The long history of the Cleveland Browns can produce many trivia questions.
One of the best is who started at quarterback for Cleveland in the first regular season game of the Browns franchise.
If your answer is Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, your answer would be wrong.
Instead, the correct answer is Cliff Lewis.
Lewis not only can claim being the first starting quarterback for Cleveland in a regular season Browns game.
Over a six-year career with Cleveland from 1946 to 1951, in addition to playing quarterback, Lewis was a defensive back and kickoff and punt returner and helped Cleveland win five professional football championships.
We take a look at the life of Cliff Lewis – before, during, and after his football playing career.
The Early Years Before College
Clifford Allen Lewis was born on March 22, 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Lewis grew up in Lakewood, Ohio.
Lakewood is a suburb of Cleveland.
Lewis attended Lakewood High School in Lakewood.
At Lakewood High School, Lewis was on the football, baseball, and basketball teams.
In football, Lewis played left halfback and helped Lakewood High School tie for the Lake Erie League championship in 1940 and 1941.
Lewis also was on the Lakewood High School basketball team that played in the state high school championship game in 1941.
From Lakewood High School, Lewis transferred to Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia.
At Staunton Military Academy, in 1942, Lewis scored 14 touchdowns, setting a school scoring record.
After graduating, Lewis headed to Durham, North Carolina to attend Duke University (“Duke”).
The College Years
Lewis lettered for one year in football at Duke as a sophomore in 1944.
He was supposed to be the back-up tailback in 1944, but saw more playing time when the starting tailback, Allen Eiger, suffered a knee injury.
However, Lewis broke his elbow in the second game in 1944 against University of Pennsylvania and did not play again until the sixth game in 1944 against Georgia Tech.
It is noteworthy that Duke lost the game in which Lewis was injured against University of Pennsylvania and then the next three games in which Lewis did not play, but then did not lose another game in 1944 after Lewis returned to action, including a 19-13 Duke victory over Georgia Tech (then ranked fifth in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 4, 1944 and a 34-0 Duke shutout of Wake Forest (then ranked 12th in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 11, 1944.
Duke won the Southern Conference in 1944 and next played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1945.
Lewis’ passing (three completions for 40 yards) and rushing (11 rushing attempts for 53 yards) helped the Blue Devils defeat Alabama 29-26, to give Duke a 6-4 record in 1944.
Duke was ranked 11th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1944.
At Duke, Lewis also played basketball.
Lewis only played football at Duke for one season, as, because of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1945.
In 1945, Lewis played football for the Fleet City, California Bluejackets, a military team.
As a sign of his future versatility in professional football, Lewis played defensive back and running back, returned kicks, and served as the back-up quarterback, for the Bluejackets.
Lewis helped the Bluejackets win the national military service title in 1945.
The Pro Football Years
Lewis was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 21st round of the 1946 NFL draft.
He was the 200th overall pick.
However, NFL commissioner Bert Bell declared Lewis ineligible to play under NFL rules because Lewis still had one year remaining of college eligibility.
Thus, Lewis never played for the Rams.
Instead, in 1946, Lewis signed with the Cleveland Browns in the new All-America Football Conference (“AAFC”).
The AAFC, which sought to challenge the NFL, had its first season in 1946.
On September 6, 1946, Cleveland played its first regular season game in the AAFC against the Miami Seahawks.
Lewis (playing at a height of five feet and 11 inches and a weight of 167 pounds) started the game at quarterback and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to future Pro Football Hall of Fame end Mac Speedie in the first quarter, for the first regular season points in Browns history.
Friday, September 6, 1946 QB Cliff Lewis threw the first ever #Browns touchdown pass to Mac Speedie for 19 yards vs the Miami Seahawks.
— Browns Facts (@BrownsFacts) July 22, 2012
Cleveland shut out Miami 44-0.
The following week, on September 13, 1946, Lewis again started the game at quarterback, as the Browns defeated the Chicago Rockets 20-6.
In the next game, on September 22, 1946, Otto Graham replaced Lewis as Cleveland’s starting quarterback.
Lewis still saw action in the game (lateraling to running back Gaylon Smith, who scored a 12-yard touchdown), as the Browns shut out the Buffalo Bisons 28-0.
Lewis, who suffered a knee injury during the season, played in 10 regular season games in 1946.
For the 1946 season, as a passer, Lewis completed 11 of 30 passes for 125 yards and the above-described one touchdown.
In 1946, Lewis also significantly contributed to the Browns as a defensive back and on special teams.
He intercepted five passes (tied for fifth in the AAFC), which he returned for 41 yards, and returned three kickoffs for 70 yards and eight punts for 133 yards.
Lewis was part of a Cleveland offense that ranked in the AAFC regular season in 1946 first in points scored (423), total passing and rushing yards (4,244), and passing yards (2,266), second in average yards per rushing attempt (4.0), and third in rushing yards (1,978).
In addition, Lewis contributed to a Browns defense that ranked in the AAFC regular season in 1946 first in fewest points allowed (137), recovered turnovers (64), fewest passing yards allowed (1,317), and defensive interceptions (41), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,933), and tied for third in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.0).
With a 12-2 record, Cleveland won the AAFC West Division title in 1946 and advanced to play the New York Yankees in the first AAFC championship game on December 22, 1946.
Lewis did not play in the 1946 championship game, which the Browns won 14-9 for their first professional football championship.
In 1947, Lewis played in 13, and started five, regular season games.
On December 7, 1947, Lewis threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to running back Bill Lund, in a 42-0 Cleveland shutout of the Baltimore Colts.
Lewis, in 1947, completed five of 11 passes for 70 yards and the above-described one touchdown.
He also rushed for 66 yards on 11 rushing attempts, intercepted four passes, which he returned for 19 yards, and returned four kickoffs for 71 yards and seven punts for 84 yards, in 1947.
In 1947, Lewis was part of a Browns offense that ranked in the AAFC regular season first in points scored (410), total passing and rushing yards (5,547), and passing yards (2,990), second in average yards per rushing attempt (5.3), and third in rushing yards (2,557).
Lewis also contributed in 1947 to a Cleveland defense that ranked in the AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (185), recovered turnovers (51), fewest passing yards allowed (1,707), and defensive interceptions (32), and second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,888).
The Browns, with a 12-1-1 record, again won the AAFC West Division title in 1947.
Cleveland next met the New York Yankees on December 14, 1947 in the AAFC championship game.
Lewis in the 1947 championship game had one rush for nine yards, one reception for four yards, and three punt returns for 25 yards.
In addition, Lewis was part of a Browns defense that held the Yankees to only 89 “net pass yards”, forced three turnovers, and had two sacks.
Cleveland won its second consecutive AAFC championship, defeating New York 14-3.
Lewis played in all 14, but did not start any, regular season games in 1948.
Although Lewis did not start any regular season games, he probably had his best overall statistical season in 1948.
On October 17, 1948, Lewis threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Mac Speedie, in a 31-14 Browns victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Lewis, on offense, completed four of eight passes for 69 yards and the above-described one touchdown and rushed for 44 yards on five rushing attempts in 1948.
On defense, Lewis intercepted nine passes (second in the AAFC), which he returned for 103 yards (fifth in the AAFC), in 1948.
In addition, Lewis, in 1948, on special teams, returned seven kickoffs for 147 yards and 26 punts for 258 yards (fifth in the AAFC).
His 9.9 average yards per punt return ranked fourth in the AAFC in 1948.
Lewis also had an 18-yard punt in 1948.
In 1948, Lewis was part of a Cleveland offense that ranked in the AAFC regular season second in points scored (389) and passing yards (2,809), and third in total passing and rushing yards (5,366), rushing yards (2,557), and average yards per rushing attempt (4.7).
With Lewis in the defensive backfield, the Browns defense ranked in the 1948 AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (190), fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,616), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,519), and lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.5), and second in fewest passing yards allowed (2,097).
Cleveland had a perfect 14-0 regular season record in 1948 and won the AAFC West Division title for the third consecutive year.
The Browns advanced to play the Buffalo Bills in the 1948 AAFC championship game on December 19, 1948.
Lewis was part of a Cleveland defense that limited the Bills to only 167 total passing and rushing yards and forced eight Buffalo turnovers.
In addition, Lewis returned two punts for 10 yards in the game.
Cleveland defeated Buffalo 49-7 to win its third consecutive AAFC championship.
In 1949, Lewis played in 11 regular season games and started one regular season game.
Lewis returned a missed field goal for 47 yards, which helped set up a Browns touchdown, in a 28-20 Cleveland win over the Baltimore Colts on September 25, 1949.
On October 14, 1949, Lewis scored the only touchdown of his professional football career, on a two-yard rush, in a 61-14 Browns defeat of the Los Angeles Dons.
Lewis also threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Mac Speedie in the game.
In a 35-2 Browns victory over the Chicago Hornets on November 6, 1949, Lewis threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to running back Les Horvath.
For the 1949 season, Lewis completed five of 10 passes for 144 yards and the above-described two touchdowns.
In addition, Lewis intercepted six passes (tied for fourth in the AAFC), which he returned for 53 yards, in 1949.
Lewis also returned 20 punts for 174 yards in 1949.
His 8.7 average yards per punt return ranked fifth in the AAFC in 1949.
In 1949, Lewis was part of a Cleveland offense that ranked in the AAFC regular season first in passing yards (2,929), second in points scored (339) and total passing and rushing yards (4,611), and tied for third in average yards per rushing attempt (4.2).
Lewis, in 1949, also contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (171) and fewest passing yards allowed (1,677), second in defensive interceptions (29), and third in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,582) and recovered turnovers (42).
In 1949, the AAFC changed from two divisions to a single division.
Cleveland had the best record in the AAFC – 9-1-2 – in 1949.
The AAFC also modified its playoff structure in 1949, inviting four teams, instead of two, to the 1949 AAFC playoffs.
The Browns first met the Buffalo Bills in the 1949 AAFC playoffs on December 4, 1949.
Lewis returned two punts for 19 yards, as Cleveland defeated Buffalo 31-21.
On December 11, 1949, the Browns next advanced to the 1949 AAFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Lewis rushed for one yard on one rushing attempt and returned three punts for 38 yards.
Cleveland defeated the 49ers 21-7 to win its fourth consecutive AAFC championship.
The AAFC dissolved after the 1949 season.
The Browns and Lewis (along with the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts) joined the NFL for the 1950 season.
In 1950, Lewis played in 11, and started three, regular season games.
On September 16, 1950, in Cleveland’s first regular season game in the NFL, Lewis had an interception (which turned out to be Lewis’ only interception in 1950), which he returned for four yards.
The Browns defeated the defending 1949 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10.
Lewis threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to end-punter Horace Gillom (which turned out to be Lewis’ only pass completion in 1950), in a 45-7 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 29, 1950.
In 1950, Lewis also returned two punts for 13 yards.
Lewis was part of a Cleveland offense that ranked in the 1950 NFL regular season tied for first in average yards per rushing attempt (4.6).
In addition, Lewis, in 1950, contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,963) and fewest passing yards allowed (1,390), tied for first in recovered turnovers (55), second in fewest points allowed (144), tied for second in recovered fumbles (24) and defensive interceptions (31), and third in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.5).
People thought that the four-time AAFC champion Browns would not perform well against the tougher competition of the NFL; people were wrong.
In 1950, Cleveland, with a 10-2 record, tied for first place in the NFL American Division with the New York Giants.
The Browns then met New York in the 1950 NFL playoffs on December 17, 1950.
Lewis returned three punts for 11 yards, as Cleveland defeated the Giants 8-3 to advance to the 1950 NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 24, 1950.
In the 1950 NFL championship game, Lewis returned two punts for 22 yards, as the Browns won their first NFL championship, defeating Los Angeles 30-28.
Lewis saw the most action as a starter in his professional football career in 1951, as he started all 12 regular season games at safety.
On September 30, 1951, Lewis intercepted San Francisco 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert and returned the interception for four yards, in a 24-10 Cleveland loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
In a 45-0 Browns shutout of the Washington Redskins on October 14, 1951, Lewis threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to end Bob Oristaglio.
Lewis had an interception, in a 14-13 Cleveland victory over the New York Giants on October 28, 1951.
On November 18, 1951, Lewis intercepted New York Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly and returned the interception for 16 yards, as the Browns shut out the Giants 10-0.
The following week, on November 25, 1951, in a 42-21 Cleveland win over the Chicago Bears, Lewis had an interception, which he returned for 20 yards.
Lewis intercepted Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Chuck Ortmann and returned the interception for six yards, as the Browns shut out the Steelers 28-0 on December 9, 1951.
In 1951, on offense, Lewis completed four of six passes for 68 yards and the above-described one touchdown.
On defense, in 1951, Lewis intercepted the above-described five passes for 46 interception return yards.
He also recovered two fumbles in 1951.
Lewis also returned 14 punts for 48 yards in 1951.
For his play in 1951, Lewis was named second team All-Pro by United Press International.
Lewis was part of a Browns offense in 1951 that ranked in the NFL regular season third in points scored (331).
In 1951, Lewis helped the Cleveland defense rank first in fewest points allowed (152) and recovered fumbles (29), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,002), recovered turnovers (51), and fewest rushing yards allowed (1,454), and third in fewest passing yards allowed (1,548) and lowest average yards per rushing attempt (3.4).
The Browns, with an 11-1 record, won the NFL American Division title in 1951.
Cleveland advanced to the 1951 NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 23, 1951.
Lewis returned one punt for 13 yards, but the Browns lost to the Rams 24-17.
The 1951 NFL championship game turned out to be Lewis’ final game in professional football, as the 1951 season was his last professional football season.
The Years After The NFL
After his retirement from the NFL, Lewis had an insurance business.
He later became vice president of insurance administration for the New York Yankees in baseball.
Lewis, in 1961 and 1962, served as a color commentator on television broadcasts for the Browns.
In 1976, Lewis was inducted in the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
On July 25, 2002, Lewis died in Tampa, Florida after a lengthy illness.
After Lewis’ death, Otto Graham stated:
“Cliff was a very fine football player and a great guy. He was a team man all the way. Even after he was moved to defense, he was still my backup at quarterback. He and his wife, Dorothy, lived only a few houses from Beverly and I for many years in Cleveland and we were very close. He will be missed.”
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner then said about Lewis:
“Cliff Lewis was a great competitor and a great professional man as well. Most of all, he was a great family man and a real true friend. He has been with me in key positions for more than 30 years and he will be sorely missed by all.”
Lewis was survived by his wife, Dorothy, and two daughters, Gayle and Sharon.
In describing Lewis’ professional football career, Lewis can be characterized as the epitome of the versatile football player.
Another one of the Browns players Cliff Lewis said coach Brown made you fell like you could conqueror Mt, Everest.
— Ronald B. Saunders (@BlackBuzzNews) March 5, 2012
He contributed to the Browns as a passer, runner, receiver, defensive back, kick returner, and punt returner.
He also even returned a missed field goal and punted.
In addition to throwing a touchdown pass in Cleveland’s first regular season AAFC game, Lewis intercepted a pass in Cleveland’s first regular season NFL game.
Based on statistics, Lewis had his biggest impact with interceptions.
Over his career, he intercepted 30 passes (ranked tied for fifth in Browns career regular season history) for 266 interception return yards (ranked 16th in Browns career regular season history).
Lewis also should be recognized for his punt return ability.
Over his career, he had 710 punt return yards (ranked eighth in Browns career regular season history) and averaged 9.2 yards per punt return (among players with at least 50 punt returns, ranked ninth in Browns career regular season history).
While Lewis is not known for his career play on offense, it should be noted that Lewis threw at least one touchdown pass in each of his six AAFC and NFL seasons.
Even more importantly than his individual statistics, Lewis’ versatility also helped the Browns win games.
Lewis was a factor in the Browns team, both on offense and defense, ranking high (top three) in various AAFC and NFL statistical categories.
Over Lewis’ six seasons with Cleveland, the Browns never lost more than two regular season and playoff games in any season, producing a dominant aggregate regular season and playoff record in the AAFC and NFL from 1946 to 1951 of 75-8-3.
Cleveland, over these years, had the best or tied for the best record in its division (AAFC West, AAFC, and NFL American) each year, compiled a playoff record of 7-1, and won five consecutive AAFC and NFL championships (just missing a sixth in the 1951 NFL championship game).
More than just the answer to a trivia question about who was the first starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in a regular season game, Cliff Lewis should be recognized for his versatile and solid play, helping the Browns achieve six seasons of consistently outstanding football from 1946 to 1951.
Leave a Reply