It is an unfortunate reality that offensive linemen are often ignored by NFL fans.
Yet, few NFL offenses can be successful without the run blocking and pass protection provided by excellent offensive linemen.
In particular, the position of center should receive more recognition.
There is only one player that touches the football on every offensive play – the center.
One of the best centers in Cleveland Browns history was Tom DeLeone.
A key player on the Browns’ 1980 “Kardiac Kids” team that won the AFC Central Division title, DeLeone was invited to two Pro Bowls over his 11 seasons with Cleveland.
We take a look at the life of Tom DeLeone – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Thomas Denning DeLeone was born on August 13, 1950 in Ravenna, Ohio.
Ravenna, Ohio is located in northeastern Ohio, approximately 15 miles east of Akron.
DeLeone grew up in the adjoining city (six miles to the west of Ravenna) of Kent, Ohio.
He attended Theodore Roosevelt High School (also known as Kent Roosevelt High School) in Kent.
DeLeone was a “standout athlete” in football, basketball, and track at Theodore Roosevelt High School.
He played center and defensive tackle in high school.
In 1966, DeLeone was part of the undefeated Theodore Roosevelt High School football team.
Future NFL players Mike Adamle and Stan White were on the team with DeLeone.
50 years later, DeLeone’s high school football coach, Tom Campana, extolled DeLeone as a football player:
“Goodness sakes was he a player. He loved the game and when he played, he was the greatest team guy that I had ever coached. He cared about being a team guy and always played hard. He always had his teammates in mind, and he stayed close to his team members for his entire life. . . . There was a not a player on our team that I enjoyed having around more than Tom.”
In addition, Campana praised DeLeone for how he acted off the football field:
“He was just a great person. Just a very responsible and very caring kid. His entire life, he was an incredibly caring person. He was friends with so many people, and I know he cared deeply about all of them and everything about them. And I’ll tell you, he loved Kent. Absolutely loved Kent.”
DeLeone graduated Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1968.
He then headed to Columbus, Ohio to attend The Ohio State University for college.
DeLeone played football at Ohio State from 1968 to 1971.
In 1968, on the freshman team, DeLeone was voted Best Offensive Lineman.
DeLeone (at a height of six feet and two inches and a weight of 214 pounds) moved to the varsity as a sophomore in 1969.
He was a three-year letterman for the Buckeyes from 1969 to 1971.
In 1969, DeLeone initially split time at the center position with Brian Donovan.
However, by the fifth game in 1969 (a 41-0 Ohio State shutout of Illinois on October 25, 1969), DeLeone became the starter and played most of the snaps at center for the remainder of the season.
Ohio State had an 8-1 record (tied for first in the Big Ten Conference) and ranked fourth in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1969.
DeLeone’s play contributed to the Buckeyes averaging 42.6 points per game (second in the nation) in 1969.
In 1970, as a junior, DeLeone became the full-time starter at center for the Buckeyes.
DeLeone was selected first-team All-Big Ten Conference at center by the Associated Press in 1970.
— Tom Adelsberg (@TAdelsberg) May 17, 2019
Ohio State won the Big Ten Conference in 1970 with a 9-0 regular-season record, but then lost in the Rose Bowl to Stanford 27-17 on January 1, 1971.
The Buckeyes were recognized as 1970 national champion by the National Football Foundation (which awarded the title before bowl games were played).
Ohio State ranked fifth in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1970.
As a senior, DeLeone was again the full-time starter at center for Ohio State in 1971.
The Ohio State University 1971 Football Information team guide described DeLeone with the following information:
“[O]ne of the top centers in college football . . . captain on offense of the 1971 Buckeye team . . . an excellent blocker with unusually fine techniques . . . very quick off the ball . . . hobbies are hunting and fishing . . . in the College of Education . . . majoring in industrial arts . . . admires Dick Butkus and Deacon Jones . . . top football thrill came last year when Ohio State beat Michigan . . . would like to coach football after graduation . . . from a family of three . . . played in the North-South All-Star Game . . . works in an industrial plant during the summer . . . led the team in playing time last year with 297.5 minutes in ten games.”
DeLeone’s play at center was recognized by other teams.
“[Daugherty said,] ‘Look at this center. He’s offside every play.’ I said, ‘He’s snapping the ball, coach. He can’t [be offside].’ He says, ‘He’s offside.’ I said, “No, he’s quick.’ And he goes, ‘Damn, he’s quick.’”
In 1971, DeLeone was selected All-American by Football News, Time, and The Sporting News, first-team All-American by United Press International and the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and second-team All-American by the Associated Press.
DeLeone was also selected first-team All-Big Ten Conference at center by the Associated Press and United Press International, and was named Ohio State’s team MVP, in 1971.
Ohio State finished the 1971 season with a 6-4 record.
DeLeone was to earn the nickname, “Little Woody” (a reference to legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who was DeLeone’s head coach with the Buckeyes), for his allegiance to Ohio State.
After Ohio State, DeLeone headed to the NFL to continue his football career.
The Pro Football Years
DeLeone stayed in Ohio to begin his NFL career.
He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 5th round of the 1972 NFL draft (with the 106th overall pick).
With the Bengals, DeLeone largely served as a long snapper.
In 1972, DeLeone played in 13 regular-season games for Cincinnati, but did not start any of these games.
He played in 14 regular-season games and one playoff game (a 34-16 Bengals loss to the Miami Dolphins on December 23, 1973) for Cincinnati in 1973, but again did not start any of these games.
The Bengals cut ties with DeLeone before the beginning of the 1974 season, trading him to the Atlanta Falcons.
However, DeLeone spent less than a month with the Falcons, who waived DeLeone without him playing in any regular-season games.
The Oilers claimed DeLeone off waivers, but released him after he was with Houston for less than a week (without him playing in any games).
On September 26, 1974, the Cleveland Browns signed DeLeone as a free agent.
It was the beginning of an 11-season relationship between DeLeone and the Browns.
In 1974, DeLeone played in 12 regular-season games for the Browns, but again did not start a game.
Cleveland had a 4-10 record in 1974.
DeLeone finally got his chance to start at center for the Browns in 1975.
Browns center Bob DeMarco retired after the 1974 season, leaving an open spot at center.
The Browns initially moved guard John Demarie to center to replace Demarco, but ultimately DeLeone won the starting center position over Demarie.
DeLeone started 11 of the 14 regular-season games for Cleveland at center in 1975: he played in all of the 14 regular-season games.
One of DeLeone’s first notable moments with Cleveland came during an October 5, 1975 42-6 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers after Steelers defensive lineman “Mean” Joe Greene kicked Browns offensive lineman Bob McKay in the groin.
DeLeone was the first Cleveland player off the bench and hit Greene in the side of the head.
— Rick Holman (@RHolmanII) October 17, 2020
Cleveland teammate offensive lineman Doug Dieken recalled the incident and stated:
“He was as tough as they come, he was as stubborn as they come, he was as ornery as they come and he was as loyal a friend as they come. If you ever got into a fight, you could always know that the first guy that was going to be there to help you was Tom.”
DeLeone’s stubbornness earned him the nickname, “Anvil Head”.
— Mark Slaughter (@mslaughter63) October 18, 2020
DeLeone’s play helped Browns running back Greg Pruitt rush for 1,067 yards and 4.9 average yards per rushing attempt in 1975.
In 1976, DeLeone had his first NFL season in which he started all 14 regular-season games at center.
While DeLeone’s relative small size for an NFL center (his NFL playing weight was approximately only 248 pounds) may have explained his inability to start for the Bengals, Falcons, and Oilers, he used another physical attribute – his quickness – to help him become a starter at center for the Browns.
“He was so quick coming off the ball. When there was [no nose tackle] on his head. I thought he was the best in the league. He wasn’t a big guy, so when they put a guy on his head it was a little bit tougher for him, but he was still a great player. He was just unbelievable. I think he was the quickest guy for 10 yards on the Browns.”
DeLeone contributed to the Browns offensive line allowing only 19 sacks in 1976, ranked tied for second in the NFL.
In addition, DeLeone helped Greg Pruitt rush for 1,000 yards and 4.8 average yards per rushing attempt in 1976.
1976 was to be a difficult year for DeLeone.
He married his first wife, Susie, in 1975, but she died of cancer in 1976.
For his play under these difficult circumstances, DeLeone received the George Halas Award in 1977 by the Pro Football Writers of America, “given to a NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed”.
DeLeone even played on the day Susie died, saying she would have wanted him to play.
In 1977, DeLeone again started all 14 regular-season games for the Browns at center.
DeLeone contributed to the Browns rushing for 4.3 average yards per rushing attempt, ranked tied for third in the NFL in 1977.
In addition, with DeLeone’s help, Greg Pruitt rushed for 1,086 yards (his third consecutive year of rushing for at least 1,000 yards) and 4.6 average yards per rushing attempt in 1977.
Sam Rutigliano became head coach of the Browns in 1978 and coached DeLeone through part of the 1984 season.
Rutigliano spoke very highly of DeLeone, stating:
“Every day, Tom empowered the people around him to play better than even they thought they could. He had those kind of traits that I call ‘undefinable.’ I was with five NFL reams. He was so tough, so smart. A great leader. He was as good a center as anybody on any team I was with. . . . Tom was athletic. He was very quick and very strong. We were playing the Steelers, Bengals and Oilers twice a year. Our linemen were facing some great players. Tom studied. He was always ready.”
Cleveland had an 8-8 record in 1978.
DeLeone helped the Browns rush for 4.5 average yards per rushing attempt, ranked tied for second in the NFL in 1978.
DeLeone was part of a Browns offense in 1979 that totaled 5,772 rushing and passing yards, ranked third in the NFL, and rushed for 4.5 average yards per rushing attempt, ranked tied for third in the NFL.
In addition, DeLeone helped Cleveland running back Mike Pruitt rush for 1,294 yards and 4.9 average yards per rushing attempt in 1979.
DeLeone was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 1979.
1980 was DeLeone’s most memorable season with the Browns.
While DeLeone again started all of Cleveland’s 16 regular-season games at center, it was the success of the Browns as a team that defined the 1980 season.
Cleveland won the AFC Central Division title in 1980 (the first division title for the Browns since 1971), with an 11-5 record.
Cleveland’s offensive line in 1980 principally consisted of Doug Dieken at left tackle, Henry Sheppard at left guard, DeLeone at center, Joe DeLamielleure at right guard, and Cody Risien at right tackle.
Do they know about the 3 D’s
Tom Deleone 6’2 250 4.7
Doug Dieken 6’5 254. 4.8
Joe D. 6’3 254 4.76 40
All pro bowlers 1980 browns offensive line pic.twitter.com/I0bsSHRzZl
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) May 23, 2020
A key factor for the Browns in 1980 was the play of the offensive line, and many have commented that DeLeone was critical to the success of the offensive line.
“[DeLeone] was the guy that kept it together. He was the guy that was going to make sure that Brian [Sipe] had the protection. He was the guy that was going to make sure they were going to be able to run the football.”
Cleveland fullback Cleo Miller stated:
“Tom was the best of the best. He was undersized for the position and had a big heart and took on the role of leadership with the linemen. There wasn’t anything you could call on Tom to do that he wouldn’t try to do to actually help. That was just Tom. He had all the linemen’s backs, and if anything would go wrong, he was the first one to be there to take care of them. He was the ultimate teammate.”
Cleveland kicker and punter Don Cockcroft added:
“He was the rock of that entire offensive line.”
The 1980 Browns team became known as the “Kardiac Kids”, for having various games decided in the final moments.
DeLeone’s play contributed to Cleveland scoring in the fourth quarter for the final points to win several close games.
The following week, it was touchdown passes by Brian Sipe to Greg Pruitt and Ozzie Newsome that resulted in a 27-26 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 26, 1980.
On December 7, 1980, a touchdown pass from Brian Sipe to Greg Pruitt caused the Browns to defeat the New York Jets 17-14.
In the final regular-season game, a field goal by Don Cockcroft provided the final winning points, as Cleveland defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-24 on December 21, 1980.
For the regular season as a whole, DeLeone contributed to the Browns offensive line allowing only 23 sacks in 1980, ranked second in the NFL.
DeLeone’s play helped Brian Sipe (DeLeone’s roommate at training camp and on road trips) throw 30 touchdown passes and for 4,132 yards in 1980.
Sipe was named NFL Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers of America in 1980.
In addition, with DeLeone’s help, in 1980, Mike Pruitt rushed for more than 1,000 yards (1,034 yards) for the second consecutive year.
The Browns advanced to the playoffs in 1980 for the first time since 1972.
However, on January 4, 1981 (with DeLeone starting the game at center), Cleveland lost to the Oakland Raiders 14-12.
DeLeone was invited to his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 1980.
He was also voted second-team All-Conference by United Press International in 1980.
In 1981, injuries affected DeLeone’s play.
He played and started in only eight regular-season games at center.
Cleveland fell to a 5-11 record in 1981.
DeLeone helped Mike Pruitt rush for 1,103 yards (his third consecutive year rushing for over 1,000 yards) and 4.5 average yards per rushing attempt, and Ozzie Newsome catch 69 passes for 1,002 receiving yards, in 1981.
The 1982 NFL regular season was shortened to nine games because of a players’ strike.
Cleveland had a 4-5 record in 1982, which was sufficient for the Browns to make the playoffs under an expanded playoff system (eight teams from each conference made the playoffs) in 1982.
However, on January 8, 1983, Cleveland lost to the Los Angeles Raiders 27-10.
DeLeone played in, but did not start, the playoff game; Browns rookie Mike Baab started the playoff game instead of DeLeone.
In 1983, Babb beat out DeLeone for the starting center position for Cleveland.
DeLeone started only one regular-season game in 1983; he played in all 16 regular-season games.
Cleveland had a 9-7 record in 1983.
In 1984, DeLeone did not start any regular-season games; he played in 15 regular-season games.
The Browns had a 5-11 record in 1984.
After the 1984 season, DeLeone retired from the NFL at the age of 34.
The Years After the NFL
DeLeone married his second wife, Mindy, in 1978.
They were married for 38 years at the time of DeLeone’s death.
Dean DeLeone, DeLeone’s middle child, played defensive end at Arizona State University.
DeLeone had two other children, Rachel and Kent.
While many NFL players have difficulty finding a new career after their retirement from the NFL, such was not the case with DeLeone.
DeLeone became a US Customs Special Agent and worked in conjunction with the FBI, Homeland Security, and ICE antiterrorism task forces.
For 23 years, until he was subject to mandatory retirement at age 57, DeLeone worked on a variety of fraud, drugs, and anti-terrorism cases, including the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It is perhaps not surprising that DeLeone pursued a post-football career in law enforcement.
Even when he played for the Browns, DeLeone was a member of the Medina, Ohio Police Department’s specials unit, a squad of volunteer officers who assist with auxiliary duties and miscellaneous events.
Medina, Ohio Police Chief Pat Berarducci said about DeLeone:
“Tom was the perfect example of what our special officers are all about. He was successful in his civilian career and wanted to give back to the community and he volunteered his free time while he was a Brown to help police the city.”
After his mandatory retirement from working for the Federal government, DeLeone helped a new community – his new home of Park City, Utah.
DeLeone was a Park City High School football coach, a volunteer substitute in the Park City school system, and a volunteer at the Park City hospital.
At Park City High School, DeLeone coached the offensive line and special teams.
Former Park City High School football coach Mike Shepherd stated:
“[DeLeone] made high school kids feel important and was always there for them. He was tough on them, but the players appreciated that. He pushed them hard, but at the same time, they knew he cared about them. . . . If you talk to any of the linemen he coached, they’d tell you he was great.”
DeLeone was inducted into The Ohio State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 2003, DeLeone was inducted into the Kent City Schools Hall of Fame.
DeLeone was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2011.
In the early 1970’s, a street in the Farmbrook subdivision in northwest Kent, Ohio was named after DeLeone.
After a five-year battle with brain cancer, DeLeone died on May 22, 2016 at his home in Park City.
After DeLeone’s death, Brian Sipe stated:
“He dealt with his cancer the same way he played ball and lived his life. He didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting. He was just a doer. He would go. As long as he had the strength and opportunity, that’s all that was important to him.”
DeLeone donated his brain and spinal cord to Boston University’s CTE Center, which researches chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) disease and other health consequences from repetitive brain trauma in athletes and military personnel.
It was subsequently disclosed by DeLeone’s family that DeLeone suffered from CTE disease.
As one who fought against “Mean” Joe Greene and terrorists, DeLeone certainly had an interesting life.
However, the one word that best describes DeLeone is “character”.
“Talent is God given, but character is a matter of choice. Tom had so much character.”
By being a respected teammate, and helping people in his community, Tom DeLeone (in addition to his football ability) is a role model for his character, both on and off the football field.