It is one of the oldest debates in sports.
Does it matter more for an athlete to achieve individual success or to help his team win championships?
For athletes such as Jim Houston, there is no debate because Houston met both standards.
Houston was voted first-team All-Ohio in high school, first-team All-American in college, and first-team All-Pro in the NFL.
In addition, Houston accomplished an “Ohio Triple Crown”, winning the Ohio state high school championship with Massillon Washington High School (twice), the national championship with Ohio State, and the NFL championship with the Cleveland Browns.
We take a look at the life of Jim Houston before, during, and after his NFL career.
The High School Years
James Edward Houston was born on November 3, 1937 in Massillon, Ohio.
Massillon is located in eastern Ohio, approximately eight miles west of Canton and 50 miles south of Cleveland.
Houston had five brothers.
Houston was to follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother (16 years older), Lin, who played middle guard and offensive guard for Massillon Washington High School, Ohio State, and, from 1946 to 1953, the Cleveland Browns.
Describing his relationship with his brother, Lin, Houston said:
“He never said that we should be playing football or doing anything like that. He left it up to be all our own decision. He just simply talked to us about doing the best you can. He knew that I had to do it myself, that I had to have the determination to do it myself. He was always reliable in a sense that he could get the job done. When you have a person like that, you don’t even have to worry about him. You know he’s going to carry out his responsibilities and get the job done, whatever that happens to be. We kind of learned that from his example, from the time I was watching him play from my seat that cost 25 cents in Cleveland Stadium.”
Houston tried out for football in the seventh grade (the first age you could start playing football in Massillon) but did not make the team because he was too small.
Houston made the team in the eighth grade and was “All-City” in the ninth grade.
Massillon Washington High School
Houston attended Massillon Washington High School, graduating in 1956.
Massillon Washington High School is considered one of the winningest high school football programs in the nation.
Legendary coach Paul Brown played and coached there.
Houston played football at Massillon Washington High School from 1953 to 1955.
“We all put our soul into playing for Massillon. You felt like you had to do your best for your teammates and team. For the city.”
Playing at end, Houston was part of Massillon Washington High School football teams that won the Ohio state high school championship in 1953 and 1954 and compiled an aggregate record of 27-2-1 over Houston’s three seasons at the school.
Houston increased in size from five feet, 11 inches tall and 150 pounds in 1953 to six feet, one inch tall and 195 pounds in 1955.
A little-known fact about Houston’s time at Massillon Washington High School is that one of his fellow ends at the school was future television star David Canary.
In 1955, Houston was voted first-team All-Ohio.
Houston scored two touchdowns (one receiving and one rushing) in a 32-13 Massillon Washington High School victory over Toledo Waite High School on October 14, 1955.
In recognition of his play at Massillon Washington High School, Houston was inducted in the Massillon Wall of Champions in 1964.
Houston was recruited by Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes and decided to continue his football career after high school with the Buckeyes.
The College Years
Playing on both offense and defense at end, Houston played football for three years at Ohio State from 1957 to 1959.
In 1957, Houston caught four passes for 126 yards and one touchdown (the touchdown came in a 47-6 Ohio State victory over Northwestern on November 2, 1957).
Houston’s 126 receiving yards led the Buckeyes in 1957.
Ohio State had a 9-1 record in 1957, including a 31-14 victory over rival Michigan on November 23, 1957 and a 10-7 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1958.
Houston had a key reception in the Rose Bowl game, helping to set up an Ohio State touchdown.
Ohio State was ranked first in the nation in the final United Press International Coaches Poll, and second to Auburn in the nation in the final Associated Press Poll, in 1957.
As Auburn was on probation and did not play in a bowl game, Ohio State is generally considered a national champion for 1957.
In 1958, Houston caught four passes for 127 yards (again leading Ohio State in receiving yards).
Ohio State had a 6-1-2 record in 1958.
In 1959, Houston caught 11 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns (leading or co-leading Ohio State in all three categories).
Houston had a 100-yard receiving game in a 30-24 Buckeyes win over Michigan State on October 31, 1959.
Ohio State stumbled to a 3-5-1 record in 1959.
While it is easiest to statistically measure Houston’s contribution to Ohio State as a receiver, Houston also was an excellent blocker on offense (particularly important as Ohio State was principally a running team) and a standout tackler on defense for Ohio State.
Based on his play on both offense and defense, Houston received numerous honors his last two years as a Buckeye.
In 1958, Houston was voted All-American by the Football Writers Association of America and the Central Press Association, first-team All-American by the Associated Press, second-team All-American by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, third-team All-American by United Press International, first-team All-Big 10 by the Associated Press, and second-team All-Big 10 by United Press International.
In 1959, Houston was voted All-American by Time magazine, first-team All-American by the Central Press Association, second-team All-American by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and United Press International, first-team All-Big 10 by the Associated Press, and first-team All-Big 10 by United Press International.
Houston was also durable in 1958 and 1959, averaging 56 minutes per game in those seasons.
Houston was named Ohio State’s team MVP for both 1958 and 1959 (one of just seven Buckeyes in history to be named team MVP in two seasons).
He was also team captain of the 1959 Ohio State team and ultimately graduated from Ohio State in 1961 with an education degree.
After his senior season, Houston played in two college all-star games, the East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl, before heading to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Houston was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 1960 NFL draft (as the eighth overall pick).
57 years ago @Browns picked first rounder & #8 overall, Jim Houston #82. Make some solid picks tonight like pops! @tylerhouston84 pic.twitter.com/IPtkelWknI
— Dave Houston (@DWHouston7) April 27, 2017
Houston was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League, but it was an easy decision for Houston to pick the Browns as his team.
“The fact that Cleveland was down the road, and I was born in Massillon meant there was no question where I wanted to go.”
Houston initially played left defensive end for the Browns.
In his rookie season in 1960, Houston played in all 12 games and started eight regular-season games for Cleveland.
The Browns had an 8-3-1 record in 1960 and ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed.
In 1961, Houston started all 14 regular-season games for the Browns.
He also had his first NFL regular-season fumble recovery.
The Browns had an 8-5-1 record in 1961 and ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed.
1962 was an interesting year in Houston’s NFL career because the Browns were not his only obligation.
Houston was called for military service.
On weekdays, Houston served as an infantry unit commander for the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
On weekends, Houston would fly to wherever the Browns were playing and serve on defense for Cleveland.
Houston’s dual commitments to the U.S. Army and the Browns earned him the nickname, “Mr. Dependable”.
In 1962, because of his dual commitments, Houston did not start a single regular-season game, although he played in all 14 regular-season games.
The Browns had a 7-6-1 record in 1962.
Their defense ranked third in the NFL in points allowed in 1962.
1963 marked two important changes that affected Houston’s NFL career.
First, Blanton Collier replaced Paul Brown as head coach of the Browns.
“A lot of our success came from the way Blanton Collier took over as coach when Paul Brown left after the ’62 season. Blanton was kind of a mathematician, or the guy that could set everyone down and say, ‘This is what we have to do to win.’ And we all wanted to win.”
Second, Collier moved Houston from defensive end to linebacker, where Houston was to play the rest of his career.
Collier wanted to take advantage of Houston’s speed and athleticism at left outside linebacker.
Houston appreciated the change in position, stating:
“Coach Collier needed more talent at the position, and I bought into it. The position change meant all I had to do was stay over the tight end if he was on my side. If he wasn’t, I pretty much had free reign. If the tight end was on my side, I’d pretty much beat him up and then go get the running back. That was more fun [compared to defensive end].”
In 1963, Houston started all 14 regular-season games for the Browns.
He had his first NFL regular-season interception (in a 20-6 Cleveland victory over the Los Angeles Rams on September 29, 1963) and also recovered another fumble in 1963.
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963.
Their defense again ranked third in the NFL in points allowed in 1963.
1964 turned out to be a great year for Cleveland.
In describing the Browns team, Houston stated:
“I was never on a team in high school or college that looked out for each other the way the guys on that football team did. It was such a come together thing for us.”
Houston was part of an excellent group of linebackers for the Browns in 1964, playing with Vince Costello at middle linebacker and Galen Fiss at right outside linebacker.
In describing the interaction among the linebackers, Houston stated:
“Fiss would call out the adjustments for us on defense. You’d [hear] him calling out codes, and you’d [hear] him yell out ‘Blue’. He called me ‘Blue’ instead of Jim or Houston.”
In 1964, Houston (playing in 14, and starting 13, regular season games) had two interceptions, including his first NFL regular season touchdown on a 42-yard interception return in a 38-24 Browns victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on November 29, 1964.
Houston averaged seven tackles per game during 1964.
The Browns won the NFL East Division title in 1964 with a 10-3-1 record and ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed in 1964.
The Browns advanced to the NFL championship game on December 27, 1964 against the Baltimore Colts.
With Houston starting at left outside linebacker, the Browns played their best defensive game of the year, shutting out the Colts 27-0.
Houston helped cover future Pro Football Hall of Famer Colts tight end John Mackey in the game; Mackey was held to just one catch for two yards.
Describing the game, Houston stated:
“Boy it was exciting, winning that ’64 game with Baltimore, because it was such a surprise to everyone. They were supposed to be the team with all the stars. They had Unitas and Raymond Berry and that great defensive unit. We had Jim Brown . . . and some other pretty good players like Ryan, Kelley and Gary Collins, and a pretty good defense of our own. I just remember as the game went on that all we were concerned about was having enough points to win. I never gave it a thought that we were shutting them out. Afterwards we all thought it was such a remarkable outcome . . . to beat a team that good and hold them scoreless.”
Houston received his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1964.
He also was voted first-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1964.
While 1964 was Houston’s only NFL championship, he continued to help the Browns make the playoffs for six of his remaining eight NFL years.
In 1965, Houston, starting 11, and playing 12, regular-season games, had two interceptions (both in a 27-24 Cleveland victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on December 19, 1965) and two fumble recoveries.
With an 11-3 record, the Browns again won the NFL East Division title in 1965.
The Browns ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed in 1965.
The Browns advanced to their second consecutive NFL championship game, but this time (with Houston starting the game at left outside linebacker) lost to the Green Bay Packers 23-12 on January 2, 1966.
In 1965, Houston received his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation.
He was also voted first-team All-Pro by United Press International, second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and the New York Daily News, and first-team All-Conference by the Sporting News.
For the 1966 season, Houston started 12, and played in all 14, regular-season games.
He had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 1966.
In a 33-21 Browns loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on December 11, 1966, Houston both scored a touchdown on a 10-yard fake field goal reception from Browns quarterback Jim Ninowski and intercepted a pass.
Houston also scored when he caught a pass from Ninowski for an extra point in a 49-17 Browns win over the Atlanta Falcons on October 30, 1966.
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1966, but failed to make the playoffs.
Cleveland ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed in 1966.
Houston was voted first-team All-Conference by the Sporting News in 1966.
He had two of his best NFL games in consecutive weeks during the 1967 season.
First, on December 3, 1967, in a 24-14 Cleveland victory over the New York Giants, Houston scored a touchdown on a 79-yard interception return.
Houston was named NFL Defensive Player of the Week for his play.
Second, on December 10, 1967, in a 20-16 Browns win over the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston scored a touchdown on an 18-yard interception return.
Houston was named (with two other players) NFL Defensive Player of the Week for his play.
For the 1967 season, starting and playing in 13 regular-season games, Houston intercepted three passes and recovered one fumble.
The Browns won the NFL Century Division title with a 9-5 record in 1967.
Cleveland lost in the divisional round of the playoffs in 1967 52-14 to the Dallas Cowboys on December 24, 1967; Houston started the game at left outside linebacker.
In 1968, Houston, starting all 14 regular-season games, intercepted three passes and recovered one fumble.
With a 10-4 record, the Browns again won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.
In 1969, Houston again started all 14 regular-season games and recovered one fumble.
The Browns won their third consecutive NFL Century Division title in 1969, finishing the season with a 10-3-1 record.
Cleveland ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed in 1969.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, on December 28, 1969, Cleveland, for the second consecutive year, defeated the Dallas Cowboys.
In the 38-14 win over Dallas, Houston started the game at left outside linebacker and intercepted a pass (his only NFL playoff game interception).
The following week, on January 4, 1970, the Browns were defeated 27-7 by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL championship game.
Houston again started the game at left outside linebacker, but was knocked out of the game while trying to tackle Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.
In 1969, Houston received his third Pro Bowl invitation.
In 1970 (and 1971), Houston began to play middle linebacker as well as left outside linebacker.
In the first game on ABC’s “Monday Night Football”, on September 21, 1970, Houston had his final NFL regular season interception, as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 31-21.
Fun seeing dad Jim Houston #82 @Browns last night on @MNFootball making this interception off Broadway Joe. I was 7 days old on this play 9/21/70 pic.twitter.com/DqzXJDuL9C
— Dave Houston (@DWHouston7) September 11, 2018
Houston also recovered one fumble in 1970, starting all 14 regular-season games.
Houston received his fourth and final Pro Bowl invitation in 1970.
In 1971, Houston scored his final points in an NFL regular-season game on a safety (tackling punter Bobby Walden in the end zone), as the Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-9 on November 7, 1971.
For the 1971 season, Houston started 11 games and played in all 14 regular-season games.
He recovered one fumble.
In 1971, the Browns had a 9-5 record and won the AFC Central Division title.
Cleveland ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed in 1971.
On December 26, 1971, with Houston starting at middle linebacker, the Browns lost in the divisional round of the playoffs 20-3 to the Baltimore Colts.
In 1972, Houston started only three, and played in all 14, regular-season games.
Houston played at middle linebacker in 1972.
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1972, earning a “wildcard” spot in the NFL playoffs.
Cleveland ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed in 1972.
In Houston’s final NFL game, Cleveland lost 20-14 to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the divisional round of the playoffs on December 24, 1972.
After the 1972 season, Houston retired from the NFL at age 35.
The Years After the NFL
After his retirement, Houston pursued a career in insurance and securities.
He also operated a local machine company and co-owned a gas station and car wash.
Houston was also involved with various charitable work, including with the Boys and Girls Club.
After Houston and his first wife divorced, Houston married his second wife, Donna, in 1998.
Donna and Houston met at the United Methodist Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
“He never said anything about being a former player or anything. Finally, someone in the congregation told me that he was the most eligible bachelor at the church and I should pay attention to him.”
Houston stayed in Ohio after his retirement, including that he lived in the Cleveland suburb of Moreland Hills, Ohio.
In 1979, Houston was inducted into the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame.
Houston was chosen in 2000 by the Touchdown Club of Columbus as a member of the Ohio State Football All-Century Team in 2000 (at defensive end).
In 2002, Houston was named to the inaugural class of the Stark County High School Hall of Fame.
In 2005, Houston was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Houston was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2006.
Jim Houston, the only (known) football player to win a high school state championship (Massillon HS), college football national championship (Ohio State), & pro football championship (Cleveland Browns) all in the same state has passed away. Him & my grandpa we’re good buddies
— Brian Merriman Jr. (@BMerr_3Zero) September 14, 2018
Houston was named a “Distinguished Citizen” by Massillon Washington High School in 2010.
Given to “graduates who have changed their world, country and career fields for the better”, the “Distinguished Citizen” designation is considered Massillon Washington High School’s most coveted honor.
On September 11, 2018, Houston died at the age of 80 from complications of dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“ALS”) disease.
Besides his wife, Donna, Houston was survived by four children, three stepchildren, and 13 grandchildren.
An obituary of Houston states:
“If you knew Jim, he was always ready to stop and carry on a conversation with a willing soul. Jim was full of life and laughter, and always had big smiles, big hugs, and firm handshakes. He loved sitting in his courtyard with his wife drinking coffee and reading the paper. He followed the Browns and Buckeyes with great enthusiasm.”
On his death, Houston donated his brain and spinal cord to the Boston University Concussion Legacy Foundation to help in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”).
It is thought that concussions and other blows to the head from playing football can cause CTE.
In 2020, it was announced that Houston had suffered from “Stage 3” CTE.
On this day two years ago, Jim Houston of the Cleveland Browns passed away and has CTE after his death. Wally Hilgenberg, Ken Stabler, George Andrie and others had CTE. pic.twitter.com/a615paGZtS
— Destiny Hogue (@Dah15destiny) September 11, 2020
For many Browns fans, it will be Houston’s Pro Bowl play at linebacker, including that helped Cleveland win its last NFL championship in 1964, that will be his football legacy.
However, if Houston’s donation of his brain and spinal cord can help researchers learn how to minimize the risk of future football players suffering from CTE, that would be his greatest football legacy.
Dale McMillin says
What I knew of Jim Houston was more through his son who was a good friend of my son. They had good times and serious times. The crew who put this essay and memories together were and still are a special breed of characters who like Jim Houston have contributed through their families and their values, and still knew how to have a really good time.