NFL defensive backs can help their teams win in various ways.
While all defensive backs need good pass coverage and tackling skills, defensive backs can most affect the outcome of games by intercepting passes and returning those interceptions for significant yardage and even touchdowns.
An interception can dramatically change game momentum, a long interception return can materially impact field position, and a “Pick-Six” will directly affect the final score.
For the Cleveland Browns, one of the best defensive backs at intercepting passes and returning them for long yardage and touchdowns was Ross Fichtner.
Football Appreciate Post: My Grandfather, my Papap. Ross Fichtner. 14 years of NFL experience between playing and coaching. #20, Safety, 1966 All Pro. 1964 World Champion with the Browns. A Big 10 Man. Being at Michigan has allowed me to spend more time with him! #Family pic.twitter.com/VuY5vtIdqo
— Nate Fichtner (@FichtnerNate) March 31, 2020
Fichtner was a key member of Cleveland’s last NFL championship team in 1964.
We take a look at the life of Ross Fichtner – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Ross William Fichtner was born on October 26, 1938 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
McKeesport is a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Fichtner attended McKeesport Area High School, graduating in 1956.
He played at quarterback and defensive back for the McKeesport Area High School football team.
Fichtner won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1956 Dapper Dan western Pennsylvania high school all-star game.
After high school, Fichtner left Pennsylvania for West Lafayette, Indiana to attend Purdue University.
Fichtner played football at Purdue and was a three-year letterman from 1957 to 1959.
At Purdue, as in high school, Fichtner played at quarterback and defensive back.
In 1957, Fichtner split the quarterback duties for Purdue with Bob Spoo.
Fichtner completed 23 of 58 passes for 355 yards, four touchdowns, and six interceptions in 1957.
On defense in 1957, Fichtner was part of a unit that shutout Northwestern 27-0 on November 16, 1957 and held two other opponents to single digits.
The Boilermakers had a 5-4 record in 1957.
Purdue did beat Michigan State (then ranked first in the nation by the Associated Press) 20-13 on October 19, 1957.
In 1958, Fichtner, who again shared the quarterback position with Spoo, completed 25 of 67 passes for 414 yards, four touchdowns, and four interceptions.
He also rushed for 130 yards on 31 rushing attempts in 1958.
Fichtner also contributed to a defense in 1958 that shutout both Nebraska 28-0 on September 27, 1958 and Rice 24-0 on October 4, 1958, and held three other opponents to less than 10 points.
Purdue finished the 1958 season with a 6-1-2 record and was ranked 13th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll.
Among the Boilermaker victories in 1958 was a 29-22 defeat of Notre Dame (then ranked 11th in the nation) on October 25, 1958.
In his senior year, in 1959, Fichtner split the quarterback duties with Bernie Allen.
Fichtner completed 12 of 30 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown in 1959.
He also rushed for 127 yards on 37 rushing attempts in 1959.
On defense in 1959, Fichtner helped the Boilermakers shutout both UCLA in a scoreless tie on September 18, 1959 and Wisconsin (then ranked ninth in the nation by the Associated Press) 21-0 on October 10, 1959 and hold four other opponents to single digits.
The Boilermakers had a 5-2-2 record in 1959.
One of Purdue’s wins in 1959 was a second consecutive defeat of Notre Dame (then ranked eighth in the nation) on October 3, 1959.
The Boilermakers won the game 28-7, and it was reported that Fichtner “played an outstanding game” at quarterback.
Fichtner was named the Boilermakers’ Most Valuable Player after his senior season in 1959.
Purdue is called the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” for its history of star quarterbacks.
Fichtner shares having played quarterback for the Boilermakers with such current and future College Football Hall of Famers and/or Pro Football Hall of Famers as Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, Mark Herrmann, and Drew Brees.
Fichtner played in the 1959 Blue-Gray All-Star game (Fichtner was the Most Valuable Player in the game) and the 1960 College All-Star game before heading to the NFL to continue his football career.
The Pro Football Years
In the 1960 NFL draft, Fichtner was drafted in the third round (the 33rd overall pick) by the Cleveland Browns.
In addition, Fichtner was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 1960 American Football League draft.
Fichtner (with a height of six feet and a weight of 180 pounds as a rookie in 1960) decided to play in the NFL and joined the Browns for the 1960 season.
While Fichtner played both quarterback and defensive back at Purdue, Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown only was interested in Fichtner playing in the Browns secondary.
However, Fichtner had a difficult time adjusting in the Browns defensive backfield.
“I knew I didn’t have a good enough arm to be a pro quarterback, but I thought I had a good shot on defense. Then for the first two years I was beside myself. I was thoroughly confused. . . . I played different positions, and I didn’t learn any of them well. It takes all your concentration to learn to play just one position on defense.”
In Fichtner’s first two seasons in 1960 and 1961, he was mostly a backup, playing both cornerback and safety.
Specifically, in 1960, he played in all 12 regular-season games, but started only one regular-season game, and in 1961, he played in 13, but started only two, regular-season games.
Cleveland’s defensive assistant coach Howard Brinker stated:
“We may have underestimated Ross a bit the first two years. He played in the college All-Star Game in 1960 and got a late start. When he came to camp he was so eager to make the team he looked a bit awkward. His feet would get tangled, and he even fell down a couple of times.”
The Browns had an 8-3-1 record in 1960 and an 8-5-1 record in 1961.
Fichtner started seeing more playing time in 1962 and responded with a solid season.
Principally playing at left safety (strong safety), Fichtner started 10 regular-season games and played in all 14 regular-season games.
In the opening game, on September 16, 1962, Fichtner had his first NFL regular-season interception.
He intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Famer Y.A. Title, as Cleveland defeated the New York Giants 17-7.
On September 30, 1962, Fichtner intercepted two passes in a 35-7 Browns loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Fichtner had another multiple interception game on October 21, 1962.
He intercepted Charley Johnson twice, as Cleveland defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 34-7.
In his second game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1962, a 14-14 Cleveland and Philadelphia tie on November 4, 1962, Fichtner intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen.
It gave Fichtner three regular-season interceptions against the Eagles in 1962.
In a 35-14 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 25, 1962, Fichtner intercepted his third future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback when he intercepted Bobby Layne.
For the 1962 regular season, Fichtner intercepted seven passes (tied for third in the NFL) and returned them for 76 yards.
The Browns had a 7-6-1 record in 1962.
Fichtner helped the Browns defense in 1962 rank third in the NFL in both fewest points allowed (257) and fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,924), and second in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed (1,984).
In part because of a tragic accident, Fichtner’s playing time increased even more in 1963.
Browns right safety (free safety) Don Fleming was electrocuted in a worksite accident before the 1963 season.
Fichtner moved over as safety to fill Fleming’s free safety position and started and played in 13 regular-season games in 1963.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate circumstances of Fleming’s death, Howard Brinker believed that the move to free safety helped Fichtner:
“I feel that free safety is best suited to Ross’s talents. In that spot you are more of a helper instead of having a lot of direct responsibility. Ross gets a good jump on the ball, and he’s an opportunist.”
On November 3, 1963, in a 23-17 Cleveland win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Fichtner had his fourth career regular-season interception against the Eagles (intercepting King Hill).
In a 27-17 Browns victory over the Dallas Cowboys on November 24, 1963, Fichtner scored his first NFL regular-season touchdown.
He intercepted Don Meredith and returned the interception for a 36-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.
In the 1963 regular season, Fichtner intercepted two passes (which he returned for 75 yards) and recovered one fumble.
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963.
Fichtner’s play contributed to Cleveland’s defense in 1963 ranking third in the NFL in fewest points allowed (262) and tied for third in the NFL in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.9).
1964 was a year marked by both a significant injury and a championship for Fichtner.
The season generally started well for Fichtner.
On September 20, 1964, in a 33-33 Cleveland tie with the St. Louis Cardinals, Fichtner intercepted Charley Johnson (his third career regular-season interception of Johnson).
The following week, Fichtner intercepted Norm Snead in a 28-20 Browns victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on September 27, 1964 (his fifth career regular-season interception against the Eagles).
However, the following week, on October 4, 1964, in a 27-6 Cleveland win over the Dallas Cowboys, Fichtner suffered the worst injury of his NFL career.
In trying to make a tackle, Fichtner was hit in the head by a knee and suffered a serious concussion.
He went into convulsions and then his body went limp.
“My teammates thought I’d died on the field. I don’t remember anything but I was told they stopped the game for over 20 minutes. They were praying on the sideline. When I woke up, my left eye had been knocked off its axis. I’d see my shoes and your face at the same time.”
He spent two weeks in the hospital and missed six games.
Fichtner returned to the Browns for the end of the season and helped Cleveland win the NFL East Division title with a 10-3-1 record.
It was Cleveland’s first division title since 1957.
Given his condition, it is impressive that Fichtner played at all.
“I played with double vision for the rest of the season. I’d have to turn my head so I could see one ball because if I were running, my left eye would bounce. If I didn’t get my right eye on the ball, I wouldn’t know which ball to catch. I probably came back too soon, but I wanted to play.”
Playing in only eight, and starting only six, regular-season games at free safety in 1964, Fichtner intercepted two passes, which he returned for 67 yards, and recovered one fumble.
Fichtner helped the Browns defense rank tied for second in the NFL in 1964 in fumbles recovered (21).
As division winners, Cleveland advanced to the 1964 NFL championship game on December 27, 1964 against the Baltimore Colts.
The Browns were significant underdogs to the Colts, including because the Colts offense featured such future Pro Football Hall of Famers as quarterback Johnny Unitas, running back Lenny Moore, wide receiver Raymond Berry, tight end John Mackey, and lineman Jim Parker.
However, the Browns shutout Baltimore 27-0, as Cleveland won its first NFL championship since 1955.
In recalling the game, Fichtner stated:
“We weren’t known as a defense that stuffed you. So I give coach Blanton Collier a lot of credit for preparing us for that game because he pushed about each guy on defense being responsible for our assignment. He told us to carry out the little detail and don’t worry about the other guy. Basically we concentrated on the little things. We came back in the second half and picked up and had a great game.”
Fichtner started the championship game at free safety in a Cleveland secondary that also included as starters Larry Benz at strong safety, Bernie Parrish at left cornerback, and Walter Beach at right cornerback.
The Browns defense forced four Colts turnovers, including two interceptions of Unitas, sacked Unitas twice, and held the Colts to only 89 “net” passing yards, in the game.
Fichtner still wears his 1964 championship ring.
“It was good we were at home. The Cleveland fans were pretty loud. It was one of the greatest days of my life. . . . I don’t wear my wedding ring. I wear my championship ring. [My wife] doesn’t mind. If she did, I’d have to put two rings on the same finger.”
In 1965, Fichtner started all 14 regular-season games (playing mostly at strong safety, with Larry Benz playing mostly at free safety).
On October 3, 1965, in a 35-17 Cleveland victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, Fichtner scored his second NFL regular-season touchdown on a 32-yard fourth-quarter interception return (his sixth career regular-season interception against the Eagles).
For the 1965 regular season, Fichtner intercepted four passes and returned them for 98 yards.
In 1965, Cleveland had an 11-3 record and again won the NFL East Division title.
The Browns advanced to the 1965 NFL championship game, but lost to the Green Bay Packers 23-12 on January 2, 1966 (with Fichtner starting the game at strong safety).
1966 probably was Fichtner’s best individual season in the NFL.
In the opening game, on September 11, 1966, Fichtner again intercepted Sonny Jurgensen, as Cleveland defeated the Washington Redskins 38-14.
Fichtner extended his interception streak to four consecutive games on October 23, 1966 in a 30-21 Browns win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Having probably the best individual game of his NFL career, Fichtner intercepted Don Meredith three times in the game (giving him five career regular-season interceptions of Meredith).
In a 33-21 Cleveland loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on December 11, 1966, Fichtner intercepted Jack Concannon and returned the interception for a 39-yard third-quarter touchdown.
It was Fichtner’s third NFL regular season touchdown (and seventh career regular-season interception against the Eagles).
For the 1966 regular season, Fichtner played in 14, and started 13, regular-season games, rotating (with Ernie Kellerman) between strong safety and right safety.
In 1966, Fichtner intercepted eight passes (ranked tied for second in the NFL), which he returned for 152 yards.
In describing his interceptions, Fichtner was humble.
“They’re nice, but you have to figure they’re 80% to 90% luck. The ball was thrown short or long or wide. If everyone on both the offensive and defensive teams do their jobs perfectly, the odds are the ball will be caught.”
Despite Fichtner’s humility, he began to be recognized for his performance in 1966.
For his three-interception October 23, 1966 game against the Cowboys, Fichtner was named NFL Defensive Player of the Week.
A November 21, 1966 Sports Illustrated article described Fichtner as “a defensive star” and stated:
“Pronounce his name Feektner, and remember it if the Browns struggle through to another title. He will deserve much of the credit.”
In 1966, Fichtner was voted second-team All-Pro by both the Associated Press and the New York Daily News.
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1966, but missed the playoffs.
Fichtner’s play helped the Browns defense lead the NFL in turnovers (49) and interceptions (30) in 1966.
In 1967, Fichtner played in 14, and started 12, regular-season games (playing mostly at free safety).
Fichtner had an interception in the opening game for the second consecutive year in 1967.
He intercepted Don Meredith (for his sixth career regular-season interception of Meredith) in a 21-14 Browns loss to the Dallas Cowboys on September 17, 1967.
On October 1, 1967, Fichtner intercepted a pass and returned it for his longest interception return in any NFL regular-season game, 88 yards, as the Browns defeated the New Orleans Saints 42-7.
The following week, Fichtner had two interceptions (his fourth multiple interception regular-season game) of Kent Nix in a 21-10 Cleveland victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 7, 1967.
In the 1967 regular season, Fichtner intercepted four passes, which he returned for 113 yards.
The Browns won the NFL Century Division title in 1967 with a 9-5 record and advanced to the playoffs.
However, on December 24, 1967 (with Fichtner starting the game at free safety), Cleveland lost to the Dallas Cowboys 52-14.
The playoff game against the Cowboys turned out to be Fichtner’s last game with the Browns.
Before the 1968 season, the Browns waived Fichtner.
It appears that Fichtner was waived not because of his playing ability, but rather because of an off-the-field incident.
Fichtner handled arrangements for a golf tournament and failed to invite African-American Browns players to the event.
The matter became an issue in the press, as Browns guard John Wooten (who was also waived by the Browns) accused Fichtner of prejudice, which Fichtner denied.
After his release from the Browns, Fichtner stated:
“[I] was shocked at the outcome of this situation. I understand the Browns’ position. I never really expected something like this to happen, and I’m awful sorry I won’t be playing for the Brown’s this year.”
Fichtner signed with the New Orleans Saints and played in four regular-season games (not starting any of them) for the Saints in 1968.
After the 1968 season, Fichtner retired from playing in the NFL at age 30.
The Years After the NFL
Fichtner has been married to Karen since 1973.
One of Fichtner’s children, Randy, has coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007 and currently is the offensive coordinator for the Steelers.
Randy Fichtner, Steelers' OC-in-waiting, has Browns in his soul. Born in CLE. Loves that his dad started for '64 Browns' world champs.
— Steve Doerschuk (@sdoerschukREP) January 18, 2018
Fichtner has resided in Pennsylvania and Michigan since his retirement from playing in the NFL.
After his retirement, he worked as a manufacturer’s representative.
He eventually found his way back to football in the area of coaching.
In 1974, Fichtner was assistant coach for the Florida Blazers in the World Football League.
With Fichtner coaching the defensive backs, the Blazers ranked third (among teams that played the full season) in the World Football League in fewest passing yards allowed (2,525 “net” yards).
The Blazers won the Eastern Division title of the World Football League in 1974 with a 14-6 record and then won two playoff games, before losing in the 1974 World Football League championship game 22-21 to the Birmingham Americans on December 5, 1974.
After the Blazers, Fichtner then served as assistant coach for the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1977.
In 1977, the Bears, with Fichtner coaching the defensive backs, allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (7).
Chicago made the playoffs with a 9-5 record in 1977, before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs 37-7 on December 26, 1977.
Fichtner next was an assistant coach in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers from 1980 to 1983.
In 1981, with Fichtner coaching the defensive backs, Green Bay ranked tied for third in interceptions in the NFL (30).
In 1982, the Packers won the NFC Central Division title with a 5-3-1 record.
Green Bay won a playoff game, before losing in the next round of the playoffs 37-26 to the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 1983.
Fichtner also coached the defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings in 1984.
He has been active in the organizations, Athletes in Action, and CRU Ministries.
Fichtner was inducted into the McKeesport High School Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 2011, Fichtner was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Fichtner is ranked high in Cleveland Browns’ history in several career regular-season interception-related categories.
He ranks tied for eighth in Browns career regular-season interceptions with 27.
In Browns career regular-season interceptions returned for touchdowns, Fichtner ranks tied for third with three.
His 581 Browns career regular-season interception return yards rank second.
Fichtner had a Browns career regular-season average of 21.5 yards on his interception returns, which ranks first in Browns’ history.
Based on his interception statistics and important role on three Browns’ playoff teams, including the 1964 championship team, for his play on the field, Fichtner deserves consideration for induction in the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.