Success in football is not based on the performance of a single individual.
Rather, in football, you need numerous individuals on offense and defense and special teams to have a successful team.
While much attention is focused on star players, you need to surround stars with other solid players to build a winning team.
For every Jim Brown, a team needs a bunch of players like Dick Ambrose to achieve NFL success.
“Bam Bam” Ambrose played in 116, and started 103, regular-season games at linebacker during his nine-year playing career with the Cleveland Browns.
Ambrose was a consistent and dependable player who contributed to the Browns defense.
We take a look at the life of Dick Ambrose – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Richard John Ambrose was born on January 17, 1953 in New Rochelle, New York.
New Rochelle is a suburb of New York City, located in Westchester County.
When Ambrose was growing up, New Rochelle had a population of approximately 60,000 to 75,000 people.
Ambrose first played football in The New Rochelle Youth Tackle League Program.
Ambrose attended Iona Prep High School, graduating in 1971.
Iona Prep High School is a Roman Catholic, all-male, college preparatory high school.
While in high school, Ambrose was nicknamed “Duck”.
At Iona Prep High School, Ambrose played linebacker.
Ambrose was named first-team All-County for two years in high school.
After high school, Ambrose headed to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Ambrose played football for three years with the Cavaliers.
In 1972, as a sophomore, Ambrose started the first game of the season at defensive right tackle, as Virginia defeated South Carolina 24-16 on September 9, 1972.
After a 23-3 Cavaliers loss to North Carolina on November 11, 1972, Virginia coach Don Lawrence said:
“I [thought] our Dick Ambrose did an exceptional job on our defensive front. He’s a heckuva defensive tackle.”
Ambrose was listed at a height of six feet and a weight of 214 pounds in 1972.
Virginia had a 4-7 record in 1972.
In 1973, Ambrose, as a junior, moved to linebacker.
Ambrose’s play on defense helped Virginia shutout Virginia Military Institute 16-0 in the opening game of the season on September 8, 1973 and hold Duke to a field goal in a 7-3 Cavaliers win on September 29, 1973.
Ambrose was named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference at linebacker in 1973.
Virginia again had a 4-7 record in 1973.
In 1974, Ambrose was captain of the Virginia football team as a senior.
Ambrose started his senior season with eight solo tackles and one assisted tackle (including one tackle for loss) in the opening game, as Virginia lost to Navy 35-28 on September 14, 1974.
On September 28, 1974, in a 27-7 Cavaliers loss to Duke, Ambrose had two solo tackles and thirteen assisted tackles.
On October 26, 1974, Ambrose’s play on defense helped Virginia shutout Wake Forest 14-0.
After a 28-10 Virginia win over Virginia Military Institute on November 9, 1974, Virginia coach Sonny Randle said:
“Everytime you saw the football you saw Dick Ambrose. Ambrose is an inspiration to me . . . and I told our people before the ball game that if they play’d like him that we’d be alright . . . and some of them decided they wanted to play like him.”
Virginia posted a 4-7 record for the third consecutive year in 1974.
Ambrose was again named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference at linebacker in 1974.
Ambrose graduated from Virginia with a Bachelor of Science degree in education.
The Pro Football Years
Ambrose was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 12th round of the 1975 NFL draft (the 290th overall pick).
The 1975 draft will not be remembered as one of the great drafts in Browns history.
Before Ambrose, the Browns selected Mack Mitchell, Oscar Roan, Tony Peters, John Zimba, Jim Cope, Charles Miller, Henry Hynoski, Merle Wang, Barry Santini, Larry Poole, Floyd Hogan, Stan Lewis, and Tom Marinelli; none of these other 1975 draftees turned out to be starters in nine seasons for the Browns.
Although Ambrose was not selected until the 12th round (the equivalent of being an undrafted free agent today when the NFL draft is only seven rounds), it would be fair to say that Ambrose had the most successful career with the Browns of any of their 1975 draft choices.
Notwithstanding his future success, the expectations for Ambrose as a rookie joining the Browns in 1975 were low.
However, Ambrose exceeded these expectations.
While Injuries to Browns linebackers Bob Babich and John Garlington gave Ambrose the initial opportunity for playing time, Ambrose’s performance on the field justified his continued playing time.
Browns head coach Forrest Gregg stated:
“Ambrose is playing such good football there’s no way we could take him out of there.”
In 1975, principally playing at middle linebacker, Ambrose played in all 14 regular-season games for Cleveland and started 10 of them.
He recovered one fumble and returned it for five yards.
Ambrose’s first regular-season game was a 24-17 Browns loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on September 21, 1975.
Ambrose began to develop a reputation in 1975 as a hard hitter and solid tackler on defense.
He earned the nickname, “Bam Bam” (after the character on the television show, “The Flintstones”), after he broke a pair of shoulder pads while making a tackle during his rookie season.
Ambrose was listed at a height of six feet and a weight of 235 pounds in 1975.
Dick Ambrose pic.twitter.com/yV43UCioC2
— Mark Humphrey (@MarkHum39586180) October 20, 2020
The Browns had a 3-11 record in 1975.
In 1976, because of injuries, Ambrose played in only 10 games and started only two games.
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1976.
Ambrose contributed to the Browns defense ranking fourth in rushing yards allowed in the NFL in 1976.
In 1977, Ambrose became a full-time starter at middle linebacker, starting all 14 regular-season games for the Browns.
As the middle linebacker, Ambrose essentially served as the “quarterback” for the Browns defense, communicating with the other Cleveland defenders, including to call defensive signals and to line up all the defensive players correctly.
Ambrose led the Browns in tackles in 1977.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) December 31, 2018
He also recovered two fumbles.
Ambrose was named the most valuable defensive player on the Browns in 1977.
The Browns had a 6-8 record in 1977.
Ambrose helped the Browns defense hold opponents to score less than 10 points in four games in 1977.
In 1978, Ambrose started all 16 regular-season games for Cleveland.
In a September 17, 1978 24-16 Cleveland victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Ambrose intercepted his first pass in a regular-season game (returning it for seven yards).
On December 10, 1978, Ambrose intercepted his second pass during the 1978 regular season (returning it for 39 yards), as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 37-34 in overtime.
Ambrose’s interception set up a touchdown run by Browns quarterback Brian Sipe.
Ambrose again led the Browns in tackles in 1978.
In addition to his two interceptions, Ambrose recovered one fumble in 1978.
Ambrose helped the Browns defense rank tied for fifth in causing turnovers (interceptions and fumble recoveries) in the NFL in 1978.
In 1979, Ambrose started 14, and played in 15, of Cleveland’s 16 regular-season games.
Ambrose led the Browns in tackles for the third consecutive year in 1979.
1980 was to be a special year for Ambrose and the Browns.
In explaining the successful season, Ambrose stated:
“We got some good veteran talent (in the offseason) that helped give us a little bit more of a mental state, helped us be ready for situations that come during the course of the season. No matter what it is. And, of course, our coach, Sam Rutigliano, always kept us believing in ourselves. That really helped carry us through that year. We came together as a team. It was one of those things that you can’t quite put your finger on why. It was just the right combination of personalities and the work that we did.”
Besides “veteran talent”, a key addition for the Browns defense in 1980 was the hiring of Marty Schottenheimer as defensive coordinator.
“He brought a different approach to the defense. He was always probing, trying to find a weakness in the other team’s offense.”
One change made by Schottenheimer in 1980 was to change the Browns’ 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) November 16, 2017
Ambrose’s position changed from middle linebacker to right inside linebacker.
Ambrose was principally joined by Charlie Hall (at left outside linebacker), Robert L. Jackson (as left inside linebacker), and Clay Matthews (at right outside linebacker), as the Browns’ linebackers in 1980.
In 1980, Ambrose (who did not report to the team on time while his lawyers were negotiating a new contract) started all 16 regular-season games for Cleveland.
For the fourth consecutive year, Ambrose led the Browns in tackles in 1980.
The Browns won the AFC Central Division title with an 11-5 record in 1980.
The Browns were known as the “Kardiac Kids” in 1980, based on having several games decided in the final moments of the game.
Ambrose helped the Browns defense rank tied for second in rushing yards allowed per attempt in the NFL in 1980.
The Browns made the playoffs in 1980 for the first time since 1972.
On January 4, 1981, Cleveland met the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Ambrose, who started the game (his first playoff game) at right inside linebacker, helped the Browns play a great defensive game against the Raiders.
The Browns held the Raiders to 76 rushing yards on 38 attempts.
Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano described a key stop by the Browns defense on a Raiders run late in the game:
“In the fourth quarter, Oakland mounted a drive and was inside our 20. They had fourth down and less than half a yard to go for first down. They went for it. [Raiders running back Mark] Van Eeghen was a short-yardage specialist. We made a great play. R.L. Jackson and Dick Ambrose stopped him. It was a turning point in the game.”
The Browns limited Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett to only 14 completions on 30 pass attempts for 149 yards and sacked Plunkett two times for losses of 17 yards.
Despite the outstanding play by the Browns defense, the Browns lost the game to the Raiders 14-12.
In 1981, Ambrose again started all 16 regular-season games for the Browns.
In a 15-12 Browns victory over the eventual 1981 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers on November 15, 1981, Ambrose had the fourth regular-season interception of his NFL career.
Ambrose led the Browns in tackles for the fifth consecutive year in 1981.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) October 2, 2019
In 1981, Ambrose received from his Browns teammates the “Captain’s Award”, given to the team member who is “a worker, a team player and an inspiration”.
In 1982, because of a player strike, the NFL regular season was reduced from 16 games to nine games.
Ambrose stated that the 1982 player strike changed his outlook on the NFL:
“It’s more like a business. The fun part of the game is totally lacking.”
Ambrose started all nine regular-season games for the Browns in 1982.
Ambrose was co-captain of the Browns in 1982.
He also helped the Browns defense rank second in causing turnovers (interceptions and fumble recoveries) in the NFL in 1982.
The Browns qualified for the NFL playoffs as a “wild card” team in 1982.
On January 8, 1983, the Browns faced the Oakland Raiders.
Ambrose started the game (his second playoff game) at right inside linebacker.
Ambrose’s linebacker partners in 1982 were different than in his first playoff experience in 1980.
While Clay Matthews remained at right outside linebacker, on the left side, Chip Banks (at left outside linebacker) and Tom Cousineau (at left inside linebacker) started the playoff game against the Raiders.
In the playoff game, the Raiders defeated the Browns 27-10.
In 1983, Ambrose suffered an injury that ultimately ended his NFL career.
On October 9, 1983 (the sixth game of the season), Ambrose broke his ankle, as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 10-7.
The injury ended Ambrose’s 1983 season.
Before the injury, Ambrose played and started in six regular-season games for the Browns in 1983 and recovered one fumble (the ninth and final regular-season fumble recovery of his NFL career).
The Browns had a 9-7 record in 1983.
Ambrose was placed on injured reserve and did not play at all in 1984 following surgery to repair complications from his broken ankle.
Ambrose tried to come back and play for the Browns in 1985, but he was waived just before the start of the 1985 season.
After Ambrose’s waiver, Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer said that Ambrose “made a hell of an attempt to come back, but time just ran out on him” and was “very practical about his fate”.
Ambrose said that he “wasn’t bitter in the slightest” about the waiver.
“I gave it my best shot. It wasn’t good enough, and I can live with that. I’ll always be a Cleveland Browns’ fan.”
After his waiver, Ambrose retired from the NFL in 1985 at the age of 32.
In reflecting on his NFL career with the Browns, Ambrose expresses pride, stating:
“I’m just proud of the fact that I had the opportunity to play and contribute to this team and this city, and basically made it a part of my life. I’ve stayed here since my playing days. It’s part of me as much as if I was born and raised here. And I’m just proud of the fact that I saw this through and that I played for one team and one team only.”
The Years After the NFL
Ambrose is married to Mary Beth and has three daughters, Rachel, Karen, and Kristy.
He resides in Westlake, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland).
Many NFL players have difficulty finding a career path after they retire from the NFL.
Such was not the case with Ambrose.
Encouraged by his agent (who was an attorney), Ambrose decided to pursue a career in law.
“I realized that this is not a game that you can play forever. I needed to start making some contingency plans. So I did decide to explore some options. Law was one of the careers that was recommended to me. I eventually took the entrance examination and got accepted into law school. And while we were on strike in 1982, I actually started going to classes. I stayed with the classes even while we went back to work. I went to a night schedule and did it that way until I was released by the team. Then I went fulltime and finished my degree.”
In 1987, Ambrose graduated magna cum laude from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
After passing the bar, Ambrose worked as an attorney for four different Cleveland-area law firms over the next 16 years.
Ambrose then changed his role in the legal profession from lawyer to judge.
Ambrose was appointed to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in 2004 to fill an unexpired term.
Ambrose lost his first judicial election seeking a full term.
Ambrose was then reappointed to the court a second time and since then has won judicial elections in 2010 and 2016; his current judicial term expires in January, 2023.
As a judge, Ambrose principally hears criminal felony cases and a wide variety of civil cases.
In honor of tonight's #NFLDraft, did you know Dick Ambrose was selected in the 1975 draft by the Cleveland Browns, where he played nine seasons before graduating from @CMLAWSchool? Today, he sits on the bench in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. https://t.co/LL9PKbcXfl pic.twitter.com/jla0qyCJYi
— CSU Alumni (@CSU_Vikings) April 23, 2020
Among Ambrose’s most prominent cases as a judge was presiding over the trial of Cleveland serial killer, Anthony Sowell.
Sowell was found guilty on 82 charges and sentenced to death by Ambrose.
In describing Ambrose as a judge, Cleveland attorney Ian Friedman said:
“[H]is focus is really on doing the right thing without concern for what certain parties may think. . . . He allowed us to argue . . . but only to a certain point. He just had a presence where you knew you were kind of reaching that point where it had to stop.”
Browns fans sometimes remember Ambrose’s football career when they see him in the courtroom.
“Yes. I’ve had people call me Judge ‘Bam Bam.’ That was my nickname with the Browns. People are still respectful and most of the time they ask permission if they want to do something like that or ask for an autograph. But it has happened. Infrequently, but it has happened. . . . [Laughs] Actually, a guy I had just sentenced to prison asked me for an autograph before he left the courtroom. There are some people that just know they’re going to prison before they even start the sentencing hearing, so he wasn’t taken aback by the sentence or upset by the sentence. He was just a big football fan.”
Judge Dick Ambrose addressed the National Council on Problem Gambling's Sports & Gambling summit in Cleveland this morning. As a former NFL linebacker for the Browns, Judge Ambrose brings a unique perspective as both a retired professional player and a jurist. @NCPGambling pic.twitter.com/NQW0rDIfHH
— Cuyahoga Comm Pleas (@cuycommonpleas) July 18, 2018
Ambrose has also been active in community and charity events, including for the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland.
Ron Soeder, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland, said about Ambrose:
“He’s really a personable man and I think he’s a guy that, when he’s with kids, they really see the humanness of him.”
Ambrose was inducted into the New Rochelle Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
In 2006, Ambrose was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Ambrose was an inaugural member of the Iona Prep High School Hall of Fame.
Cleveland’s major newspaper, The Plain Dealer, in 2012 ranked Ambrose number 94 in its ranking of the Browns’ 100 best all-time players.
Ambrose was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2016.
Just as Ambrose expressed pride in his NFL career with the Browns, he is also proud of his judicial career.
“I’m most proud of the fact that when I run for election I do get high ratings from the Bar Association, which is the lawyers that come before the court. The respect that I get from my peers is very important to me. Everybody just wants to do a good job, whether it’s football or whether it’s selling cars or whether it’s being a judge. I want to do a good job and do it the best I can. And to get people’s acknowledgement that you are doing a good job certainly is one of my proudest moments.”
Whether as “Bam Bam” Ambrose to Browns fans or as Judge Ambrose to the Cleveland legal community, there are many people in the Cleveland area who recognize the “good job” that Ambrose has done throughout both his football and judicial careers.