In recalling the great Cleveland Browns teams in the NFL from 1950 to 1957 (seven NFL championship games, and three NFL championships, in eight years), Browns fans may focus on the offensive stars on the team, such as Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Marion Motley, and Dante Lavelli.
However, Browns fans should not forget that the team’s success was also due to an outstanding defense.
A key player on those Browns defenses was Len Ford.
A defensive end who was especially effective at rushing the passer and getting turnovers, Ford is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
We take a look at the life of Len Ford – before, during, and after his Cleveland Browns career.
The Early Years Through High School
Leonard Guy Ford, Jr. was born on February 18, 1926 in Washington, D.C.
Ford’s parents were both Virginia natives.
His father, Leonard G. Ford, Sr., worked for the Federal government, including as a printing operator at the Government Printing Office.
His mother, Jeraldine, worked as a social worker.
Ford had a older sister, Anita, and a younger brother, Claude.
Ford grew up in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C.
He attended Birney Elementary School and Shaw Junior High.
Ford’s childhood was during the Depression.
Like for many boys at that time, sports was an outlet providing an activity to keep him occupied.
However, Ford (known to his friends as “Lennie”) stood out among other boys, as he was taller, stronger, and more powerful than other boys.
Ford played sports growing up with the Police Boys Club.
Armstrong Technical High School
Ford attended Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C..
While he majored in automobile mechanics at the high school, Ford’s high school fame came from sports.
Ford was a sports star, earning nine letters in sports.
He captained the football, baseball, and basketball teams and was “All-City” in all three sports.
Ford’s favorite sport was football.
His high school football coach, Theodore McIntyre, described Ford as:
“a boy who dreamed of football instead of cowboys and indians”.
Ford had first developed an interest in football while watching the Washington Redskins practice (a short distance from his home).
Ford had wanted to play fullback, but he was considered too big for the position.
He played receiver and on defense in high school.
Ford also was interested in a baseball career.
If Jackie Robinson had decided to break major league baseball’s “color barrier” a few years earlier (he did in 1947), Ford may well have been encouraged to play baseball.
Instead, Ford decided to pursue a career in football.
He headed from high school to college with the belief:
“I can play for any team in the country if they will only give me the chance”.
The College Years
Morgan State University
Coach Theodore McIntyre suggested that Ford attend Morgan State University.
After his graduation from high school, Ford headed to the historically African-American college in Baltimore in February, 1944.
Ford immediately joined the basketball team upon enrolling at Morgan State.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) January 9, 2020
He played center and helped Morgan State win its league championship in 1944.
In the fall of 1944, Ford joined the football team.
At Morgan State, as in high school, Ford played on offense and defense.
He was “All-League” in 1944.
Morgan State had a 6-1 record in 1944, outscoring its opponents by a total score of 218 to 5 (including five shutouts).
Morgan State won the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association and was recognized as “black college” national champion.
Ford played only the 1944 season at Morgan State.
Ford left Morgan State to join the U.S. Navy in 1945.
However, Ford was only briefly in the military, as World War II ended.
When Ford returned from military service, he decided to transfer to the University of Michigan because he hoped “to get a shot at playing in the Rose Bowl some day”.
University of Michigan
Ford was at Michigan from 1945 to 1947, playing offense (at left end) and defense.
In 1945, Ford was mostly a back-up.
On offense, he caught two passes for 59 yards, and had one rush for two yards.
In 1946, Ford saw more playing time, including that he started four games.
On offense in 1946, Ford had 11 pass receptions for 213 yards, and six rushes for 78 yards.
Ford was also recognized for his defensive play.
A November 14, 1946 article in “The Michigan Daily” stated:
“Ford’s figure can usually be seen right where all the action is, boring in for those jarring tackles he’s so well known for. In fact the times are numerous when he has tackled opposing backs from behind who were on their way for long gains. . . . a bulwark on defense . . . This business of punching at the ball is a favorite pastime of the big end [Ford] and has resulted in several opposition fumbles this year”.
Ford was selected as a “3rd Team All-American” (at end) by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1946.
In Ford’s final year as a Wolverine, in 1947, Michigan had what is considered one of their greatest teams ever.
Michigan went undefeated during its regular season with a 9-0 record.
Michigan then fulfilled Ford’s goal of playing in the Rose Bowl, with a 49-0 trouncing of USC in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1948.
With a 10-0 final record, Michigan was ranked second in the nation in the final Associated Press (“AP”) poll (undefeated Notre Dame was ranked first).
On offense in 1947, Ford had three catches for 111 yards and six rushes for 15 yards.
Ford’s play on defense helped Michigan record five shutouts during 1947, including a 21-0 shutout of rival Ohio State on November 22, 1947.
In describing Ford’s performance in the Ohio State game, “The Michigan Daily” stated:
“For the defense it was big Len Ford, who sparked a forward wall that never let the Bucks threaten. His end was practically impregnable. He smashed Ohio interference time and again, he continually harassed . . . the Ohio passers, and he made life miserable for Pete Perini, blocking one punt and rushing the Buckeye booter on nearly all of his kicks”.
Ford’s stellar play earned him several “All-American” honors (at end) in 1947.
Ford was selected as a “2nd Team All-American” by the United Press and the Central Press Association, and a “3rd Team All-American” by the AP.
In addition, Ford was selected as a “2nd Team All-Big Nine” (predecessor to the Big 10) by the United Press, the International News Service, and AP.
— GoBlue🏈Today (@GoBlue365) March 14, 2020
After playing in the “College All-Star Game”, Ford looked ahead to a pro football career.
The Pro Football Years
Los Angeles Dons
Ford’s professional football career did not begin in the NFL.
As NFL teams did not yet select African Americans (the first African American to be drafted by an NFL team was George Taliaferro in 1949), Ford was not selected in the 1948 NFL draft.
However, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dons in the third round of the 1948 All-America Football Conference draft (14th pick overall).
Ford signed with the Dons in April, 1948.
Ford played for the Dons in 1948 and 1949, again playing on both sides of the ball.
On September 10, 1948, Ford scored his first professional touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Glenn Dobbs in a 17-7 Dons victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On October 8, 1948, Ford scored two touchdowns, on eight-yard and 40-yard passes from Dobbs, as the Dons defeated the Chicago Rockets 49-28.
Ford closed out his rookie season with another two touchdowns (on seven-yard and 11-yard passes from Dobbs) on December 5, 1948, as the Dons lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38-21.
For the 1948 season, Ford started 10 (of 14) games for the Dons at right end and caught 31 passes for 598 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ford also intercepted one pass.
As a little-known fact about Ford, between the 1948 and 1949 football seasons, Ford played basketball for the Dayton Rens, an African-American professional team in the National Basketball League.
As a forward and center, Ford played six games and scored six points.
Returning to the Dons for the 1949 season, on October 28, 1949, Ford caught eight passes for 126 yards, helping the Dons defeat the Chicago Hornets 24-14.
In 1949, Ford started eight (of 12) games at right end for the Dons and caught 36 passes for 577 yards and one touchdown.
Ford again intercepted one pass (which he returned for 45 yards).
Len Ford comes up with the INT inside the 10. pic.twitter.com/tWYpzycVaN
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 12, 2020
Ford had large hands, and he used them to make several leaping, one-handed catches for the Dons.
His coach on the Dons, Jimmy Phelan, said of Ford:
“Len can become the greatest all-around end in history. He has everything – great size, speed, strength, great hands.”
As neither sack nor tackle statistics were kept when Ford played, it is hard to measure Ford’s specific contribution on defense to the Dons in 1948 and 1949.
However, even in his first two professional seasons, Ford began to develop a reputation as an excellent defender.
One story that typifies Ford’s defensive play for the Dons was when Ford tackled Spec Sanders, the top rusher in the All-America Football Conference, by grabbing a New York Yankees blocker, lifting him into the air, and throwing him backward into Sanders to knock him down.
The Dons failed to make the playoffs in either of Ford’s seasons, posting a 7-7 record in 1948 and a 4-8 record in 1949.
During these years, the Dons had little success against Ford’s future team, the Cleveland Browns, losing to them in all four games.
Cleveland Browns – 1950
1949 was the last year for the All-America Football Conference, which folded.
The Los Angeles Dons also disbanded.
The NFL held a special dispersal draft on June 2, 1950 for players on All-America Football Conference franchises, like the Dons, that were not absorbed into the NFL.
Ford was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round of the draft (the 25th overall pick).
Ford’s selection by the Browns was to change his future professional career in two key aspects.
First, with the Browns, unlike with the Dons, Ford was to play on a team that won games and won championships.
Ford was to play again on a winning team, as he did at Morgan State and Michigan.
Second, with the Browns, unlike with the Dons, Ford solely played on defense.
In fact, Ford never caught a pass in the NFL after joining the Browns.
The decision to play Ford solely on defense was made by Browns head coach Paul Brown for several reasons.
It was part of an increasing use of “two-platoon” systems in the NFL in the early 1950’s.
In addition, the Browns in 1950 already had excellent receivers in Dante Lavelli, Mac Speedie, and Dub Jones, and did not need to use Ford as a receiver.
However, the key reason was Ford’s special talent on defense.
Browns assistant coach (and future head coach) Blanton Collier said:
“He was so devastating on defense we knew this was his natural spot. Len was very aggressive and had that touch of meanness in him, that you find in most defensive players”.
Ford immediately started at right defensive end for the Browns in the first five games of the 1950 season.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) February 13, 2020
However, in his fifth game, a 34-24 Browns victory over the Chicago Cardinals on October 15, 1950, Ford suffered a serious injury.
Ford was elbowed in the face by Cardinals running back Pat Harder.
Ford broke his nose, fractured both cheekbones, and lost several teeth.
The severe injury required plastic surgery to repair.
Len Ford of the Cleveland Browns with a custom facemask to protect a broken jaw. pic.twitter.com/2UgXc9Mu9t
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) July 24, 2017
Ford had to go on a liquid diet to eat for six weeks and lost 20 pounds.
It appeared that Ford would be out for the remainder of the 1950 season.
The Browns had a 10-2 record in the regular season and defeated the New York Giants (8-3 on December 17, 1950) in a “playoff tie-breaker” game to advance to the NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 24, 1950.
Notwithstanding his injury, Ford was fitted with a special cage to protect his face and played for the first time in over two months in the championship game.
Entering the game in the second quarter, Ford played an excellent game.
He tackled Rams runners for big losses on several plays and sacked and otherwise pressured Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, helping the Browns win their first NFL championship 30-28.
Cleveland Browns – 1951-1954
Recovered from his injury, Ford started all 13 regular season and playoff games played by the Browns in 1951.
In fact, Ford was to start every regular season and playoff game played by the Browns for the remainder of his time in Cleveland (1951 through 1957).
Ford recovered four fumbles in 1951.
Ford was to recover 21 fumbles throughout his NFL career.
He was a key factor as the Browns defense posted four shutouts in 1951.
— Goat Jerseys (@GoatJerseys) December 6, 2018
The Browns, with an 11-1 record, again advanced to the NFL championship game, but this time lost to the Los Angeles Rams 24-17 on December 23, 1951.
Ford’s play in 1951 at right defensive end was recognized with “1st Team All-Pro” honors from the New York Daily News, United Press International (“UPI”), and AP.
In addition, Ford received his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1951 at right defensive end.
Ford, who wore uniform number 53 his first two years with the Browns, changed his uniform number to 80 in 1952 for his remaining six years with the Browns.
In 1952, Ford recovered two fumbles.
One of these fumble recoveries resulted in Ford’s only NFL touchdown – a first-quarter fumble recovery in the end zone as part of Cleveland’s 49-7 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles on October 19, 1952.
In 1952, the Browns, after an 8-4 record, again advanced to the NFL championship game, but again lost the title game, this time to the Detroit Lions 17-7 on December 28, 1952.
Ford in 1952 was again selected as a “1st Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by the New York Daily News, UPI, and AP.
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) August 9, 2018
Ford also received his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1952 at right defensive end.
In 1953, Ford recovered three fumbles and intercepted a pass during the regular season.
With an 11-1 record, for the fourth consecutive year, the Browns advanced to the NFL championship game, but for the third consecutive year lost the title game, this time to the Detroit Lions 17-16 on December 27, 1953.
Ford recovered a fumble and was credited with one-half of a sack in the game.
In 1953, for the third consecutive year, Ford was selected as a “1st Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by the New York Daily News, UPI, and AP, and received a Pro Bowl invitation at right defensive end.
In 1954, Ford recovered five fumbles (his best total for any year).
Ford also scored a safety (tackling quarterback Zeke Bratkowski in the end zone) on November 14, 1954, in a 39-10 Cleveland win over the Chicago Bears.
The Browns had a 9-3 record in 1954, and for the fifth consecutive year, the Browns advanced to the NFL championship game.
Unlike the prior three years, in 1954, the Browns won the NFL championship, routing the Detroit Lions 56-10 on December 26, 1954.
Ford had two interceptions in the game and returned one of them for 45 yards (an NFL playoff record at the time).
For the fourth consecutive year, in 1954, Ford was selected as a “1st Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by the New York Daily News, UPI, and AP, and received a Pro Bowl invitation at right defensive end.
Ford also was honored as a “2nd Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by the Sporting News.
Cleveland Browns – 1955-1957
In 1955, Ford recovered another fumble and returned it for 54 yards (his longest fumble return).
The Browns won a second consecutive NFL championship in 1955, finishing the regular season with a 9-2-1 record and then defeating the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL title game 38-14 on December 26, 1955.
Ford had an interception in the game.
For his play in 1955, Ford was selected as a “1st Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by the New York Daily News, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and UPI, and as a “2nd Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by AP.
In 1956, Ford principally played at left defensive end.
He recovered two additional fumbles.
1956 was Ford’s only losing year with the Browns, which finished the season with a 5-7 record.
In 1956, Ford was selected as a “2nd Team All-Pro” at left defensive end by the New York Daily News.
1957 turned out to be Ford’s final year with the Browns.
He returned to his right defensive end position and recovered one additional fumble.
The Browns rebounded in 1957 with a 9-2-1 record and again advanced to the NFL championship game.
However, in what turned out to be Ford’s final game with Cleveland, the Detroit Lions defeated the Browns 59-14, on December 29, 1957.
In 1957, Ford was selected as a “2nd Team All-Pro” at right defensive end by UPI.
To some extent in 1956 and certainly by 1957, Ford’s skills began to slowly decline.
In 1957, Ford was age 31 and was bothered by a severely bruised shoulder.
In May 1958, the Browns traded Ford to the Green Bay Packers for a 1959 fourth-round draft choice.
Ford played for the Packers in 1958, starting eight games.
He then retired from the NFL at age 32.
The Years After the NFL
Ford married Geraldine Bledsoe Ford in 1951.
They divorced in 1959.
They had two children, Anita and Debra.
Ford’s wife was a lawyer and later became the first African-American woman to serve as a judge in Michigan.
Perhaps inspired by his wife’s career, after his retirement, Ford decided to become a lawyer.
He took classes for a year-and-a-half at the Detroit College of Law, but never continued with it long enough to obtain a law degree or law license.
After his retirement, Ford also sold real estate.
From 1963 until his death, Ford worked as the assistant director at Considine Recreation Center, the largest recreation center in Detroit.
Ford did not have an easy life after retirement.
He had physical issues and battled alcoholism.
At only the age of 46, Ford suffered a heart attack and died the following week on March 14, 1972.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 30, 2017
Pro Football Honors and NFL Legacy
On the NFL’s 50th anniversary in 1969, Ford was only surpassed by Gino Marchetti of the Baltimore Colts in voting for the NFL’s all-time greatest defensive end.
Ford and Marchetti were selected in 1969 as the two defensive ends on the NFL’s All-Pro Team of the 1950s.
In 1976, Ford posthumously became the first Cleveland Browns defensive player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ford’s high school coach, Theodore McIntyre, presented Ford for enshrinement.
Ford’s daughter, Debra, also spoke at the induction ceremony (on Ford’s behalf).
Ford’s Pro Football Hall of Fame webpage references his “exceptional pass-rushing skills” and includes the quotation from Ford:
“The result you get from any endeavor depends upon the effort you put into it.”
Besides being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ford was inducted into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1996.
Without sack statistics, it is difficult to measure how effective of a pass rusher Ford was.
However, one evidence of his pass-rushing skills is that the Browns modified their defense specifically to take advantage of them.
As Coach Blanton Collier stated:
“We . . . using a six-man defensive line at the time that Ford joined our club. But he was so outstanding that we knew we had to get him in close where his talents as a pass rusher could be best utilized. So we moved both tackles into the center and dropped the linebackers slightly back and outside. That might even have been the start of the 4-3 defense that everyone uses today”.
Ford’s defensive skills are also evidenced in how other teams viewed him.
A Detroit Lions scouting report issued in the mid-1950’s stated:
“LEN FORD – Really blows in. Does a lot of jumping over blockers. Does not predetermine this – if he sees a fellow going very low to block, he will jump over. Plays inside very tough. Must be blocked or he will kill the passer. . . . [T]here is no one in the league who can take him out alone”.
At 6’5” and approximately 260 pounds, Ford had the size to be a defensive end, while still retaining much of the speed that he had when he was also a receiver.
During Ford’s prime years, it apparently would not be an overstatement to compare Ford with such future NFL stars as Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor.
Ford’s individual defensive play was a key factor contributing to the success of the Browns defense.
During Ford’s eight years with the Browns, Cleveland’s defense each year ranked either first (1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, and 1957) or second (1950 and 1952) in fewest points allowed in the NFL.
While Ford died too young at the age of 46, Browns fans should keep his memory alive.
Whenever Myles Garrett makes a sack, Browns fans should remember Len Ford – the first great Cleveland pass rusher.