Interceptions can play a key role in a football game.
Not only do interceptions stop the drive of the opposing offense, but they also can give an offense excellent field position and momentum and even result in points when returned for a touchdown.
Over a six-year career with the Cleveland Browns from 1969 to 1974, defensive back Walt Sumner made many key interceptions, both in regular season and playoff games (including scoring two interception return touchdowns).
Playing both cornerback and safety, Sumner’s solid play contributed to Cleveland winning two division titles and one playoff game.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) October 14, 2018
We take a look at the life of Walt Sumner – before, during, and after his professional football playing career.
The Early Years Before College
Walter Herman Sumner was born in Ocilla, Georgia on February 2, 1947.
Ocilla is located in south central Georgia.
When Sumner grew up there, Ocilla had a population of approximately 2,500 to 3,200 people.
Herman and Sara were Sumner’s parents.
Sumner attended Irwin County High School in Ocilla.
He played football, basketball, and baseball in high school.
In his senior year, Sumner was the Most Valuable Player at Irwin County High School for football, basketball, and baseball.
Sumner was a two-way starter at quarterback and defensive back in high school.
For his football play as a senior, Sumner was named All-Southwest Georgia, All-Middle Georgia, All-State, the Class “B” Back of the Year, and the All-Middle Georgia Back of the Year.
After graduating from Irwin County High School in 1965, Sumner headed to Tallahassee, Florida to attend Florida State University for college.
The College Years
Sumner lettered in football at Florida State in 1966, 1967, and 1968.
He started 29 of 32 games for Florida State from 1966 to 1968 (seven of 10 games in 1966, and all 11 games in each of 1967 and 1968) as a defensive back.
In his first game as a starter, on October 22, 1966, Sumner had his first interception in college, as Florida State shut out Mississippi State 10-0.
On November 5, 1966, Sumner intercepted two passes, which he returned for nine yards, in a 32-10 Florida State victory over South Carolina.
For the 1966 regular season, Sumner intercepted four passes that he returned for nine yards, and broke up one pass.
He also blocked a field goal and returned nine punts for 38 yards.
The Seminoles had a 6-5 record in 1966, including a 28-20 loss to Wyoming in the Sun Bowl on December 24, 1966.
On September 23, 1967, Sumner returned a punt for a 75-yard touchdown, in a 37-37 Florida State tie with Alabama (then ranked second in the nation by the Associated Press).
In a 19-18 Florida State triumph over Texas A&M on October 7, 1967, Sumner intercepted a pass.
Sumner, in the 1967 regular season, intercepted two passes.
In addition, he blocked a field goal and returned 17 punts for 150 yards.
In 1967, the Seminoles posted a 7-2-2 record, including a 17-17 tie with Penn State, on December 30, 1967, in the Gator Bowl.
— FSU Alumni Assoc. (@FSUAlumni) November 3, 2017
Sumner intercepted a pass and blocked a field goal, in a 20-14 Florida State victory over Texas A&M (then ranked 17th in the nation by the Associated Press) on October 5, 1968.
In a 48-7 Florida State defeat of North Carolina State on November 16, 1968, Sumner returned a punt for a 58-yard touchdown and blocked a field goal.
For the 1968 regular season, Sumner intercepted five passes, which he returned for 25 yards, blocked the above-described two field goals, and returned nine punts for 111 yards.
The Seminoles, in 1968, compiled an 8-3 record, including a 40-20 win over Houston (then ranked 10th in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 29, 1968 and a 31-27 loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl on December 30, 1968.
College Football Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden (who was head coach at Florida State from 1976 to 2009) said about Sumner:
“I recruited and signed Walt. He was fast and had the quickness to be a great cornerback – and he was!”
In addition, Gary Wyant, who coached Florida State’s linebackers and later defensive backs from 1966 to 1969, stated concerning Sumner:
“Very quiet, but got it done and didn’t say two words about it! Great quickness and great athlete. Didn’t display emotions. Good coverage corner and sure tackler.”
Sumner also was a star baseball player for Florida State.
He played the outfield and, in his senior year, hit .300 and led Florida State in runs, doubles, and total bases.
After Florida State, Sumner headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
The Cleveland Browns drafted Sumner in the seventh round of the 1969 NFL draft.
He was the 176th overall pick.
It is never a guarantee that a seventh-round draft pick will make an NFL roster, let alone start on the team.
However, Sumner (playing at a height of six feet and one inch and a weight of 195 pounds) both made Cleveland’s 1969 NFL roster and started all 14 regular season games for the Browns in 1969 at right cornerback.
On October 18, 1969, Sumner had his first NFL regular season interception, in a 42-31 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sumner returned the interception for a 40-yard touchdown.
The following game, on October 26, 1969, Sumner intercepted St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Charley Johnson and returned the interception for two yards, in a 21-21 Browns tie with St. Louis.
Sumner also returned one punt for 18 yards.
Sumner’s play helped the Browns defense hold the Pittsburgh Steelers to only a field goal, in a 24-3 Cleveland victory over the Steelers on November 16, 1969.
The following game, on November 23, 1969, Sumner had two interceptions of future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton (which Sumner returned for a total of 40 yards), in a 28-17 Browns triumph over the New York Giants.
In addition, Sumner returned two punts for 30 yards.
In a 20-7 Cleveland win over the Green Bay Packers on December 7, 1969, Sumner contributed to the Browns defense limiting the Packers to only one touchdown.
Sumner, in the 1969 NFL regular season, intercepted the above-described four passes, which he returned for a total of 82 yards, and returned nine punts for 88 yards.
With Sumner at right cornerback, the Browns defense ranked in the 1969 NFL regular season tied for fourth in recovered turnovers (41), second in recovered fumbles (22), and fifth in sacks (37).
Cleveland, with a 10-3-1 record in 1969, won the NFL Century Division title and advanced to the 1969 NFL playoffs to play the Dallas Cowboys on December 28, 1969.
Sumner started the game and intercepted a pass by Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton for an 88-yard interception return touchdown.
The Browns defeated Dallas 38-14.
The game was to be the last playoff win for Cleveland until 1987 and the last road playoff victory for the Browns until 2021.
Cleveland then advanced to the 1969 NFL championship game against the Minnesota Vikings on January 4, 1970.
Sumner started the game, but the Browns lost to Minnesota 27-7.
In 1970, Sumner played in and started 12 regular season games at right cornerback.
On September 21, 1970, in the first game on Monday Night Football on ABC, Sumner intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath and returned the interception for 34 yards, in a 31-21 Cleveland win over the New York Jets.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 21, 2021
Sumner intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw and returned the interception for three yards, in a 15-7 Browns triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 3, 1970.
In a 28-0 Cleveland shutout of the Miami Dolphins on October 25, 1970, Sumner intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese and returned the interception for 19 yards.
On November 22, 1970, Sumner had an interception of Houston Oilers quarterback Charley Johnson (which Sumner returned for 29 yards), as the Browns defeated the Oilers 28-14.
Sumner also returned one punt for seven yards.
In another win for Cleveland over Houston in 1970, 21-10 on December 7, 1970, Sumner contributed to the Browns defense holding the Oilers to only one touchdown and one field goal.
Sumner intercepted the above-described four passes, which he returned for a total of 85 yards, and returned eight punts for 70 yards, in the 1970 NFL regular season.
Cleveland posted a 7-7 record in 1970.
Sumner changed positions in 1971, starting all 14 regular season games at strong safety.
On September 19, 1971, Sumner had two interceptions, which he returned for a total of seven yards, as the Browns shut out the Houston Oilers 31-0.
The following game, on September 26, 1971, Sumner again had two interceptions (which he returned for a total of three yards), in a 14-13 Cleveland victory over the Baltimore Colts.
In a 27-7 Browns triumph over the New England Patriots on November 21, 1971, Sumner’s play helped the Cleveland defense hold the Patriots to only one touchdown.
The following game, on November 28, 1971, Sumner had an interception, which he returned for 25 yards, in a 37-24 Browns win over the Houston Oilers.
Sumner contributed to the Cleveland defense allowing only one touchdown and two field goals, as the Browns defeated the Washington Redskins 20-13 on December 19, 1971.
In the 1971 NFL regular season, Sumner intercepted the above-described five passes, which he returned for a total of 35 yards.
He also recovered a fumble.
The Browns defense, with Sumner at strong safety, ranked in the 1971 NFL regular season third in lowest passing completion percentage allowed (46.0%) and fourth in fewest passing yards allowed (1,967).
With a 9-5 record, Cleveland won the AFC Central Division title in 1971.
The Browns advanced to meet the Baltimore Colts in the 1971 NFL playoffs on December 26, 1971.
Sumner started the game and recovered a fumble, which he returned for 11 yards.
However, Cleveland lost to the Colts 20-3.
In 1972, Sumner again changed positions in the defensive backfield, moving to free safety.
He played in 13, and started 10, regular season games in 1972.
On November 5, 1972, Sumner’s play at free safety helped the Browns shut out the Houston Oilers 20-0.
In a 27-10 Cleveland win over the Buffalo Bills on November 26, 1972, Sumner contributed to the Browns defense allowing only one touchdown and one field goal and limiting Buffalo to only 28 “net pass yards”.
Sumner helped the Cleveland defense hold the New York Jets to only one touchdown and one field goal and only 24 “net pass yards”, as the Browns defeated New York 26-10 on December 17, 1972.
In the 1972 NFL regular season, Sumner also returned one punt for 14 yards.
Sumner helped the Cleveland defense in the 1972 NFL regular season rank third in fewest passing yards allowed (1,736) and tied for fifth in sacks (38).
The Browns made the 1972 NFL playoffs as a “wild card” team, after posting a 10-4 regular season record.
Cleveland played the undefeated Miami Dolphins on December 24, 1972.
Sumner started the game, and his play contributed to the Browns being on the brink of a major upset, as Cleveland led Miami 14-13 in the fourth quarter.
However, the Dolphins ultimately won the game, defeating the Browns 20-14.
In 1973, Sumner again shifted positions, returning to strong safety in the defensive backfield.
He played in and started 13 regular season games in 1973.
On September 16, 1973, Sumner helped the Cleveland defense limit the Baltimore Colts to only one offensive touchdown and only four “net pass yards”, as the Browns defeated Baltimore 24-14.
Sumner had two interceptions of New York Giants quarterback Norm Snead (which he returned for a total of four yards), in a 12-10 Cleveland victory over the Giants on September 30, 1973.
The following game, on October 7, 1973, Sumner contributed to the Browns defense holding the Cincinnati Bengals to only one touchdown and one field goal, in a 17-10 Cleveland triumph over the Bengals.
On October 21, 1973, with Sumner at strong safety, the Browns limited the Houston Oilers to only one touchdown and two field goals and only 23 rushing yards, in a 42-13 Cleveland win over Houston.
Sumner helped the Browns defense hold the Oakland Raiders to only a field goal, as Cleveland defeated the Raiders 7-3 on November 18, 1973.
In the 1973 NFL regular season, Sumner intercepted the above-described two passes (and returned them for a total of four yards), had a sack, and recovered one fumble.
Sumner helped the Browns defense rank in the 1973 NFL regular season fourth in lowest passing completion percentage allowed (46.2%) and fifth in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (7).
Cleveland posted a 7-5-2 record in 1973.
Sumner played in 10, and started six, regular season games in 1974 at strong safety.
In 1974, Sumner was part of a Browns defense that held the opposing offense to one offensive touchdown or no offensive touchdowns in four regular season games – a 20-7 Cleveland victory over the Houston Oilers on September 22, 1974 (the Browns held the Oilers to only 35 rushing yards), a 26-16 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 17, 1974, a 15-10 Browns loss to the Buffalo Bills on November 24, 1974 (Cleveland held Buffalo to only nine “net pass yards”), and a 7-0 Browns shutout of the San Francisco 49ers on December 1, 1974 (Cleveland held San Francisco to only 33 “net pass yards”).
Sumner recovered one fumble in the 1974 NFL regular season.
In the 1974 NFL regular season, Sumner contributed to the Browns defense ranking tied for fourth in recovered turnovers (40), tied for fifth in recovered fumbles (16), third in lowest passing completion percentage allowed (45.1%), and tied for fifth in defensive interceptions (24).
Cleveland had a 4-10 record in 1974.
1974 was Sumner’s last regular season in the NFL.
The Years After Professional Football
Sumner married Sandra; they were high school sweethearts (Sandra was a cheerleader).
He had three children, Chad, Andi, and Melanie.
Sumner became a CPA in his hometown of Ocilla, Georgia.
In 1982, Sumner was inducted into the Florida State University Hall of Fame.
Sumner’s number was retired by Irwin County High School in 2006.
In reviewing Sumner’s six-year career with the Browns from 1969 to 1974, what is most noteworthy is Sumner’s ability to intercept passes.
Sumner had 15 regular season pass interceptions, ranking 26th in Cleveland career history.
He returned these pass interceptions for a total of 206 yards, ranking 28th in Cleveland career history.
There are several interesting details about Sumner’s pass interceptions.
First, he tended to grab his interceptions in multiple interception games.
Sumner had four games in which he had two-interceptions (eight of his total of 15 interceptions).
Second, he intercepted some of the best quarterbacks of his time.
Among his “interception victims” were future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, and Bob Griese.
Third, Sumner had certain impactful interceptions.
He returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including an interception return touchdown on December 28, 1969 that helped Cleveland defeat Dallas in the 1969 NFL playoffs.
Sumner also had four fumble recoveries (three in the regular season and one in the playoffs) in his career.
When these pass interceptions and fumble recoveries were combined with Sumner’s general play as a defensive back (including in tackling and pass coverage), Sumner helped the Browns defense allow fewer rushing yards, fewer passing yards, and fewer points.
As a result, with Sumner in the defensive secondary, whether as a cornerback or safety, the Browns won more games.
During Sumner’s career, Cleveland had only one losing season, made the playoffs three times, and won two division titles and one playoff game.
Sumner was part of a “golden period” for the Browns defensive secondary, playing during his career with such other very good defensive backs as Thom Darden, Clarence Scott, Mike Howell, Erich Barnes, Ben Davis, and Ernie Kellermann.
Over six years with Cleveland, Walt Sumner’s solid play should be recognized for blending in with and enhancing the play of the Browns defensive secondary.