Gluefingers in the Clutch
In 1923 in Hudson, Ohio a baby boy was born to Italian immigrant parents. The event would go unheralded except by those who knew and loved him.
Little did they know that eighty years later, their son, little Dante Lavelli, would still be well known as one of the greatest wide receivers football has ever seen.
He started out his football career as a quarterback at Hudson High School. The team went undefeated for three years with Lavelli at the helm.
In 1941 he started at Ohio State University. He played football for Ohio State, but he also played and excelled at Basketball and Baseball.
(View action and team photos from Ohio State, the Cleveland Browns and more on a special photo page.)
When the Army called him he only had 3 football games under his belt. His Army career was also noteworthy - being one of the soldiers who landed at Omaha Beach on that fateful day in 1944.
When he got out of the Army, Dante chose to take an offer from Paul Brown instead of finishing his last two years of college eligibility at OSU. His major was in education, but he knew his love was sports.
Brown had coached him in college and remembered his abilities as a half-back. Brown was in the process of putting together The Cleveland Browns and was willing to take a chance on this young player.
Of course this was before there was an NFL. The Browns were going to be in the All America Football Conference (AAFC).
In 1946 Dante Lavelli signed a pro-football contract as a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns. His career would span eleven years and would all be played in Cleveland. When the NFL was formed in 1950, Dante Lavelli had already been on board with the Cleveland Browns for 4 years.
Cleveland Browns great Dante Lavelli
with Cleveland Browns bobblehead
Lavelli went on to break numerous records. In his rookie year he led the League with an awesome 40 receptions.
As he says "the game has changed". In those days "we threw maybe 6 passes in a game. Now there's 40 or more in a game, never mind a whole season. So stats don't really mean much unless you're comparing apples to apples." One season he actually went forty for forty - didn't miss even one!
Dante credits this as the reason for his nickname "Gluefingers". "Bob Neal [the team's broadcaster] gave me that name. Paul Brown always called me "Mr. Clutch". He always said if there was a tight situation - get the ball to Lavelli".
During this time, Dante was teamed up with quarterback Otto Graham and the two of them together made a tremendous team. The combination won a total of seven pro football championships between the AAFC and the newly formed NFL.
He was justifiably awarded the title of "All-NFL" twice and played in three of the first five Pro-Bowls. He caught the winning touchdown pass in 1946 to start the Browns in a ten year championship run.
Dante Lavelli with 'Otto Graham to Dante Lavelli' poster
The game has changed dramatically, but he still loves it and follows it. "It's not just the players that are bigger - so is the league. Putting thirty or so teams on the field deteriorates the caliber of players you put out there."
"We were all competing for spots on about twelve teams, so you didn't say boo. We were fighting for positions. You did what you were told and towed the line. We didn't deal with things like drugs or being arrested. You'd be off the team and replaced just like that. Now there's so many teams the owners have lost some of their power."
He thinks they had more fun in those days too, because of the family spirit they had on a team. Players did things together; "You got to know the people you were playing with and you got to know their families."
Lavelli still attends reunions with the people he played with every five years or so. In fact, they just had a reunion last year and about twenty-five people attended.
Dante Lavelli entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975. He has been back every year since for the induction ceremonies. He is doing more personal appearances and Charity events now then he ever did before -and he loves every minute of it.
When he retired from Football in 1956 he opened a furniture store on Cleveland's West Side. He says "I had this building - I had to fill it up, so I started the store". He'll be closing the store soon, though, a combination of hard economic times and too few hours in a day.
He has been married for 53 years to his wife, Joy. They have three children and 4 grandchildren and the mention of family brings a huge smile to his face. His grandchildren are showing some interest in following in his footsteps, but his only interest is that they be "happy and safe".
Lavelli is a very competitive person to this day. Long time friend, Chuck Spitz recalls many a day on the golf course where Dante tells a member of his foursome "If you can't perform, get someone who can". It is his way of bringing out the best in the people around him and it works.
Dante Lavelli and friend Chuck Spitz in Lavelli's store
Himself an avid golfer ("I play as good as I have to") he also plays slo-pitch baseball for fun and shoots baskets whenever time permits. His competitive streak even carries over into his Gin playing. Chuck tries to relate just how good Dante is, but he is stopped with a quick "Don't give out the secrets" and a smile.
He is active in the Browns Alumni Association and goes to the Superbowl every year. "I'm in the Hall of Fame, it's expected and I really enjoy it."
He is very active in his Westlake, Ohio community and travels quite a bit.
During the interview a young man came in just to shake his hand and ask for an autograph. He tells Dante what a big fan he is and Dante smiles as he provides the signature the young man wanted.
His friend Chuck tells me that this kind of thing happens all the time and Dante is always gracious.
Giving the fans what they want is what Lavelli did on the field with the Cleveland Browns and still does to this day. He is truly a football great and maybe more importantly a fine gentleman and a good sport all around. Profiled by Debbie Hanson
View action and team photos of Dante Lavelli with OSU Buckeyes, the Cleveland Browns and more on a special photo page.
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