In addition to such characteristics as speed, agility, strength, and durability, one trait associated with successful football players is versatility.
A versatile football player who can perform multiple roles can be very valuable to his team.
One such versatile player for the Cleveland Browns was Tommy Colella.
As part of an eight-year professional football career, Colella played with Cleveland from 1946 to 1948.
His versatile play on offense, defense, and special teams helped Cleveland win its first three professional football championships in 1946, 1947, and 1948.
We take a look at the life of Tommy Colella – before, during, and after his football playing career.
The Early Years Before College
Thomas Anthony Colella was born on July 3, 1918 in Albion, New York.
Albion is located in northwestern New York, about 30 miles west of Rochester, New York.
His parents were Giacomo and Louise Colella.
Colella attended Albion High School.
At Albion High School, Colella played multiple sports, including football, basketball, track, and baseball.
In football, in 1936, Colella helped Albion High School post an 8-0-1 record.
Albion High School scored 293 total points, and allowed only 20 points, in the 1936 season.
Colella both threw a touchdown pass and intercepted a pass in the final game in 1936 – a 27-0 shutout victory by Albion High School over its rival, Medina High School.
Speaking about Colella, Joe Niland, who was a basketball star then at Canisius College (“Canisius”), stated:
“Tommy was so good, he played for Albion High as an eighth-grader. Some big Eastern colleges tracked him, but a few lost track when he wasn’t allowed to play as a senior because his eligibility was used up. Finally, it was Niagara or Canisius and he chose [Canisius].”
Colella headed to Buffalo, New York to attend Canisius.
The College Years
At Canisius, Colella (who, based on his athletic ability, earned the nickname, the “Albion Antelope”) played football for four seasons.
He displayed the versatility that he was to later display in professional football, playing quarterback, running back, and defensive back, and kicking, punting, and returning kicks and punts, for Canisius.
In a 14-0 Canisius shutout of previously unbeaten St. Vincent College on October 28, 1939, Colella scored two touchdowns.
The New York Times credited “the brilliant play of Left Halfback Tommy Colella” for the Canisius victory.
Colella returned a kickoff for a touchdown, made two extra point conversions, and played well on defense, helping Canisius upset previously unbeaten Long Island University 14-7 on November 11, 1940.
In a 12-12 Canisius tie with Providence on October 12, 1941, Colella (who was a team captain) scored one touchdown and helped to set up another touchdown.
Over his time at Canisius, Colella scored 116 points, rushed for 914 yards on 199 rushing attempts, completed 51 of 127 passes for 671 yards, and punted 151 times for an average of 42 yards.
Colella received Little All-American honors for three straight seasons.
He also received the Canisius College Sodality Football Sportsmanship Trophy, which was awarded “to promote and reward really progressive achievements by the students, and to honor real sportsmen, both on and off the field”.
Playing in the Western New York Little Three Conference (with Niagara University and St. Bonaventure University), Canisius compiled records of 2-6 in 1938, 4-1-1 in 1939, 5-3 in 1940, and 3-4-1 in 1941.
After graduating from Canisius in 1942, Colella headed to professional football.
The Pro Football Years
In the 1942 NFL draft, Colella was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round.
He was the 55th overall pick.
For the Lions, in 1942, Colella played in nine, and started two, regular season games.
In 1942, Colella completed 18 of 41 passes for 178 yards, rushed for 51 yards on 23 rushing attempts, intercepted one pass, which he returned for 10 yards, returned four kickoffs for 74 yards and two punts for 14 yards, and punted 16 times for 609 yards (including a long punt of 63 yards).
Detroit had an 0-11 record in 1942.
In 1943, Colella played in eight, but did not start any, regular season games.
Colella completed 11 of 31 passes for 103 yards, rushed for 24 yards on 15 rushing attempts, returned two punts for 11 yards, and punted seven times for 315 yards (including a long punt of 55 yards), in 1943.
The Lions posted a record of 3-6-1 in 1943.
Colella was traded by Detroit to the Cleveland Rams before the start of the 1944 regular season.
With the Rams, Colella saw more playing time in 1944, playing in all 10, and starting eight, regular season games.
In a 30-28 Cleveland win over the Chi/Pitt Cards/Steelers on September 24, 1944, Colella threw two touchdown passes (for 10 yards and 18 yards) to end Jim Benton.
In the next game, Colella kicked a 20-yard field goal, as the Rams defeated the Chicago Bears 19-7 on October 8, 1944.
On October 22, 1944, Colella scored two touchdowns, on a 75-yard run (tied for the second longest rush of the 1944 NFL regular season) and a 25-yard run, in a 30-21 Cleveland loss to the Green Bay Packers.
He rushed for 147 yards on 10 rushing attempts in the game.
Colella caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from running back Mike Kabealo, in a 33-6 Rams victory over the Chi/Pit Cards/Steelers on November 19, 1944.
For the 1944 season, Colella completed 27 of 75 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 208 yards and the above-described two rushing touchdowns on 53 rushing attempts, caught two passes for 64 yards and the above-described one pass reception touchdown, intercepted four passes, which he returned for 53 yards, returned 10 kickoffs for 241 yards and four punts for 65 yards (including a 29-yard punt return, which was the fifth longest punt return in the 1944 NFL regular season), kicked the above-described one field goal, and punted 33 times for 1,247 yards (including a long punt of 63 yards).
In 1944, Cleveland had a 4-6 record.
Colella, in 1945, played in all 10 regular season games, and started one regular season game, for the Rams.
On October 14, 1945, Colella scored two touchdowns, on a nine-yard pass from future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield and a five-yard run, in a 27-14 Cleveland win over the Green Bay Packers.
In the next game, on October 21, 1945, Colella again scored two touchdowns, on a three-yard run and an 18-yard pass from quarterback-running back Albie Reisz, as the Rams defeated the Chicago Bears 41-21.
Colella, in 1945, rushed for 224 yards and the above-described two rushing touchdowns on 46 rushing attempts, caught seven passes for 64 yards and the above-described two pass reception touchdowns, recovered one fumble, and returned three kickoffs for 79 yards and one punt for 10 yards.
With a 9-1 record, Cleveland won the NFL West Division title in 1945 and advanced to play in the 1945 NFL championship game against the Washington Redskins on December 16, 1945.
The Rams defeated Washington 15-14, giving Colella his first professional football championship.
1945 turned out to be Colella’s last season playing in the NFL.
After the 1945 season, the Rams decided to relocate their franchise from Cleveland to Los Angeles.
However, Colella was one of five players (also fullback Gaylon Smith, back Don Greenwood, center Mike “Mo” Scarry, and tackle Chet Adams) who did not want to go to Los Angeles with the Rams.
They claimed that their contracts were with the “Cleveland” Rams, and not the “Los Angeles” Rams.
A court agreed with the players, who were thereby freed of their obligations to the Rams.
Instead, they stayed in Cleveland, signing with a new franchise – the Cleveland Browns in the new All-America Football Conference (“AAFC”).
The AAFC began play in 1946, competing with the NFL.
In 1946, Colella (playing at a height of six feet and a weight of 187 pounds) played in all 14, and started two, regular season games for the Browns.
On September 6, 1946, in Cleveland’s first regular season game, Colella scored a touchdown on a 50-yard run, as the Browns shut out the Miami Seahawks 44-0.
Colella scored a touchdown, on a four-yard run, in a 26-7 Cleveland victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 6, 1946.
In another Browns triumph over the Dodgers, 66-14 on December 8, 1946, Colella scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass from future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham.
On offense, for the 1946 season, Colella rushed for 118 yards and the above-described two rushing touchdowns on 30 rushing attempts and had the above-described one pass reception.
Colella contributed to the Cleveland offense ranking in the 1946 AAFC regular season first in points scored (423), first in total passing and rushing yards (4,244), first in passing yards (2,266), first in passing touchdowns (22), first in average passing yards per pass attempt (9.6), third in rushing yards (1,978), first in rushing touchdowns (27), and second in average rushing yards per rushing attempt (4.0).
In 1946, on special teams, Colella returned one kickoff for 29 yards and eight punts for 172 yards and punted 47 times for 1,895 yards (which ranked fifth in the AAFC in 1946).
With Colella’s play as a returner and a punter, the Browns ranked on special teams in the 1946 AAFC regular season third in average yards per kickoff return (23.4) and third in fewest punt return yards allowed (510).
While Colella was valuable on offense and special teams, his most notable contribution to Cleveland in 1946 was on defense.
In 1946, Colella led the AAFC with 10 defensive interceptions.
He returned these interceptions for 110 yards (ranking third in the AAFC).
Colella was part of a Browns defense that had four shutouts in 1946 – the above-described 44-0 shutout of Miami on September 6, 1946, a 28-0 shutout of the Buffalo Bisons on September 22, 1946, a 7-0 shutout of the New York Yankees on October 12, 1946, and another shutout of Miami, 34-0, on December 3, 1946.
The Cleveland defense, helped by Colella’s play, ranked in the 1946 AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (137), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,933), first in recovered turnovers (64), first in lowest completion percentage allowed (41.8%), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,317), first in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (8), first in defensive interceptions (41), first in lowest average passing yards per passing attempt allowed (4.4), second in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (8), and tied for third in lowest average rushing yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.0).
The Browns, with a 12-2 record, won the 1946 AAFC West Division title and advanced to the 1946 AAFC championship game against the New York Yankees on December 22, 1946.
Colella had a key 11-yard run for a first down during Cleveland’s winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, as the Browns (who held New York to only 146 total yards) defeated the Yankees 14-9 to win the first AAFC championship.
He rushed for 14 yards on four rushing attempts and had two punts for 77 yards.
In 1947, Colella played in all 14, and started seven, regular season games for Cleveland.
On September 12, 1947, Colella scored a touchdown on an 82-yard punt return (the longest punt return in the AAFC in 1947), in a 55-7 Browns win over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In the next game, on September 21, 1947, Colella scored a touchdown on a 23-yard interception return, as Cleveland shut out the Baltimore Colts 28-0.
Colella had a 29-yard touchdown run, in a 26-17 Browns victory over the New York Yankees on October 5, 1947.
On November 27, 1947, Colella caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Otto Graham, in a 27-17 Cleveland triumph over the Los Angeles Dons.
Colella’s contribution to the Browns on offense, defense, and special teams in 1947 was not limited to the above-described four touchdowns.
In 1947, on offense, Colella rushed for 77 yards and the above-described one rushing touchdown on 11 rushing attempts and caught four passes for 63 yards and the above-described one pass reception touchdown.
Colella contributed to the Cleveland offense ranking in the 1947 AAFC regular season first in points scored (410), first in total passing and rushing yards (5,547), first in passing yards (2,990), first in passing touchdowns (26), first in average passing yards per pass attempt (10.1), third in rushing yards (2,557), second in rushing touchdowns (24), and second in average rushing yards per rushing attempt (5.3).
On special teams, in 1947, Colella returned one kickoff for 13 yards and five punts for 113 yards and the above-described one touchdown and punted once for 36 yards.
Colella contributed to the Browns on special teams ranking in the 1947 AAFC regular season second in average yards per punt return (15.7) and second in average yards per punt (43.6).
As in 1946, in 1947, Colella again made his most notable contribution to Cleveland with his play on defense.
With six defensive interceptions, Colella was tied for the lead in the AAFC.
He returned these interceptions for 130 yards (ranking third in the AAFC).
Colella was part of a Browns defense that held five regular season opponents to seven points or less in 1947 – the above-described 55-7 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers on September 12, 1947, the above-described 28-0 shutout of the Baltimore Colts on September 21, 1947, a 14-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on October 26, 1947, a 28-7 defeat of the Buffalo Bills on November 2, 1947, and a 42-0 shutout of the Baltimore Colts on December 7, 1947.
With Colella on the defense, the Cleveland defense ranked in the 1947 AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (185), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,888), first in recovered turnovers (51), first in lowest completion percentage allowed (42.6%), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,707), first in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (11), first in defensive interceptions (32), first in lowest average passing yards per passing attempt allowed (5.6), and third in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (12).
With a 12-1-1 record, the Browns again won the AAFC West Division title in 1947.
They next met the New York Yankees in the 1947 AAFC championship game on December 14, 1947.
Colella had an interception of New York quarterback Spec Sanders, which Colella returned for 13 yards.
In addition, Colella rushed for six yards on one rushing attempt, caught two passes for seven yards, and returned one kickoff for 16 yards.
Cleveland (which held the Yankees to only 89 “net pass yards”) defeated New York 14-3, for its second consecutive AAFC championship.
In 1948, Colella played in 13, and started two, regular season games for Cleveland.
On September 12, 1948, Colella had a 23-yard touchdown run, in a 42-13 Browns victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Colella, on offense in 1948, rushed for 60 yards and the above-described one rushing touchdown on 14 rushing attempts and caught one pass for seven yards.
With Colella on offense, the Cleveland offense ranked in the 1948 AAFC regular season second in points scored (389), third in total passing and rushing yards (5,366), second in passing yards (2,809), second in passing touchdowns (26), second in average passing yards per pass attempt (8.2), third in rushing yards (2,557), third in rushing touchdowns (25), and third in average rushing yards per rushing attempt (4.7).
On special teams, in 1948, Colella returned five punts for 60 yards and punted 49 times for 1,716 yards.
Colella contributed to the Browns ranking on special teams in the 1948 AAFC regular season third in fewest punt return yards allowed (356) and second in lowest average yards per punt return allowed (11.1).
Colella, on defense in 1948, had two defensive interceptions, which he returned for 34 yards.
In 1948, Colella was part of a Cleveland defense that held four regular season opponents to seven points – a 28-7 win over the Chicago Rockets on September 17, 1948, a 35-7 defeat of the New York Yankees on October 24, 1948, a 28-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts on November 7, 1948, and a 14-7 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers on November 14, 1948.
Colella helped the Browns defense rank in the 1948 AAFC regular season first in fewest points allowed (190), first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,616), first in lowest completion percentage allowed (44.9%), second in fewest passing yards allowed (2,097), first in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (14), first in lowest average passing yards per passing attempt allowed (5.9), first in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,519), first in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (10), and first in lowest average rushing yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.5).
In 1948, Cleveland had a perfect 14-0 record and won the AAFC West Division title for the third consecutive year.
The Browns advanced to play the Buffalo Bills in the 1948 AAFC championship game on December 19, 1948.
For the second consecutive year, Colella intercepted a pass in the AAFC championship game; this time, he returned the interception for one yard.
Colella also rushed for one yard on one rushing attempt, returned one punt for 18 yards, and punted twice for 62 yards.
Cleveland (which forced eight Buffalo turnovers) won its third consecutive AAFC championship, defeating the Bills 49-7.
The 1948 AAFC championship game was Colella’s last game with the Browns.
In May 1949, Colella was traded to the Buffalo Bills in the AAFC.
In 1949, Colella (playing in upstate New York, as he had also done in high school and college) played in 11, but did not start any, regular season games for Buffalo.
He caught two passes for six yards, intercepted three passes, which he returned for 39 yards, returned seven kickoffs for 107 yards and five punts for 42 yards, and had 44 punts for 1,554 yards (ranked fifth in the AAFC), for Buffalo.
The Bills had a 5-5-2 record and qualified for the expanded (four teams) AAFC playoffs in 1949, but then lost to the Cleveland Browns 31-21 in the 1949 AAFC playoffs on December 4, 1949.
1949 was Colella’s final season playing professional football.
The Years After Professional Football
After his retirement from professional football, Colella worked as a salesman and production control superintendent.
He retired in the Buffalo area.
In 1963, Colella was inducted into the Canisius Hall of Fame.
Colella also was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
At the age of 73, Colella died on May 15, 1992 in Hamburg, New York.
He was survived by his wife, Lee, and a son, Thomas, Jr.
Colella’s versatility is evidenced by his high rankings in various Cleveland Browns career statistics.
In terms of Browns career defensive interceptions, Colella ranks tied for 16th, with 18 interceptions.
His 274 interception return yards rank 14th in Browns career defensive interception return yards.
Among players who played at least three seasons with Cleveland, Colella ranks first in Browns career average defensive interceptions per year (6.0).
In terms of Browns career punt return yards, Colella ranks 18th, with 345 punt return yards.
Colella also has the sixth longest punt return in Cleveland history – his 82-yard punt return on September 12, 1947 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Among players who returned at least 10 punts with Cleveland, Colella ranks first in Browns career average yards per punt return (19.2).
Colella also ranks 17th in Browns career punting yards (3,647), 29th in Browns career average yards per punt (37.6), tied for 82nd in Browns career rushing yards (255), tied for 55th in Browns career rushing touchdowns (4), and tied for 93rd in Browns career average rushing yards per rushing attempt (4.6).
During his three years with Cleveland, Colella also should be recognized for scoring a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, a defensive interception touchdown, and a punt return touchdown in the same season (1947), leading or being tied for the league lead in defensive interceptions for two consecutive seasons (1946 and 1947), and intercepting passes in the league championship game for two consecutive seasons (1947 and 1948).
Most importantly, Colella may have been the ultimate Browns “winner.”
His three teams won three AAFC championships and compiled an aggregate regular season and playoff record of 41-3-1 – a very impressive winning percentage of .911.
“Colella was one of the 15 players from my 1946 squad whom I rate as the best ever to play on my professional football teams. Five of those are in the Hall of Fame. Colella was a starting offensive back with the Rams, but he really blossomed when we made him a defensive back and punt return specialist.”
Based on his versatile play as a rusher, receiver, pass interceptor, kickoff returner, punt returner, and punter, Tommy Colella was one of “the best ever” to play for the Cleveland Browns.