To be a great NFL team, you need outstanding players in all three phases of the game – offense, defense, and special teams.
The Cleveland Browns, who won six professional football championships from 1947 to 1956, had excellent players on offense, defense, and special teams over these 10 years.
Concerning special teams, while most Browns fans know about Pro Football Hall of Fame placekicker Lou “The Toe” Groza, fewer recognize punter Horace “Big Horse” Gillom.
In addition to various other contributions on offense, defense, and special teams, Gillom, as a punter, led the NFL in average yards per punt in three seasons and in longest punt in two seasons.
Horace Gillom #BrownsNation pic.twitter.com/clrlPyZnNb
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥🏈 (@NFL_Journal) June 1, 2018
We take a look at the life of Horace Gillom – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Horace Albert Gillom was born on March 3, 1921 in Roanoke, Alabama.
Gillom’s family moved north to find industrial work and settled in Massillon, Ohio.
At Longfellow Junior High School in Massillon, Gillom played end and punter.
His coach at Longfellow Junior High School, Bud Houghton, recognized that Gillom punted for a long distance and hang time, but had a weakness – he needed more steps than most punters to kick his punts.
Houghton suggested that Gillom move back a few yards to have the necessary room to boot his punts.
Houghon’s suggestion made Gillom an even better punter.
Gillom moved on to Massillon Washington High School, where he played on the varsity football team from 1938 to 1940.
In high school, Gillom was a starter at punter, end, and linebacker.
In reviewing Gillom’s high school football career, Massillon Washington High School football historian Bill Oliver stated:
“I think if you check the record books, his name is still in them. He was one of the most outstanding pass catchers of his time. I think he scored more touchdowns than anybody else at that point. He was sure handed. But he was also a wonderful linebacker on defense. People who saw him play rate him everywhere as good as . . . Chris Spielman. Horace was also the greatest punter Massillon ever had. Paul Brown couldn’t believe that Horace could kick the ball as far as he could. When he punted, it would go above the lights and the poor guy waiting for it had to wait for it to come out of the clouds.”
Last game played at #MassillonField featuring Marion Motley (@McKFootballPro v Horace Gillom @MTigerAthletics 1938 https://t.co/VA0mmxTAP9 https://t.co/Vk6CLVVYau
— Anise Pitzelldough (@DE_Ploribus_Uno) October 31, 2016
As a sophomore in 1938, Gillom scored 26 points from four receiving touchdowns and one two-point conversion.
@1480whbc #55 Massillon 1938 Team Horace GILLOM ! Famous game Marion Motley starred for @CantonMcKinley https://t.co/VA0mmxBZXB pic.twitter.com/XCRZEHCjXC
— Anise Pitzelldough (@DE_Ploribus_Uno) November 19, 2016
In 1939, Gillom scored 42 points, based on four receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, one pass interception return touchdown, and one punt return touchdown.
Gillom was named first-team All-County and first-team All-Ohio.
Gillom was co-captain of the Massillon Washington High School football team in 1940.
In 1940, playing at a height of six feet and one inch and a weight of 210 pounds, Gillom scored 108 points, with 10 rushing touchdowns and eight receiving touchdowns.
The Associated Press named Gillom Ohio’s Most Outstanding High School Player in 1940.
In addition, he again was named first-team All-County and first-team All-Ohio.
Besides his individual success in high school, Gillom was part of a football team at Massillon Washington High School, coached by Paul Brown, that from 1938 to 1940 went undefeated, won three state high school championships, and claimed two national high school championships.
Gillom also excelled in basketball in high school.
As a senior, Gillom was named All-County in basketball.
In the post-season tournament, Gillom was named to the All-State Tournament 2nd Team, as the Massillon Washington High School basketball team advanced to the state semifinals.
Paul Brown said that Gillom was “the greatest high school player I ever coached”.
In 1941, Paul Brown left Massillon Washington High School to become coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Gillom followed Brown to Columbus, Ohio to attend Ohio State for college.
Gillom played on the Ohio State freshman football team in 1941 at end; the other end on the freshman football team was Gillom’s future Cleveland Browns teammate, Dante Lavelli.
However, Gillom never played varsity football for the Buckeyes.
First, because of poor grades, Gillom left Ohio State.
Second, because of World War II, Gillom enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving from 1942 to 1945.
Gillom was in Europe during the war, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
He earned three Bronze Stars.
In describing his father’s military experience, Gillom’s son, Dennis, said:
“They were in France and they were all taking cover in a grape harbor. He said he had never been so scared. The sky was lit up with bombs, they could hear them right and left and they didn’t know where they were going to hit. But he lived through it and he made it back.”
After the war, Gillom enrolled at University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada.
An October 6, 1946 article in the Nevada State Journal described Gillom’s performance in a 33-7 Nevada victory over Santa Clara on October 5, 1946, as follows:
“Horace Gillom, the hustling 210-pound fresh end, was once more the standout ball player on the field. [Gillom] wowed the fans with his sensational booming punts – his average for three boots was 54 yards per boot (measured from the line of scrimmage) and one actually traveled 72 yards in the air. Gillom’s tackling was good and his receiving terrific – some of the catches seemed impossible.”
In an October 13, 1946 article in the Nevada State Journal, about a 74-2 Nevada rout of Arizona State on October 12, 1946, Gillom is described as follows:
“Horace Gillom, everybody’s choice for nothing less than All-American end, made another of his terrific catches . . . For the second consecutive Friday, [Gillom] has been named on an ‘All-Pacific Coast Team of the Week.’”
Gillom led college football in punting in 1946.
Nevada had a 7-2 record in 1946, including a 26-7 victory over Hawaii in the Shrine Benefit Aloha Bowl.
With Gillom’s play, Nevada outscored its opponents by a total of 324 to 82 in 1946.
Poor grades forced Gillom to leave Nevada after the 1946 season.
In Gillom’s final game as a college football player, he played in the 1947 College All-Star Game on August 22, 1947, as the College All-Stars shut out the 1946 NFL champion Chicago Bears 16-0.
The Pro Football Years
When Gillom left Nevada, Paul Brown, now coach of the Cleveland Browns in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), signed Gillom in early 1947 to play professional football with Cleveland.
The Browns had won the first AAFC championship in 1946.
As a rookie in 1947, Gillom did most of the punting for the Browns.
He punted 47 times for 2,096 yards during the 1947 regular season.
His 44.6 average yards per punt ranked third in the AAFC.
the Browns are on the clock. In 1947, they had 3 brothers. Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and Horace Boot Em Long Gillom pic.twitter.com/qmd5weLf2w
— profloumoore (@loumoore12) May 1, 2015
In the 1947 regular season, Gillom also caught two passes for 24 yards and intercepted a pass and returned it for 29 yards.
Cleveland won the AAFC West Division title in 1947 with a 12-1-1 record.
The Browns advanced to the AAFC championship game against the New York Yankees on December 14, 1947.
Gillom punted five times for 225 yards, including a punt of 51 yards, as the Browns won their second consecutive AAFC championship, defeating New York 14-3.
The Yankees were able to return Gillom’s punts for only 14 yards.
In 1948, Gillom scored his first professional football regular season touchdown.
He caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Browns quarterback Otto Graham, in a 31-21 Cleveland victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers on December 5, 1948.
Gillom shared the punting duties for Cleveland with Tom Colella and Cliff Lewis in 1948.
In the 1948 regular season, Gillom only punted six times for 227 yards.
He also caught 20 passes for 295 yards and returned three kickoffs for 10 yards during the 1948 regular season.
With a perfect 14-0 record, the Browns again won the AAFC West Division title in 1948.
Cleveland then played the Buffalo Bills in the 1948 AAFC championship game on December 19, 1948.
Gillom punted once for 36 yards and caught one pass for 15 yards, as Cleveland defeated the Bills 49-7.
Gillom did most of the punting for the Browns in 1949.
He punted 54 times for 2,011 yards during the 1949 regular season.
He also caught 23 passes for 359 yards and rushed for eight yards on two rushing attempts in the 1949 regular season.
The Browns had the best record in the AAFC – 9-1-2 – in 1949 and advanced to the playoffs.
Cleveland first played the Buffalo Bills on December 4, 1949. In a 31-21 Browns victory over the Bills, Gillom punted four times for 166 yards; Buffalo could return Gillom’s punts for only 19 yards.
The Browns then played the San Francisco 49ers in the 1949 AAFC championship game on December 11, 1949.
With Gillom punting four times for 172 yards, Cleveland defeated the 49ers 21-7 and won its fourth consecutive AAFC championship.
San Francisco returned Gillom’s punts for only 23 yards.
Gillom’s Cleveland teammate running back and future College Football Hall of Fame coach Ara Parseghian stated:
“[Gillom would] put the ball into orbit, it would level off and go for a while, and then it would come down. I’d match him with today’s punters, all right.”
The 1949 AAFC championship game turned out to be the last game played in the AAFC; the league dissolved after the 1949 season.
Cleveland was one of three AAFC teams that joined the NFL for the 1950 season.
Moving to the NFL did not hinder Gillom’s performance, as he had an excellent season in 1950.
On October 29, 1950, in a 45-7 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gillom caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Cleveland quarterback Cliff Lewis, for Gillom’s second professional football regular season touchdown.
In a 13-7 Browns victory over the 1949 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles on December 3, 1950, Gillom was a key factor for Cleveland.
On a day with poor weather conditions, Gillom punted 12 times, often on third down, as Cleveland (which did not complete a pass) relied on Gillom’s leg to play for field position in the game.
After the game, Eagles coach Greasy Neale stated:
“That Gillom did a great job of punting in the mud. He kept us in our own territory.”
Gillom was Cleveland’s sole punter in 1950.
In the 1950 regular season, Gillom punted 66 times for 2,849 yards.
His 43.2 average yards per punt ranked second in the NFL.
Gillom had the second longest punt – 75 yards – in the NFL during the 1950 regular season.
Running back Emerson Cole, Gillom’s teammate with the Browns, said:
“Horace was a fun-loving guy, a tremendous football player, and one hell of a nice fellow. . . . You know what he could do? He’d tell us when we were going down on punts: ‘This one is going to roll and it’s going to keep going.’ On another he’d say, ‘I’m backing this one up. Don’t go full speed because it’s coming back this way.’ I could never figure out how the hell he knew when a ball was going to go forward or backward. He had that much ability.”
Gillom also caught two passes for 54 yards, returned three kickoffs for 51 yards, and completed one pass for three yards, in the 1950 regular season.
With a 10-2 record, the Browns tied for first place in the NFL American Division with the New York Giants and played a “tiebreaker” playoff game against New York on December 17, 1950.
Gillom (who also returned a kickoff for 10 yards) punted nine times for 363 yards, including a 51-yard punt; the Giants returned Gillom’s punts for only 22 yards.
Cleveland defeated New York 8-3.
The following week, in the NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 24, 1950, Gillom caught a pass for 29 yards and punted five times for 192 yards, including a 68-yard punt.
The Rams could return Gillom’s punts for only 14 yards.
Cleveland won its fifth consecutive professional football championship, defeating the Rams 30-28.
In a 17-0 Cleveland shutout of the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 21, 1951, Gillom scored his third professional football regular season touchdown on a 38-yard fumble return.
In 1951, Gillom again was the sole punter for the Browns.
During the 1951 regular season, Gillom punted 73 times for 3,321 yards.
His 45.5 average yards per punt led the NFL.
Cleveland Browns End Horace Gillom – @GetJETmag, November 1, 1951 #BlackHistory #APeoplesJourney pic.twitter.com/lvF1uylV6m
— Spady Cultural Heritage Museum (@SpadyMuseum) December 23, 2018
Gillom also caught 11 passes for 164 yards and returned two kickoffs for 25 yards in the 1951 regular season.
Cleveland won the NFL American Division title in 1951, with an 11-1 record.
On December 23, 1951, Cleveland played the Los Angeles Rams in the 1951 NFL championship game.
Gillom punted four times for 148 yards, which the Rams did not return for a single yard, but Los Angeles defeated Cleveland 24-17.
Gillom’s Cleveland teammate guard Lin Houston stated:
“Horace was the greatest punter I’ve ever seen play pro football. They can talk about Ray Guy all they want. He couldn’t hold a candle to Horace.”
Gillom scored his fourth professional football regular season touchdown on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Browns quarterback George Ratterman, as Cleveland defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 49-7 on October 19, 1952.
For the third consecutive year, Gillom was the only punter for Cleveland in 1952.
In the 1952 regular season, Gillom punted 61 times for 2,787 yards. With an average yards per punt of 45.7 yards, Gillom led the NFL for the second consecutive year.
He also led the NFL in booting the longest punt of the 1952 regular season – 73 yards.
Running back Sherman Howard, Gillom’s Cleveland teammate, said:
“Gillom had such a powerful leg and kicked the ball so far. . . with Horace, he would kick it so high that by the time guys got down, the ball was coming down, so most guys had to fair catch.”
During the 1952 regular season, Gillom also caught four passes for 45 yards, returned one kickoff for two yards, and recovered two fumbles (which he returned for seven yards).
Gillom was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1952.
The Browns, with an 8-4 record, won the NFL American Division title in 1952 and advanced to the NFL championship game against the Detroit Lions on December 28, 1952.
Gillom caught one pass for eight yards and punted three times for 130 yards, including a 62-yard punt.
Detroit could only return Gillom’s punts for 18 yards.
However, the Lions defeated Cleveland 17-7.
Gillom again was the only punter for the Browns in 1953.
He punted 63 times for 2,760 yards in the 1953 regular season.
His 43.8 average yards per punt ranked second in the NFL.
In addition, Gillom had a punt of 67 yards, which was the second longest punt during the 1953 regular season.
In the 1953 regular season, Gillom also caught seven passes for 80 yards and recovered a fumble.
With an 11-1 record, Cleveland won the NFL East Division title in 1953.
In the 1953 NFL championship game, on December 27, 1953, Cleveland again met the Detroit Lions.
Gillom punted five times for 213 yards, including a 53-yard punt, and the Lions did not return Gillom’s punts for a single yard.
However, the Lions again defeated the Browns 17-16.
In 1954, Gillom again was the sole punter for the Browns.
Gillom punted 52 times for 2,230 yards during the 1954 regular season.
At 42.9 yards, Gillom’s average yards per punt ranked second in the NFL.
He also kicked the longest punt in the NFL in the 1954 regular season – 80 yards.
Gillom’s Browns teammate defensive tackle Bob Gain stated:
“I remember Paul Brown yelling at Gillom one time, ‘You know how many laces are on it, punt the damn ball’ . . . The ball went over top the lights, and the (return man) said, ‘Where is it?’ He lost it in the lights. . . . He was one of the best punters of my time.”
During the 1954 regular season, Gillom also caught five passes for 62 yards.
Cleveland had a 9-3 record and again won the NFL East Division title in 1954.
For the third consecutive year, the Browns met the Detroit Lions in the NFL championship game on December 26, 1954.
Gillom punted four times for 172 yards.
Horace Gillom of the #Browns: One of the first blacks to reintegrate pro football after WW2. This is from 1954: #NFL pic.twitter.com/6g2pl1gTBK
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) September 28, 2016
For the second consecutive year, the Lions were unable to return Gillom’s punts for even a single yard.
Cleveland won its second NFL championship, routing Detroit 56-10.
For the sixth consecutive year, Gillom was Cleveland’s sole punter in 1955.
In the 1955 regular season, Gillom punted 58 times for 2,389 yards.
The Browns had a 9-2-1 record in 1955 and won another NFL East Division title.
Cleveland advanced to play the Los Angeles Rams in the 1955 NFL championship game on December 26, 1955.
Gillom punted three times for 128 yards, including a 52-yard punt, and the Rams only returned Gillom’s punts for nine yards.
With a 38-14 victory by the Browns over the Rams, Gillom won his third NFL, and sixth professional football, championship with Cleveland.
In 1956, Gillom was hampered by a sore back, and Fred Morrison did most of the punting for the Browns.
Gillom still managed to lead the NFL in average yards per punt for the 1956 regular season, punting 12 times for 536 yards – 44.7 average yards per punt.
1956 was Gillom’s last NFL regular season.
The Years After the NFL
Gillom was married to Mamie.
They had a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Cynthia.
In 1961, Gillom attempted a professional football comeback with the New York Titans of the American Football League , but he failed to make the team.
After his retirement from football, Gillom worked in Los Angeles as an Assistant Athletic Director for the Los Angeles Recreation Department and as a security guard.
Gillom also spoke, including in the Massillon, Ohio African American community, about the importance of education.
Former Massillon police officer and Equal Employment Opportunity Director Ed Grier said about Gillom:
“[G]uys like Horace were as good as anybody. He would tell me, ‘Get your education, boy.’ ‘Be a good role model.’ ‘Keep your nose clean and listen to your parents.’ Even though it was a segregated society at that time, he was the one role [model] that kept us optimistic and thinking maybe one day we can get an education, have a good life and make something of ourselves. . . . (Gillom’s message) transcended sports. It made people think that even if you can’t make it in sports, you can make it in education and you can support your family and kids.”
On October 28, 1985, Gillom died of a heart attack at the age of 64.
In 1994, Gillom was honored on the Massillon Washington High School Wall of Champions
Gillom was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2007.
In 2009, Gillom was inducted into the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame.
Gillom ranks as one of the top Cleveland punters of all time.
His 80-yard punt in 1954 is the longest regular season punt in Browns history.
In addition, Gillom ranks second in Browns career regular season punts (492), second in Browns career regular season punting yards (21,206), and sixth, among Browns punters with at least 100 regular season punts for Cleveland, in Browns career regular season average yards per punt (43.1).
For each regular season from 1950 to 1954 (when the Browns advanced to the NFL championship game each year and won two NFL championships), Gillom either led or was ranked second in the NFL in average yards per punt; he also led or was ranked second in the NFL in longest punt in four of these five regular seasons.
Gillom did not simply punt for long yardage.
He also punted in such a manner that made it difficult for the opposing team to return his punts, especially in critical games.
In six NFL championship games from 1950 to 1955, the Rams and Lions could only return Gillom’s punts for an aggregate amount of 41 yards – only 6.8 yards per game.
By both booting the ball for a long distance and not allowing a long return, Gillom achieved the goal of every punter – maximizing the flipping of field position in favor of his team.
While Gillom is most known for his punting, he was versatile, also helping Cleveland in various other manners on offense, defense, and special teams.
In each regular season from 1947 to 1954 (when the Browns advanced to the AAFC or NFL championship game each year and won three AAFC and two NFL championships), Gillom caught a pass, had a rushing attempt, threw a pass, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and/or returned a kickoff.
Browns fans should remember Horace “Big Horse” Gillom for his punting and other contributions to Cleveland’s success in winning multiple professional football championships in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
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