Cleveland Browns fans will praise the receiving abilities of current wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
While “OBJ” and Landry obviously are very talented players, they have a long way to go to match the receiving accomplishments of Dante Lavelli for the Browns.
Nicknamed both as “Gluefingers” and as “Mr. Clutch”, Lavelli’s receiving exploits helped the Browns form a dynasty, winning seven championships over his 11-year career from 1946 to 1956.
For his performance, Lavelli has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
We take a look at the life of Dante Lavelli – before, during, and after his Cleveland Browns career.
The Early Years Through High School
Dante Bert Joseph Lavelli was born on February 23, 1923 in Hudson, Ohio, a small town about 20 to 30 miles southeast of Cleveland.
Lavelli’s parents were blue-collar immigrants from Italy.
His father, Angelo, was a blacksmith who made shoes for horses on farms in the area.
Lavelli developed his receiving skills as a child through two activities.
First, Lavelli practiced catching baseballs that he would throw against a wall and would bounce back to him.
Second, he liked catching ping-pong balls thrown at him by friends.
While these catching skills would later be helpful in Lavelli’s career, they were not initially utilized by him in high school.
Hudson High School
At Hudson High School, Lavelli was a quarterback, and not a wide receiver.
Lavelli led his high school football team to three straight undefeated seasons and county championships.
Lavelli did not only play football at Hudson High School.
He also was a star infielder on the baseball team and played basketball (which his team also won a high school championship) at Hudson High School.
Ray Ebersole, director of athletics for Hudson High School in 2009, said, “[Lavelli] was a pretty hot ticket even back then”.
In recognition of his athletic achievements, the football field at Hudson High School was named in Lavelli’s honor.
— Ken Klemencic (@KMKlemencic) May 13, 2017
Lavelli graduated from Hudson High School in 1941.
The Detroit Tigers in baseball recruited Lavelli to play second base in the minor leagues, but Lavelli passed on a baseball career and decided to focus on football.
Notre Dame offered Lavelli a scholarship, and Lavelli initially committed to join the Fighting Irish.
However, both because he was worried that he would not receive significant playing time at Notre Dame and because he wanted to play for new Ohio State head coach Paul Brown (who had achieved a stellar record as the high school coach at Massillon Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio), Lavelli ultimately enrolled at Ohio State University.
The College Years
While Lavelli played quarterback in high school and was recruited to play halfback or football at Ohio State, Paul Brown decided to switch Lavelli to wide receiver.
As Brown was later to say about Lavelli:
“Lavelli had one of the strongest pairs of hands I’ve ever seen. When he went up for a pass with a defender you could almost always count on him coming back down with the ball. Nobody could take it away from him once he had it in his hands”.
Explaining Lavelli’s “Gluefingers” nickname (believed given to him by Browns broadcaster, Bob Neal), Brown later said:
“The reason was his great concentration on the ball and the best pair of hands I’ve ever seen on any receiver. They had an almost liquid softness, which seemed to almost slurp the ball into them. He always seemed to catch every ball that was thrown near him and he took many away from defensive backs who thought he was beaten”.
Lavelli was slated to start at wide receiver (end) for the Buckeyes in his sophomore year in 1942.
Unfortunately, Lavelli had a very short football career at Ohio State.
In just his third college game, on October 10, 1942 (a 28-12 Ohio State victory over USC), Lavelli suffered a knee injury and missed the rest of the 1942 season.
Ohio State finished the season with a 9-1 record and was voted national champion in the final Associated Press poll in 1942.
Lavelli never played football again for Ohio State.
Lavelli’s college statistics would not predict a future Hall of Fame career – just two receptions for 51 yards, and one rush for seven yards.
After the 1942 season, because of World War II, Lavelli was drafted into military service.
He went to Europe with the 26th Infantry Division.
#79Days to #collegefootbal #kickoff & In honor of #DDay We have @OhioStateFB player #DanteLavelli was w/ the 28th Infantry in WW II. He landed on Omaha Beach in ‘44. Was w/ American forces in Germany’s Battle of the Bulge offensive & in the Siege of Bastogne later the same year. pic.twitter.com/LUtz0zZ6Yo
— 🏈LastWordOnCFB🏈 (@LastWordOnCFB) June 6, 2019
He saw action on Omaha Beach (as part of the invasion of Germany-occupied France), and in the Battle of the Bulge.
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥🏈 (@NFL_Journal) June 6, 2019
When Lavelli returned after the war, he resumed his studies at Ohio State.
In 1945, Lavelli was chosen as “Ohio State Campus King” (future Hollywood movie star Jean Peters was “Queen”).
Taking classes during off-seasons of his professional career, Lavelli graduated with a degree from Ohio State in 1949.
After the war, Lavelli was approached by his former coach Paul Brown.
Brown was starting a Cleveland team in the new All-America Football Conference (“AAFC”) and wanted Lavelli to join the team.
There was no AAFC draft in 1946 (the first AAFC collegiate draft was not until 1947), so teams were free to just sign players.
A little-known fact about Lavelli is that he was only drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1947, as the 103rd overall pick in the 12th round, and never by the Browns.
With the opportunity to play again for his college coach and after being given a $500 bonus, Lavelli signed with the Browns.
The Pro Football Years
Lavelli quickly made his mark in the AAFC, being voted “1st Team All-AAFC” by the AAFC in 1946.
In his rookie season, Lavelli led the AAFC, both with 40 receptions and with 843 receiving yards, and also scored eight touchdowns (just in the regular season)..
In his first professional game, on September 6, 1946, Lavelli caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Otto Graham, as the Browns crushed the Miami Seahawks 44-0.
Lavelli caught eight passes for 183 yards and one touchdown (a 21-yard pass from Graham) in a 34-20 Browns loss to the San Francisco 49ers on October 27, 1946.
Lavelli and Graham played together for Lavelli’s first 10 seasons.
They developed an excellent quarterback-wide receiver chemistry.
“Dante would scratch, claw, and kick to get the ball. He was always coming into the huddle and telling me he was open and that I should throw to him. He wasn’t saying that to be a big shot. He just loved to play. If he was open by a few inches, he’d be yelling, ‘Otto, Otto.’ Many a time when I was stuck and heard that voice I would throw it in his direction and darned if he didn’t come down with it. He had fantastic hands”.
Lavelli had another solid season in 1947, catching 52 passes for 836 yards and nine touchdowns.
He was again voted “1st Team All-AAFC” by the AAFC in 1947.
Dante Lavelli ( right ) of the Browns, taking an Otto Graham pass against the LA Dons, 12 Oct 1947. pic.twitter.com/9mJVPDSz4C
— Vintage Football (@vintagefootball) December 9, 2014
In a November 16, 1947 Browns victory over the San Francisco 49ers 37-14, Lavelli had seven receptions for 127 yards and three touchdowns (on 23-yard, 15-yard, and 64-yard passes from Graham).
It may appear that Lavelli’s numbers declined in 1948 and 1949.
He caught 27 passes for 479 yards and five touchdowns in 1948 and 37 passes for 627 yards and eight touchdowns in 1949.
However, Lavelli played only eight games in 1948, after breaking his leg in a preseason game, and only nine games in 1949.
In his first game in 1948 after his injury, an October 24, 1948 35-7 Browns win over the New York Yankees, Lavelli scored two touchdowns (on 29-yard and 18-yard passes from Graham).
Lavelli also had a 49-yard touchdown reception from Graham in a 31-14 Cleveland win over the Los Angeles Dons on November 25, 1948 and a 41-yard touchdown reception from Graham in a 31-28 Browns victory over the San Francisco 49ers on November 28, 1948.
These games were two of three games that the Browns consecutively won on the road over a stretch of only one week.
In an October 14, 1949 61-14 Cleveland trouncing of the Los Angeles Dons, Lavelli caught seven passes for 209 yards and four touchdowns (on 46-yard, 31-yard, 67-yard, and 2-yard, passes from Graham).
Lavelli was a key player on Browns teams that dominated the AAFC, winning four consecutive championships from 1946 to 1949 (each year of the AAFC).
Joining such future NFL Hall of Famers as Graham, fellow wide receiver Mac Speedie, fullback Marion Motley, center Frank Gatski, middle guard Bill Willis, and kicker Lou Groza, Lavelli helped Cleveland compile a 52-4-3 regular season and playoff record (including a perfect 15-0 regular season and playoff record in 1948 as part of a 29-game unbeaten regular season and playoff streak from October, 1947 through October, 1949) in the AAFC.
Some of Lavelli’s best performances were in AAFC playoff games.
In the 1946 AAFC championship game, on December 22, 1946, Lavelli scored the winning touchdown on a 16-yard pass from Graham, as the Browns defeated the New York Yankees 14-9; Lavelli had six catches for 87 yards on the day.
On December 4, 1949, in an AAFC divisional-round game, Lavelli, with five receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown (on a 51-yard pass from Graham), helped Cleveland defeat the Buffalo Bills 31-21.
The following week, on December 11, 1949, in a Browns 21-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the 1949 AAFC championship game (what turned out to be the last AAFC game), Lavelli caught four passes for 56 yards.
For his play in the AAFC, Lavelli was named a member of the “Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1940 Team”.
1950 was a key year in the history of the Cleveland Browns, as the team left the AAFC and joined the National Football League.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 6, 2018
For Lavelli, the change in leagues, and arguably the higher level of competition in the NFL, did not prevent him from continuing his stellar professional career.
In his first NFL season, Lavelli caught 50 passes for 728 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) May 16, 2017
On September 16, 1950, in his opening NFL game, a highly-publicized night game against the NFL defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, dubbed the “World Series of Professional Football”, Lavelli caught four passes for 76 yards and one touchdown (on a 26-yard pass from Otto Graham), as the Browns defeated the Eagles 35-10.
On October 15, 1950, Lavelli had six receptions for 131 yards and two touchdowns (on 29-yard and 26-yard passes from Graham), helping Cleveland to a 34-24 victory over the Chicago Cardinals.
Lavelli’s most memorable game in 1950 was his most important.
In the NFL championship game, on December 24, 1950, Lavelli caught 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns (on 37-yard and 39-yard passes from Graham), as the Browns won their fifth consecutive league championship (first in the NFL) 30-28 over the Los Angeles Rams.
1951 and 1952
In 1951, the Browns again advanced to the NFL championship game (after compiling an 11-1 record), but lost to the Los Angeles Rams 24-17.
For Lavelli, 1951 was another outstanding season – 47 receptions for 651 yards and six touchdowns.
It earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation, as well as “1st Team All-Pro” honors from the New York Daily News and UPI.
NFL in Ballpark Series
Shibe Park, Philadelphia, Dec 16, 1951 – Browns Hall of Fame end Dante Lavelli is zeroed in on a pass as another Hall of Famer in Chuck Bednarik (#60) of Eagles is zeroed in on Lavelli. Browns won 24-9. You can see bleachers in front of “the spite fence” pic.twitter.com/m6uyrar6oO
— Old-Time Baseball Photos (@OTBaseballPhoto) October 8, 2019
During three consecutive games, on October 28, 1951 (a 14-13 Browns win over the New York Giants), November 4, 1951 (a 34-17 Browns win over the Chicago Cardinals), and November 11. 1951 (a 20-17 Browns win over the Philadelphia Eagles), Lavelli, in total, caught 15 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns (on passes of 26 yards, 27 yards, and 17 yards from Otto Graham).
Lavelli’s numbers declined in 1952 when he played in only 8 of 12 regular-season games.
For the season, Lavelli posted 25 receptions for 369 yards and four touchdowns.
Lavelli still had some outstanding games in 1952.
In a 29-28 Cleveland victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 16, 1952, Lavelli had six receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns (both on 22-yard passes from Graham).
On November 30, 1952, Lavelli caught five passes for 106 yards and one touchdown (on a three-yard pass from Dub Jones), helping the Browns defeat the Washington Redskins 48-24.
1953 and 1954
Lavelli’s numbers returned to form in 1953 when he played in every Browns game.
In 1953, Lavelli caught 46 passes for 796 yards and six touchdowns.
On October 4, 1953, Lavelli caught four passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns (on 55-yard and 34-yard passes from Otto Graham), as Cleveland defeated the Chicago Cardinals 27-7.
The following two weeks, Lavelli had two other strong games.
After catching four passes for 99 yards and one touchdown (on a 25-yard pass from Graham) in an October 10, 1953 37-13 Browns victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, Lavelli, in a 30-14 Browns defeat of the Washington Redskins on October 18, 1953, had four receptions for 97 yards and one touchdown (also on a 25-yard pass from Graham).
On November 15, 1953, Lavelli had six catches for 137 yards, as the Browns were victorious over the San Francisco 49ers 23-21.
For his performance in 1953, Lavelli earned his second Pro Bowl invitation, and again received “1st Team All-Pro” honors from the New York Daily News and UPI.
In 1954, Lavelli earned his third Pro Bowl invitation, with another outstanding season, catching 48 passes for 808 yards and seven touchdowns.
Lavelli scored touchdowns in six of the first seven games of the 1954 season.
Within this streak, on October 17, 1954, Lavelli had seven receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns (on 29-yard and 24-yard passes from Graham), as the Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 55-27.
In a 34-14 Cleveland victory over the Washington Redskins on December 5, 1954, Lavelli caught five passes for 128 yards.
For the fifth consecutive season, Lavelli’s play helped the Browns advance to the NFL championship game in 1954.
As in 1950, and unlike in 1951, 1952, and 1953, the Browns won the championship in 1954, crushing the Detroit Lions 56-10 in the NFL championship game on December 26, 1954.
1955 and 1956
The Browns repeated as NFL champions, and Lavelli earned his third NFL championship (seventh in his career counting the AAFC years), in 1955.
Cleveland defeated the Los Angeles Rams 38-14 on December 26, 1955, in the NFL championship game.
Lavelli had another outstanding NFL championship game in 1955, with three catches for 95 yards and a touchdown (on a 50-yard pass from Otto Graham).
Notwithstanding Lavelli’s notable performance in the championship game, as a 32-year-old wide receiver in the NFL, Lavelli’s production began to decline in 1955.
He had 34 catches for 587 yards and five touchdowns.
Despite these decreased numbers, Lavelli had several excellent games in 1955.
On October 9, 1955, Lavelli scored the winning touchdown (on a 5-yard pass from Graham), as Cleveland defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 21-17.
The play is remembered for Lavelli swinging around a goalpost with his arm to get open.
Lavelli also had six receptions for 108 yards in the game.
In a 41-14 Browns victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 20, 1955, Lavelli caught three passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns (on six-yard and 42-yard passes from Graham).
Lavelli returned for one final season with the Browns in 1956.
In his only season in 11 years of professional football that he did not advance to his league’s championship game, Lavelli had 20 receptions for 344 yards and one touchdown in 1956.
On October 28, 1956, in a 24-16 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lavelli scored his final NFL touchdown on a 68-yard pass from Babe Parilli (the longest play of Lavelli’s NFL career).
Lavelli retired after the 1956 season.
Overall NFL Career
Counting both AAFC and NFL numbers, for his 11-year Browns career (including regular season and playoffs), Lavelli caught 432 passes for 7,155 yards and 67 touchdowns.
While these statistics may appear relatively pedestrian if the standard is today’s NFL “All-Pro” wide receiver, three important points must be kept in mind.
First, Lavelli had to share the stage with many other outstanding receivers for the Browns, including Ray Renfro, Pete Brewster, Dub Jones, and fellow Hall of Famer Mac Speedie.
While a counter-argument can be made that having such other quality receivers divided the defense’s attention and made it easier for Lavelli to be open, it is also true that these other receivers deservedly caught many passes that could have gone to Lavelli if he was the team’s only pass-catching option.
Second, Lavelli played at a time, certainly relative to the NFL today, when offense was unsophisticated and running the ball was favored much more than passing the ball.
Third, Lavelli played at a time, certainly relative to the NFL today, when defensive pass coverage was much more aggressive, with less fear of defensive penalties.
As Lavelli said,
“They talk about the bump-and-run nowadays. Heck, we had that with one difference. A defender didn’t bump you, he knocked you down”.
Even with these limitations, in Browns history (for the regular season), Lavelli ranks second to only Ozzie Newsome in lifetime team receptions and receiving yards, and second to only Gary Collins in lifetime team touchdowns.
The Years After the NFL
It is often said that you should plan for your retirement while you are finishing your career.
Such was the case with Lavelli.
It is a little-known fact about Lavelli that he was involved in the creation of the National Football League Players Association.
In 1954, Lavelli and two Browns teammates, Abe Gibron and George Ratterman, met every Wednesday night in Lavelli’s basement to discuss the concept of a union to represent NFL players.
Among their concerns were receiving minimum pay and meal money on road trips, not having to pay for their own uniforms, and establishing a pension plan.
They approached attorney and former Browns player, Creighton Miller, to help with forming the union.
During his final season, in 1956, Lavelli played games with a notebook and pencil tucked inside his pads so he could sign up opposing players after the game to join the union.
With Lavelli’s assistance, the National Football League Players Association was formed just before the 1956 NFL championship game.
Other Post-Retirement Football Activities
Lavelli was engaged in various other activities related to football after his retirement.
After his retirement, Lavelli also was involved in the creation of the NFL Alumni Association in 1967.
Its goals are to help former NFL players in need and to raise money for charity.
From 1961 through 1963, Lavelli helped Otto Graham as an assistant coach, coaching college all-stars in the annual College All-Star Game.
Lavelli also served as an assistant coach for the Browns.
He also was a scout for the Browns and the Chicago Bears.
One of Lavelli’s crusades after his retirement was to get the NFL to recognize AAFC statistics.
He thought it was inconsistent and unfair for the NFL to consider records from the American Football League, but not consider AAFC records.
Lavelli was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.
— Presidential Wisdom (@PrezWisdom) September 29, 2019
Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli was born OTD in 1923. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1975. pic.twitter.com/nlpd0O1Xxw
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 23, 2018
Lavelli’s former college and pro football coach Paul Brown presented Lavelli for induction.
In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Lavell said:
“I want to thank my Mom and Dad for their many sacrifices. I’d like to thank them for catching the boat that came to America”.
Lavelli frequently returned to Canton for the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
Lavelli was also elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1981.
Lavelli also kept in close contact with Hudson High School, regularly coming to the school to talk to members of the football team.
Hudson High School football coach Tom Narducci in 2009 described Lavelli:
“a grassroots, down-to-earth blue collar guy who never forgot where he came from” and “a great guy who never forgot Hudson High School or Hudson football”.
Outside of football, Lavelli was involved with an appliance store, a furniture store, and two bowling alleys, in the Cleveland suburbs.
Lavelli stayed athletic in his later years, including that he played golf and consistently shot in the 70’s (lower than his age).
Lavelli died on January 20, 2009, at the age of 85.
He was survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Joy, and their three children, Lucinda, Edward, and Lisa, and four grandchildren, Aaron, Noah, Luke, and Danielle.
Lavelli is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hudson, Ohio.
Just as the many passes of Otto Graham and other Browns quarterbacks would stick to Lavelli, those Browns fans who saw Lavelli play will have many happy recollections of “Gluefingers” sticking in their memories.