When reviewing the career of any football player, one first can look at the individual statistics of the player.
Yet, in assessing the legacy of any football player, to the extent that the primary goal should be to win the game, there is an even more important measure of success than individual numbers – winning.
Cleveland Browns defensive back Tommy James certainly had impressive individual statistics, ranking fourth in Cleveland career regular season interceptions.
Yet the true measure of James’ career was his consistent ability to win games and championships at each of the high school, college, and professional football levels.
James won five championships with Cleveland.
Tommy James de los @Browns intercepta 3 pases estableciendo un récord para el club, un día como hoy de (1950) #P0M pic.twitter.com/C6R8KpmQtK
— PIO DEPORTES (@piodeportes) November 5, 2015
We take a look at the life of Tommy James – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Thomas Laverne “Tommy” James, Jr. was born on September 16, 1923 in Perry Township, Ohio.
Perry Township is located near the cities of Canton and Massillon in Stark County, Ohio.
James was the oldest of five children, all boys, born to Thomas and Florence James.
One of James’ younger brothers, Don, became a College Football Hall of Fame head coach at Kent State University and University of Washington.
Don James said of his family growing up:
“We were raised in a church family. My father was extremely hard-working. He worked two jobs (in the steel mill and bricklaying) to provide money for the . . . boys to get to college. They were education-oriented.”
James attended school in Perry Township until high school.
As Perry Township did not have a high school, James then had to choose between Canton McKinley High School and Massillon Washington High School.
Bud Houghton, an assistant coach at Massillon Washington High School, helped convince James to go to high school at Massillon.
During his three years at Massillon Washington High School from 1938 to 1940, playing under head coach Paul Brown, James did not lose a game.
When James played there, Massillon Washington High School had a record of 30-0, won three state high school championships, and claimed two national high school championships.
In 1940, Massillon outscored its opponents by an aggregate score of 477-6.
While James was small (only five feet and eight inches tall and 148 pounds), his quickness helped him play halfback and tailback in Massillon Washington High School’s single wing offense. James also played defensive back.
As a junior, James scored 10 touchdowns, including the first touchdown in Massillon Washington High School’s new stadium.
He also threw the first touchdown pass in Massillon’s new stadium (a 50-yard pass to future Cleveland Browns teammate Horace Gillom).
James was named second team All-County as a junior.
As a senior, James scored 13 touchdowns and threw 10 touchdown passes.
His Massillon Washington High School teammate Ray Getz said about James:
“About every game was (special) because [James] was such a good passer. He was a passer, and it was pretty rough to stop a passer in the single wing. And his running was good. He was fast. He could run around end or off-tackle.”
James was named first team All-County and first team All-State as a senior.
1940 was Paul Brown’s last year at Massillon Washington High School, as he moved to The Ohio State University to be head coach of the Buckeyes.
James followed Brown, as he also headed to Columbus, Ohio to attend college at Ohio State.
James played on the freshman football team at Ohio State in 1941.
In 1942, James moved to the varsity team.
On October 10, 1942, James threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Bob Shaw, as the Buckeyes defeated University of Southern California 28-12.
James was injured in a game against Illinois and missed Ohio State’s game against rival Michigan the following week.
However, he returned on November 28, 1942 against Iowa Pre-Flight and scored two touchdowns (on a 54-yard run on the first play of the game and on a punt return), as Ohio State defeated Iowa Pre-Flight 41-12.
In the 1942 season, playing in nine games, James rushed for 314 yards and four touchdowns on 42 rushing attempts (an outstanding average of 7.5 yards per rushing attempt).
He also completed seven passes in 10 attempts for 179 yards and the above-described touchdown.
The Buckeyes compiled a 9-1 record in 1942 and claimed the school’s first college football national championship.
Ohio State outscored its opponents by an aggregate score of 337-114 in 1942.
James played in the College All-Star Game in 1943 (and again in 1947).
However, James did not play football again for the Buckeyes until 1946.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and served from 1943 to 1945.
James was part of the Army Medical Corps.
In 1946, James returned to Ohio State and played in nine games.
He rushed for 403 yards on 93 rushing attempts, caught four passes for 57 yards, and completed seven passes in 19 attempts for 125 yards.
Ohio State had a 4-3-2 record in 1946.
James had eligibility to play another season at Ohio State.
He was named captain of the Ohio State football team for 1947.
However, based on special rules adopted because of World War II, James decided to forego his final year of eligibility at Ohio State and headed to the NFL.
James ultimately completed his college education in his off-seasons from professional football and graduated with a BA in Education from Kent State University.
The Pro Football Years
The Detroit Lions drafted James in the 17th round of the 1947 NFL draft (as the 146th overall pick).
James joined the Lions in 1947, but he broke his arm and only played in two regular season games in 1947.
The Lions released James after the 1947 season.
While the Lions were no longer interested in James, the Cleveland Browns, in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), were.
Cleveland had won the first two championships of the AAFC in 1946 and 1947.
Coached by James’ former high school and college coach, Paul Brown, the Browns wanted James to principally play defense, and not offense.
“I started playing defense all the time. I always wanted to play offense. But when I went into the pros, Paul Brown told me ‘I can find better offensive players, but when I get a good defensive back that’s the place I’ve got to put them.”
To play for Paul Brown at each of the high school, college, and professional football levels, James said:
“It was good. To have the same coach at all three levels was very exciting.”
In 1948, James played in all 14 regular season games.
James was part of a Browns defense that in 11 of 14 regular season games in 1948 held the opposing team to single digits in points, less than 100 “net pass yards”, and/or less than 100 rushing yards.
In the 1948 regular season, James intercepted four passes, which he returned for 37 yards.
He also rushed for eight yards on one rushing attempt, caught one pass for 44 yards, and returned five punts for 47 yards.
In addition to these statistics, James began serving for the Browns in a role that he was to perform for his eight years with Cleveland – holder on kicks for future Pro Football Hall of Fame kicker Lou Groza.
The Browns had a perfect 14-0 regular season record in 1948 and won the AAFC West Division title.
James helped the Browns defense rank in the AAFC regular season in 1948 first in fewest points allowed (190), first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,616), second in fewest passing yards allowed (2,097), first in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,519), and first in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.5).
Cleveland played the Buffalo Bills in the AAFC championship game on December 19, 1948.
James intercepted two passes, which he returned for 36 yards, as the Browns routed the Bills 49-7.
James played in all 12 regular season games in 1949.
On September 18, 1949, James scored his first professional football regular season touchdown on a 27-yard interception return, as the Browns defeated the New York Yankees 14-3.
In the 1949 regular season, James intercepted four passes, which he returned for 64 yards.
He also rushed for 28 yards on 10 rushing attempts.
Cleveland had a 9-1-2 regular season record in 1949 (the best record in the AAFC).
James contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the AAFC regular season in 1949 first in fewest points allowed (171), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,677), and second in most intercepted passes (29).
The Browns first played the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game on December 4, 1949.
James recovered a fumble, in a 31-21 Cleveland victory over the Bills.
Cleveland advanced to the AAFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers on December 11, 1949.
James (who rushed for seven yards on two rushing attempts in the game) won his second consecutive professional football championship, as the Browns defeated the 49ers 21-7.
The AAFC disbanded after the 1949 season.
The Browns moved to the NFL for the 1950 season.
The tougher competition of the NFL did not adversely affect James, who had an excellent season in 1950.
James again played in all 12 regular season games in 1950.
On November 5, 1950, James intercepted three passes, as Cleveland defeated the Chicago Cardinals 10-7.
In a 13-7 Browns win over the Philadelphia Eagles on December 3, 1950 (Cleveland’s second victory over the defending NFL champion Eagles in 1950), James helped Cleveland’s defense hold Philadelphia to only 81 “net pass yards”.
For the 1950 regular season, James intercepted nine passes (ranked tied for fourth in the NFL in 1950), which he returned for 69 yards.
He also recovered a fumble.
James was named second team All-Pro by the New York Daily News in 1950.
In 1950, Cleveland had a 10-2 regular season record.
James helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1950 second in fewest points allowed (144), first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,963), tied for first in most forced turnovers (55), tied for second in most recovered fumbles (24), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,390), and tied for second in most intercepted passes (31).
The Browns tied for first place in the NFL’s American Division in 1950 with the New York Giants and played a “tiebreaker” playoff game against the Giants on December 17, 1950.
With James starting the game at defensive back, Cleveland held the Giants to only 13 “net pass yards” and defeated New York 8-3.
The following week, the Browns met the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 NFL championship game on December 24, 1950.
James started the game at defensive back and, based on a late fourth quarter Lou Groza field goal, won his third consecutive professional football championship, as Cleveland defeated the Rams 30-28.
In recalling the 1950 NFL championship game, James stated:
“That was a big thrill. The 1950 championship game, I had an interception and I held the ball for Lou Groza when he kicked the game-winning field goal.”
In 1951, James again played in all 12 regular season games.
James was part of a Browns defense that posted four shutouts in 1951 – 45-0 over the Washington Redskins on October 14, 1951, 17-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 21, 1951, 10-0 over the New York Giants on November 18, 1951, and 28-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 9, 1951.
In the 1951 regular season, James intercepted two passes and returned them for one yard.
The Browns had an 11-1 regular season record in 1951 and won the American Division title.
James’ play contributed to Cleveland’s defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1951 first in fewest points allowed (152), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,002), second in most forced turnovers (51), first in most recovered fumbles (29), first in most sacks (54), and second in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,454).
Cleveland played the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL championship game on December 23, 1951.
James started the game at defensive back and intercepted a pass, but the Browns lost to Los Angeles 24-17.
James again played in all 12 regular season games in 1952.
He played on a Browns defense that in four regular season games in 1952 held the opposing team to less than 100 “net pass yards”, including only 15 “net pass yards” in a 28-13 Browns victory over the Chicago Cardinals on November 9, 1952.
James intercepted four passes and returned them for 40 yards in the 1952 regular season.
With an 8-4 regular season record, Cleveland again won the American Division title in 1952.
James helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1952 second in fewest points allowed (213) and first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,075).
The Browns advanced to the NFL championship game on December 28, 1952 and played the Detroit Lions.
With James starting the game at defensive back, Cleveland held Detroit to only 59 “net pass yards”, but the Browns lost to the Lions 17-7.
In 1953, James again played in all 12 regular season games.
On November 29, 1953, James scored his second professional football regular season touchdown when he returned a fumble for 37 yards, in a 27-16 Browns win over the Chicago Cardinals.
In the 1953 regular season, James intercepted five passes, which he returned for 21 yards.
He also recovered two fumbles and returned them for 37 yards.
James received a Pro Bowl invitation in 1953.
Cleveland won the East Division title in 1953, with an 11-1 regular season record.
With James on the defense, Cleveland’s defense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1953 first in fewest points allowed (162).
Cleveland played in its fourth consecutive NFL championship game on December 27, 1953 against the Detroit Lions.
James started the game at defensive back, but Cleveland lost to the Lions 17-16.
James again played in all 12 regular season games in 1954.
In a 62-3 Browns rout of the Washington Redskins on November 7, 1954, James helped Cleveland’s defense limit Washington to only 64 total yards (only 31 “net pass yards” and 33 rushing yards on 25 rushing attempts).
On November 28, 1954, James contributed to a Browns defense that held the New York Giants to only 68 total yards (64 “net pass yards” and only four rushing yards on 21 rushing attempts), as Cleveland defeated New York 16-7.
James had four interceptions (which he returned for 57 yards) and recovered two fumbles (which he returned for seven yards) in the 1954 regular season.
He was named second team All-Pro by the New York Daily News in 1954.
James’ Browns teammate, Tony Adamle, described James as “a heck of a defensive back . . . one of those guys that people overlooked all the time.”
With a 9-3 regular season record, the Browns again won the East Division title in 1954. James’ play helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1954 first in fewest points allowed (162), first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,658), first in fewest passing yards allowed (1,608), first in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,050), and first in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (2.8).
The Browns advanced to the 1954 NFL championship game against the Detroit Lions on December 26, 1954.
James started the game at defensive back and won his fourth professional football championship.
Cleveland avenged its two losses to the Lions in the 1952 and 1953 NFL championship games, routing Detroit 56-10.
Injuries slowed down James in 1955, as he played in only eight regular season games.
James was part of a Browns defense that limited opponents in 1955 in four regular season games to less than 100 “net pass yards” (including only 22 “net pass yards” in a 41-10 Cleveland victory over the Green Bay Packers on October 23, 1955) and in six regular season games to less than 100 rushing yards (including only 26 rushing yards in 16 rushing attempts in a 30-7 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 4, 1955).
In the 1955 regular season, James intercepted two passes and returned them for 20 yards.
He also rushed for two yards on one rushing attempt.
Cleveland had a 9-2-1 regular season record in 1955, again winning the East Division title.
James contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1955 first in fewest points allowed (218), first in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,841), first in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,189), and tied for second in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.4).
Cleveland played in the 1955 championship game on December 26, 1955 against the Los Angeles Rams.
James started the game at defensive back and intercepted a pass, which he returned for 11 yards.
Cleveland defeated the Rams 38-14, giving James his fifth professional football championship.
The 1955 championship game turned out to be the final game that James would play with the Browns.
Cleveland released James before the start of the 1956 season.
James was signed by the Baltimore Colts.
However, James injured his shoulder and only played in two regular season games for the Colts in 1956.
James then retired from the NFL at the age of 33.
The Years After the NFL
James was married to Rosemary.
He had three sons, Thomas, Michael, and Robert.
After his retirement from the NFL, James worked as a salesman in the trucking business.
He retired at age 69.
James was inducted into the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2004, James was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
James is on the Massillon Washington High School Wall of Champions.
On February 7, 2007, James died at the age of 83 of congestive heart failure.
In reviewing James’ football career, one first can look at his individual statistics.
James intercepted 34 regular season passes in his career with the Browns, which ranks fourth in Cleveland history.
He returned those 34 regular season interceptions for 309 yards, which ranks 11th in the history of the Browns.
He intercepted an additional four passes for the Browns in the playoffs, which he returned for 47 yards.
James also recovered five fumbles (which he returned for 44 yards) in the regular season and one fumble in the playoffs for the Browns.
These individual numbers by themselves should earn James a place among the best defensive backs who ever played for Cleveland.
Yet, these individual statistics alone do not shape the legacy of James.
After winning high school and college football championships, James won two AAFC (in 1948 and 1949) and three NFL (1950, 1954, and 1955) professional football championships in his eight seasons with the Browns.
Moreover, in every season with the Browns, James had a winning record, finished in first place in the regular season (tied for first in 1950), and ultimately advanced to the league championship game.
During James’ eight seasons with Cleveland, the Browns compiled an outstanding regular season record of 81-14-3.
This ability of James to win games and championships was not simply attributable to James being the beneficiary of a potent offense.
In fact, James was a key piece of an excellent Browns defense that was ranked in each of its regular seasons in the AAFC and the NFL from 1948 to 1955 first or second in fewest points allowed. In addition, James’ play on defense (in terms of such skills as pass coverage and tackling, and not just interceptions and fumble recoveries) contributed to Cleveland’s defense regularly ranking during James’ career with the Browns high in fewest passing and/or rushing yards allowed.
By limiting opponent points and yardage, James helped Cleveland’s defense win games for the Browns.
Tommy James combined impressive individual statistics with consistency in winning games and championships – the marks of a great NFL player.
Ted Street says
Tom James was a cousin of mine and it was a big thrill to see him and Don at our reunions. Thank you for the great article
Linda Seal James says
Tommy was my father in law! He would have loved this article!