Defensive players in the NFL often go unrecognized, blending in with their 10 defensive teammates to try to stop opposing offenses.
However, occasionally in a game, a defensive player may recover a turnover, or make a significant play in an important game, and individually stand out on the defense.
Over an 11-year career with the Cleveland Browns, linebacker Galen Fiss contributed to a solid Browns defense.
In addition, Fiss individually stood out on the defense for both his ability to recover turnovers and a key play that he made in the 1964 NFL championship game that helped Cleveland win its last championship.
Vince Costello pic.twitter.com/kWbDc10OrG
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 6, 2020
We take a look at the life of Galen Fiss – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Galen Royce Fiss was born in Johnson City, Kansas on July 30, 1931.
Johnson City is located in southwestern Kansas, near the Colorado border.
While Fiss was growing up there, Johnson City had a population of less than 1,000 people.
The Fiss family farmed (growing wheat) and raised cattle.
Fiss would often work 10 hours a day on the family tractor.
Later, the Fiss family opened a garage in town.
Fiss attended Johnson High School in Johnson City.
At Johnson High School, Fiss starred in football, baseball, and basketball.
When University of Kansas recruited Fiss and offered him a scholarship, there was no doubt where Fiss would attend college.
“I do love the University of Kansas. . . . It was a dream to go to Kansas and I was fortunate to have done so.”
After graduating Johnson High School in 1949, Fiss headed to Lawrence, Kansas to attend Kansas for college.
Fiss played football, baseball, and basketball at Kansas.
In football, he lettered for three years at Kansas, playing linebacker and fullback.
At a height of five feet and 11 inches and a weight of 205 pounds, Fiss had his first varsity season in 1950.
One of Fiss’ Jayhawks teammates in 1950 was his future Cleveland Browns teammate Mike McCormack.
Kansas had a 6-4 record in 1950.
In 1951, Fiss scored his only college football touchdown on a run, in a 33-14 Jayhawks victory over Kansas State on October 27, 1951.
Kansas posted an 8-2 record in 1951.
Fiss was named to the 1952 All-Big Seven Conference football team at linebacker by the Associated Press.
In 1952, the Jayhawks had a 7-3 record.
While at Kansas, Fiss was associated with two nicknames.
For his tackling and blocking, he was known as “Earthshaker”.
“Yeah, I guess I liked to hit people – especially when it went my way.”
When he ran with the ball, it was known as a “Galen Grinder”.
In baseball, Fiss lettered for three years from 1951 to 1953.
He was the starting catcher on the Kansas baseball team.
In basketball, Fiss played on the Kansas freshman basketball team in the 1949-1950 season.
One of Fiss’ basketball teammates was future Basketball Hall of Fame North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
Smith also played with Fiss on the baseball team and was Fiss’ roommate.
Fiss was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 13th round of the 1953 draft (as the 156th overall pick).
However, Fiss did not play in a game for the Browns until 1956.
First, Fiss played sports for another Cleveland organization – the Cleveland Indians in baseball.
Fiss played one season for the Indians’ minor league team, the Fargo-Moorhead Twins in North Dakota, in the Northern League.
Playing catcher and outfielder, Fiss hit for a .275 average in 52 games.
One of Fiss’ teammates was Roger Maris, who would break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961.
Fiss and Maris were to become lifelong friends.
Second, Fiss served in the Air Force for two years, achieving the rank of lieutenant.
After the Air Force, the Browns offered Fiss a $7,500 contract.
As this contract offered more money than Fiss could make returning to minor league baseball, Fiss decided to forego baseball and pursue a career in the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Fiss was uneasy when he joined the Browns.
“I was real nervous, actually a little frightened because I just didn’t really know what to expect. [Browns coach] Paul Brown took care of that right away. He roomed me with (Hall of Fame offensive lineman) Mike McCormack. I knew Mike from my days at Kansas and he showed me the ropes, made me feel comfortable. I owe a lot to Mike for that.”
As a rookie in 1956, now at a height of six feet and a weight of 227 pounds, Fiss played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games at right linebacker.
After winning the NFL championship in both 1954 and 1955, the Browns (weakened by the retirement of future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham) fell to a 5-7 record.
However, with Fiss at linebacker, Cleveland’s defense still performed at an excellent level, ranking in the NFL regular season in 1956 first in fewest points allowed (177), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,135), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,103), and tied for fifth in defensive interceptions (18).
In 1957, Fiss played in all 12, and started 10, regular season games at left linebacker.
The Browns won the NFL East Division title with a 9-2-1 record in 1957.
Fiss contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1957 first in fewest points allowed (172), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,802), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,300), tied for fourth in defensive interceptions (19), fifth in sacks (26), fourth in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,502), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.8).
Cleveland advanced to play the Detroit Lions in the 1957 NFL championship game on December 29, 1957.
Fiss started the game at left linebacker, but Cleveland lost to Detroit 59-14.
In 1958, Fiss started all 12 regular season games at left linebacker.
With a 9-3 record, Cleveland tied the New York Giants for first place in the NFL East Division in 1958.
Fiss helped the Cleveland defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1958 third in fewest points allowed (217), fifth in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,660), tied for fourth in recovered fumbles (18), fourth in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,448), and tied for fourth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.9).
The Browns and the New York Giants met in a “tie-breaker” playoff game on December 21, 1958.
In recalling playing against New York, Fiss stated:
“The big rivalry then was with the (New York) Giants. We really went at it in every game.”
Fiss started the game at left linebacker and helped the Browns defense force four Giants turnovers and hold New York to only 10 points.
However, the Giants defeated Cleveland 10-0.
In 1959, Fiss, at left linebacker, played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games.
Cleveland had a 7-5 record in 1959, but missed the playoffs.
Fiss contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1959 third in fewest points allowed (214), second in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,422), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (4.0).
In 1960, Fiss again played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games at left linebacker.
For the 1960 regular season, in addition to his interception against Dallas, Fiss recovered four fumbles (tied for third in the NFL), which he returned for one yard.
In 1960, the Browns had an 8-3-1 record, but failed to make the playoffs.
With Fiss at linebacker, Cleveland’s defense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1960 fourth in fewest points allowed (217), tied for first in recovered turnovers (45), fifth in recovered fumbles (14), and first in defensive interceptions (31).
Fiss played in 13, and started nine, regular season games at left linebacker in 1961.
He also was named a team captain in 1961.
Fiss served as a team captain for six years.
Cleveland posted an 8-5-1 record in 1961 and did not make the playoffs.
Fiss contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1961 fifth in fewest points allowed (270), tied for fifth in recovered fumbles (18), fourth in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,605), and fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.9).
In 1962, Fiss, at left linebacker, started all 14 regular season games.
For the 1962 regular season, Fiss intercepted four passes, which he returned for 81 yards.
In addition, Fiss recovered four fumbles (tied for second in the NFL) in the 1962 regular season.
In 1962, Fiss received his first Pro Bowl invitation.
He was also named second team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and United Press International, and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News, in 1962.
Cleveland, with a 7-6-1 record, did not make the playoffs in 1962.
Fiss helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1962 third in fewest points allowed (257), third in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,924), and second in fewest passing yards allowed (1,984).
In 1963, Fiss played in and started 13 regular season games at right linebacker.
Fiss received his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1963.
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963, but failed to make the playoffs.
Fiss played in 13, and started 10, regular season games at right linebacker in 1964.
@Browns rush @dallascowboys field goal kicker Dick Van Raaphorst and block attempted field goal in 2nd qtr. Galen Fiss #35 and Bernie Parrish #30 rush. October 6, 1964. Source: @Cleve_Memory pic.twitter.com/i8tVcqZ2Tc
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) October 4, 2020
With a 10-3-1 record in 1964, Cleveland won the NFL East Division title.
Fiss contributed to Cleveland’s defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1964 fifth in fewest points allowed (293), fourth in recovered turnovers (40), tied for second in recovered fumbles (21), and tied for fifth in defensive interceptions (19).
The Browns met the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game on December 27, 1964.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 23, 2020
Fiss recalled the 1964 championship game:
“We had a lot of good teams, but in 1964 it just sort of all came together for us. That season, that one game against Baltimore for the championship, I guess you would have to say that was the highlight of my career. We were underdogs in that game because the Colts really were a great football team. But we were, too, and I’m not exactly sure why people made us such underdogs. . . . Everybody on our team played well. To beat a guy like Johnny Unitas, that’s what has to happen and it did.”
Starting the game at right linebacker, Fiss, despite playing with a cast because of a broken left thumb, made a key play.
In the second quarter, Fiss tackled future Pro Football Hall of Fame Baltimore running back Lenny Moore on a swing pass for a five-yard loss.
Moore had future Pro Football Hall of Fame Baltimore guard Jim Parker and Pro Bowl Colts tackle Bob Vogel blocking in front of him; it was thought that if not for Fiss’ tackle, Moore could have run for a very long gain and possibly even a touchdown.
Fiss helped the Cleveland defense hold future Pro Football Hall of Fame Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas and the Colts offense to only 89 “net pass yards” and force four Colts turnovers. Fiss pressured Unitas throughout the game and tipped a pass that led to an interception.
Cleveland shut out the Colts 27-0 for the first NFL championship in nine years for the Browns.
The 1964 NFL championship game was the pinnacle of Fiss’ NFL career.
While he played two more seasons, he became less of a starter.
In 1965, Fiss played in 12, and started only five, regular season games.
Fiss had the final interception of his NFL career, when he intercepted New York Giants quarterback Earl Morrall and returned the interception for five yards, in a 34-21 Cleveland victory over the Giants on November 14, 1965.
Cleveland, with an 11-3 record, again won the NFL East Division title in 1965.
Fiss contributed to Cleveland’s defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1965 fifth in defensive interceptions (24).
The Browns advanced to the 1965 NFL championship game against the Green Bay Packers on January 2, 1966.
Fiss did start the game at right linebacker, but Cleveland lost to the Packers 23-12.
Fiss played in 14, and started two, regular season games in 1966.
Cleveland had a 9-5 record in 1966, but failed to make the playoffs.
Fiss contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1966 fifth in fewest points allowed (259), first in recovered turnovers (49), fourth in recovered fumbles (19), and first in defensive interceptions (30).
After the 1966 season, Fiss retired from the NFL at the age of 35.
The Years After the NFL
Fiss was married to Nancy for 51 years.
They had three children, Scott, Robert, and Leslie.
After his retirement from the NFL, Fiss settled in the Kansas City, Missouri area.
He worked in the insurance business, running his own insurance agency (G.R. Fiss Co.) for 20 years.
Fiss was a member of Kansas’ athletic board of directors and served as its president in 1980 and 1981.
One of his accomplishments was helping to convince Roy Williams to leave University of North Carolina to coach the Kansas basketball team in 1988.
Fiss also served as a YMCA youth football coach for 10 years.
In 2013, Fiss was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
He was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Fiss developed Alzheimer’s disease.
He died in Overland Park, Kansas on July 17, 2006 at the age of 74.
In examining Fiss’ career, one can first look at the success of the Browns teams on which he played.
Over his 11 seasons with Cleveland, Fiss played on a winning team in 10 seasons (only not in his rookie season in 1956).
In 1957, 1964, and 1965, Fiss advanced to the NFL championship game.
During his 11 seasons with Cleveland, Fiss played on a defense that ranked in the top five in fewest regular season points allowed in 10 seasons (only not in 1965).
In 1956 and 1957, the Browns led the NFL in fewest regular season points allowed.
In addition to his solid play as part of Cleveland’s defense, Fiss stood out individually.
Fiss was one of the best Browns defensive players at recovering turnovers.
He ranks third among defensive players in Browns career regular season recovered fumbles (18).
With his Browns career regular season interceptions (13), Fiss ranks ninth among defensive players in Browns career regular season recovered turnovers (31).
These statistics are even more impressive when one realizes that Fiss missed three additional possible NFL years to play baseball and serve in the Air Force after college.
Besides his ability to recover turnovers, Fiss may be most remembered by Browns fans for his key tackle of Lenny Moore (and overall outstanding play) in the 1964 NFL championship game.
Fiss had fond memories of his time playing for the Browns, stating:
“I don’t know what it was like elsewhere, but I loved Cleveland because the fans really made a fuss over you and you were part of them, part of the city. It was a loving relationship. The old stadium was a great place to play. It had a lot of history.”
For his contributions both as part of the defense and individually, Galen Fiss should continue to be “made a fuss over”, as one of the best linebackers in Cleveland Browns history.