dante Lavelli. In his first year in the NFL, he caught 37 passes for 565 yards and five touchdowns, capping off the season with an 11 catch, 128 yard and two touchdown performance in the NFL Championship Game.
Emboldened by such a memorable season, Lavelli was even better the following year, catching 43 passes for 586 yards and six touchdowns while earning his first Pro Bowl invitation. He would go on to earn two more Pro Bowl invites in 1953 and 1954, with 1954 arguably being his best year after catching 47 passes for 802 yards and seven touchdowns.
By that time, it had been quite a while since the Browns had last won a championship, having lost in the 1951, 1952 and 1953 championship games to the Rams and the Lions. By 1954, Cleveland had had enough. It was time to reclaim what was once theirs. they humiliated Detroit in the 1954 NFL Championship Game 56-10 and would beat the Rams in L.A. 38-14 in Otto Graham's last game.
The game was close late in the second quarter with the Browns clinging to a three-point lead. Then Graham found a familiar receiver, launching a beautiful 50-yard strike to Lavelli who took it to the end zone to give his team a 17-7 lead that they wouldn't relinquish the rest of the day.
When Otto Graham retired following that game, times quickly began to change for the Browns. Even though they would soon draft the legendary running back Jim Brown, they could no longer take title game appearances for granted. After catching just 20 passes for 344 yards and a single touchdown in 1956, Dante Lavelli retired.
After retiring as a player, Dante Lavelli roamed around the Midwest, dabbling in a wide assortment of ventures. Whether it was running an appliance business in Cleveland, owning a furniture store in Rocky Mountain, Ohio or serving as a coach/scout for the Bears, he never left his Midwest roots. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975 and died on January 20, 2009 at the ripe old age of 85, having lived a full life.