While the Cleveland Browns have had many great players, one position at which the Browns have had multiple players who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is running back.
Brown, Mitchell, and Kelly each had the fortune of playing with John Wooten.
Playing nine years with the Browns at right guard and left guard, Wooten’s blocking contributed to the success of Brown, Mitchell, and Kelly and Cleveland’s offense.
Wooten received Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and started on Cleveland’s 1964 NFL championship team.
— Downtown Browns (@DowntownBrowns_) July 12, 2020
We take a look at the life of John Wooten – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
John B. Wooten was born on December 5, 1936 in Riverview, Texas.
He was the youngest of six children.
When Wooten was a child, his “single parent” mother, Henrietta, moved the family to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Carlsbad is located in southeastern New Mexico, near the Texas border.
Wooten attended a segregated Carver School in Carlsbad.
The school was too small to field a football team.
While Wooten was attracted to football games at all-white Carlsbad High School, because of segregation, he could not attend school there.
“On Friday night, I didn’t have the money to go to the game. But I would stand by the fence. At halftime, they would let us in.”
Fortunately for Wooten, Carlsbad High School decided to integrate just in time for the beginning of Wooten’s high school football career.
“Otherwise I would have gone to a segregated high school and probably wouldn’t have made it anywhere. That gave me the opportunity to play football; my first time was as a sophomore in 1952.”
Wooten played tackle at Carlsbad High School.
He earned All-State honors in football as a senior in 1954.
He also starred in basketball, helping Carlsbad High School win two state basketball championships and also receiving All-State honors in basketball as a senior.
Wooten was recruited for college by such schools as University of Colorado, Dartmouth College, UCLA, University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, and Florida A&M University.
He seriously considered going to Dartmouth to receive an Ivy League education, but his mother thought New Hampshire was too far away.
Colorado’s freshman football coach, Hugh Davidson, recruited Wooten.
“My mom just loved him, and really it came down to him and my mom being the main reasons I chose CU. . . . Whatever she felt and saw in Coach Davidson I trusted in her as to where I should go. The minute he walked in our house, we knew. And once I saw the outstanding campus, there was no turning back.”
“His mom was very positive, a lovely lady, and John was a very good student. I knew we’d welcome him in Boulder if he wanted to come, and the interest was mutual right from the start.”
In 1955, after graduating from Carlsbad High School, Wooten headed to Boulder, Colorado to attend Colorado.
At Colorado, Wooten started on the offensive line for three seasons from 1956 to 1958.
Wooten was only the second African American varsity football player in Colorado history.
He was nicknamed at Colorado the “Sun Devil”.
“I like the sun and I try to be a regular devil out there on the football field.”
On October 27, 1956, Wooten’s play helped Colorado rush for 363 yards on 51 rushing attempts, in a 16-0 Buffaloes shutout of Nebraska.
In the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1957, Wooten’s blocking helped Colorado rush for 279 yards on 52 rushing attempts, as Colorado defeated Clemson 27-21.
Wooten also made a key play in the game when he recovered an attempted onside kick by Clemson.
Colorado had an 8-2-1 record in 1956 and was ranked 20th in the final Associated Press poll.
The Buffaloes averaged 26.7 points per game in 1956, which was the sixth highest amount among 111 college football teams in 1956.
In 1957, Wooten helped Colorado rush for over 400 yards in three games – a 42-14 defeat of Kansas State on October 19, 1957 (478 yards on 58 rushing attempts), a 27-0 shutout of Nebraska on November 16, 1957 (404 yards on 70 rushing attempts), and a 38-21 victory over Iowa State on November 23, 1957 (427 yards on 58 rushing attempts).
Wooten received first team All-Big Seven honors in 1957 from the Associated Press.
Colorado posted a 6-3-1 record in 1957.
The Buffaloes led the nation in rushing (an average of 322.4 “net rushing yards” per game) and were second in the nation in total offense (an average of 415.2 “total net yards” per game) in 1957.
On October 18, 1958, in a 65-12 Colorado win over Arizona, Wooten’s play helped Colorado rush for 551 yards on 66 rushing attempts.
Wooten earned All-American honors in 1958 from the American Football Coaches Association.
Colorado sports information director Fred Cassotti described Wooten as a “quick, agile tackle that provided bone-crushing lead blocks”.
In 1958, Colorado had a 6-4 record.
On August 14, 1959, Wooten appeared in the 1959 College All-Star game against the defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts.
Wooten enjoyed his time at Colorado, stating:
“I always felt that I made a great decision to go to Colorado, I had a great time, and forged many relationships which still exist today.”
After graduating from Colorado in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Education, Wooten headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Wooten was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 5th round of the 1959 NFL draft (with the 53rd overall pick).
He was excited to play for the Browns.
“The thing was that going to Cleveland, with the history of the Browns back in those days, to go there, and be in that huddle and be standing next to guys like the great Lou Groza (left tackle) and the great Jim Brown, and realize that you were playing with these men. I never dreamed that one day I would be playing in the NFL, much less on a team with pro Hall of Fame members next to you.”
As a rookie in 1959 (playing at a height of six feet and two inches and a weight of 235 pounds), Wooten played in all 12 regular season games and started one regular season game.
His play contributed to Jim Brown leading the NFL in the 1959 regular season in both rushing yards (1,329) and rushing touchdowns (14).
In addition, Cleveland’s offense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1959 third in points scored (270), fourth in total passing and rushing yards (4,015), first in rushing yards (2,149), first in rushing touchdowns (20), and tied for second in average yards per rushing attempt (4.7).
The Browns had a 7-5 record in 1959 and failed to make the playoffs.
In 1960, Wooten played in all 12, but did not start any, regular season games.
He recovered a fumble in 1960.
Wooten contributed to Jim Brown again leading the NFL in the 1960 regular season in rushing yards (1,257).
The Browns offense also ranked in the NFL regular season in 1960 first in points scored (362), third in passing touchdowns (22), third in rushing yards (1,930), third in rushing touchdowns (18), and first in average yards per rushing attempt (5.0).
Cleveland had an 8-3-1 record, but failed to make the playoffs, in 1960.
With Wooten at right guard, Jim Brown again led the NFL in the 1961 regular season in rushing yards (1,408).
In addition, Cleveland’s offense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1961 second in fewest sacks allowed (21) and second in rushing yards (2,163).
In 1961, the Browns failed to make the playoffs with an 8-5-1 record.
Wooten played in all 14, and started nine, regular season games at right guard in 1962.
Cleveland’s offense, with Wooten’s play, ranked in the NFL regular season in 1962 second in fewest sacks allowed (27) and third in rushing touchdowns (18).
The Browns posted a 7-6-1 record in 1962 and failed to make the playoffs.
In 1963, Wooten moved from right guard to left guard.
He started all 14 regular season games in 1963.
With Wooten at left guard, Jim Brown led the NFL in the 1963 regular season in all of rushing yards (1,863), rushing touchdowns (12), and average yards per rushing attempt (6.4).
The Browns offense also ranked in the NFL regular season in 1963 third in points scored (343), third in passing touchdowns (27), third in fewest sacks allowed (25), first in rushing yards (2,639), tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (15), and first in average yards per rushing attempt (5.7).
Cleveland had a 10-4 record in 1963, but failed to make the playoffs.
Wooten again started all 14 regular season games at left guard in 1964.
While most of the focus on Wooten concerns his contribution to Cleveland’s rushing attack, he also helped the Browns passing offense have various great games.
In a 52-20 Cleveland win over the New York Giants on December 12, 1964, Browns quarterbacks Frank Ryan and Jim Ninowski combined to complete 16 passes in 19 attempts for 254 “net pass yards” and six touchdowns.
Jim Brown, helped by Wooten, led the NFL in the 1964 regular season in both rushing yards (1,446) and average yards per rushing attempt (5.2).
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 25, 2021
Cleveland’s offense also ranked in the NFL regular season in 1964 second in points scored (415), third in total passing and rushing yards (4,486), first in passing touchdowns (28), second in fewest sacks allowed (28), third in rushing yards (2,163), and first in average yards per rushing attempt (5.0).
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title in 1964, with a 10-3-1 record.
The Browns advanced to play the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game on December 27, 1964.
With Wooten starting the game at left guard, Cleveland gained 339 total passing and rushing yards, including that Jim Brown rushed for 114 yards on 27 rushing attempts and Browns flanker Gary Collins caught five passes for 130 yards (and three touchdowns).
The Browns shut out the Colts 27-0, winning Cleveland’s first NFL championship in nine years.
In recalling the game, Wooten said:
“[I]n ’64 to beat one of the great teams in NFL history to win the title makes me feel all the more blessed. They were favored to . . . beat us by three touchdowns, but we shut out that great offensive machine . . . To beat them 27-0 has always been a great memory and is something that stays with you forever.”
In 1965, Wooten played in all 14, and started 13, regular season games at left guard.
Wooten was part of a Browns offense that rushed for over 200 yards in five regular season games in 1965 – a 35-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on October 3, 1965 (239 yards on 43 rushing attempts, including 133 yards on 27 rushing attempts by Jim Brown), a 24-19 defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 9, 1965 (232 yards on 45 rushing attempts, including 168 yards on 29 rushing attempts by Jim Brown), a 38-14 victory over the New York Giants on October 24, 1965 (243 yards on 43 rushing attempts, including 177 yards on 24 rushing attempts by Jim Brown), a 34-21 win over the Giants on November 14, 1965 (232 yards on 32 rushing attempts, including 156 yards on 20 rushing attempts by Jim Brown), and a 42-21 defeat of the Steelers on November 28, 1965 (241 yards on 42 rushing attempts, including 146 yards on 20 rushing attempts by Jim Brown).
Wooten received his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1965.
He was also named in 1965 first team All-Conference by the Sporting News.
With Wooten’s blocking, Jim Brown (who retired after the 1965 season) led the NFL in the 1965 regular season in both rushing yards (1,544) and rushing touchdowns (17).
In addition, the Browns offense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1965 tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (23), first in rushing yards (2,331), tied for third in rushing touchdowns (19), and first in average yards per rushing attempt (4.9).
The Browns had an 11-3 record and again won the NFL East Division title in 1965.
Cleveland played the Green Bay Packers in the 1965 NFL championship game on January 2, 1966.
Wooten started the game at left guard, but Cleveland lost to the Packers 23-12.
For eight of the nine seasons that Wooten played guard for the Browns, Pro Football Hall of Famer Gene Hickerson also played guard for Cleveland.
Wooten and Hickerson, when playing together, formed one of the best guard combinations in the NFL.
“Gene and I felt we were the best guard tandem. The proof was in the pudding. Our guy was the leading rusher, and when Jim [Brown] retired, Leroy Kelly took up the banner.”
In 1966, Wooten started all 14 regular season games at left guard.
On October 2, 1966, Wooten’s blocking helped Cleveland rush for 258 yards on 46 rushing attempts, including that Leroy Kelly rushed for 138 yards on 20 rushing attempts, as the Browns defeated the New York Giants 28-7.
The following week, on October 8, 1966, Wooten helped the Browns rush for 241 yards on 43 rushing attempts, in a 41-10 Cleveland victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Leroy Kelly rushed for 113 yards on 19 rushing attempts, and Browns running back Ernie Green rushed for 103 yards on 16 rushing attempts.
For the second consecutive year, Wooten received a Pro Bowl invitation in 1966.
In addition, Wooten was named first team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers of America and the New York Daily News.
With Wooten’s play, Leroy Kelly led the NFL in the 1966 regular season in both rushing touchdowns (15) and average yards per rushing attempt (5.5).
Cleveland’s offense also ranked in the NFL regular season in 1966 second in points scored (403), second in total passing and rushing yards (5,071), first in passing touchdowns (33), tied for second in fewest sacks allowed (29), first in rushing yards (2,166), tied for third in rushing touchdowns (18), and first in average yards per rushing attempt (5.2).
In 1966, Cleveland had a 9-5 record, but failed to make the playoffs.
Wooten again started all 14 regular season games at left guard in 1967.
Wooten helped Leroy Kelly lead the NFL in the 1967 regular season in all of rushing yards (1,205), rushing touchdowns (11), and average yards per rushing attempt (5.1).
In addition, the Browns offense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1967 first in rushing yards (2,139) and first in average yards per rushing attempt (4.8).
Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title in 1967, with a 9-5 record.
The Browns advanced to a divisional round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys on December 24, 1967.
Wooten started the game at left guard, but Cleveland lost to Dallas 52-14.
The playoff game against Dallas turned out to be Wooten’s last game with Cleveland.
In July, 1968, the Browns waived Wooten.
Wooten signed with the Washington Redskins and started all 14 regular season games at left guard for Washington in 1968.
After being waived by Washington in 1969, Wooten retired from playing in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Wooten married Juanita.
They had five children.
After Wooten retired as an NFL player, he remained active in NFL activities.
In 1975, Wooten was hired as a scout by the Dallas Cowboys.
He worked for the Cowboys until 1991, being promoted to Director of Pro Personnel in 1980.
Wooten worked for the NFL in 1991, creating player development programs in such areas as financial planning, family assistance, and continuing education.
Wooten next worked for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1992 to 1998 as Vice President of Player Personnel.
In 1998, Wooten moved to the Baltimore Ravens where he worked as Assistant Director of Pro and College Scouting until 2000 and as a consultant until 2003.
Wooten was Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance from 2003 to 2019.
— Chantale Lussier (@Dr_Lussier) February 28, 2019
The Fritz Pollard Alliance promotes minority hiring in coaching, scouting, and front office positions.
So proud of SMWW Faculty, John Wooten, who is retiring as the Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance! We thank you for your longstanding commitment to Equality and Fairness! He will continue as teacher of our FB GM and Scouting Course. We are very Lucky to have him! #NFL pic.twitter.com/Me9TbtF95J
— SMWW 🌎 #SMWWProud (@SMWW) February 28, 2019
It has been involved with the implementation of the “Rooney Rule”, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and significant front office jobs.
“All along the way, I had hundreds of people help me. That’s why the Fritz Pollard organization is so important, it’s about giving back.”
In terms of “giving back”, Wooten has been involved with such activities as serving on the National Minority Economic Development Council, the Cleveland City Planning Commission, and the Board of Directors of Big Brothers in Cleveland.
He received the City of Cleveland’s William O. Walker Community Excellence Award in 2002 and the National Football Foundation Gridiron Club of Dallas’ Distinguished Texan Award in 2013.
Wooten was also a driving force encouraging the NFL to penalize the use of racial slurs on the field.
For his playing career, Wooten was inducted into the CU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
In 2010, Wooten was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
Wooten was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Congrats to John Wooten … inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame tonight! pic.twitter.com/5MXwFnaUFM
— David Plati (@davidplati) April 19, 2018
With the Browns, Wooten fulfilled the goal of every offensive lineman – he made the offensive players around him excel.
In seven of Wooten’s nine seasons with Cleveland, a Browns running back led the NFL in regular season rushing yards.
In five of Wooten’s nine seasons with Cleveland, the Browns offense ranked first, second, or third in the NFL in regular season points.
Perhaps most importantly, Wooten’s blocking helped the Browns win their last NFL championship in 1964.
Whether helping Cleveland’s offense or his community, John Wooten presents a strong role model on how an NFL athlete should both play during his career and act after his career is over.