Front Row Seat: Former Browns' QB Ryan deserves a salute as an NFL champion

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Plenty of Cleveland Browns football fans know the names of Otto Graham, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar. All were Browns' star quarterbacks of yesteryear.

Graham, of course, is a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who led Cleveland to seven league titles -- three in the National Football League and four in the All-American Football Conference. Sipe and Kosar led their teams to the brink of NFL championships.

Fewer Browns fans know the name of Frank Ryan, yet Ryan accomplished something that only he and Graham have ever done -- lead the Browns to an NFL title.

Ryan's No. 13 Browns jersey can be seen every Friday during the school year at Leighton Elementary School, where it is worn by fifth-grade math teacher Ted Linden, whose story as a fan of Ryan and the Browns was chronicled in the Dec. 19 Aurora Advocate. Linden has something in common with Ryan because both became math teachers.

The Browns' championship with Ryan at the helm was achieved on Dec. 27, 1964, when the underdog Browns overwhelmed the Baltimore Colts, 27-0, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Ryan threw three touchdown passes to receiver Gary Collins, who was voted

the game's most valuable player, and Lou Groza kicked two field goals.

People who remember the title game still get chills listening to recordings of former Browns radio play-by-play announcer Gib Shanley's calls of Ryan's three TD passes to Collins.

Bosses at Sports Illustrated were allegedly so sure the Browns would lose that editors had to scramble after the game to change the magazine's cover from Baltimore Coach Don Shula and quarterback Johnny Unitas to one featuring Ryan.

The victory made an NFL champion out of the incomparable Jim Brown, the Browns' fullback who is the greatest player of all-time.

Other Pro Football Hall-of-Famers on that squad include Groza, wide receiver Paul Warfield and guard Gene Hickerson. The team was coached by Blanton Collier.

FEW WORDS had more meaning to Browns' fans in the mid-1960s than "Ryan to Collins," which referred to one of the league's top passing combinations.

With Ryan at quarterback, the Browns played in back-to-back NFL title games, losing in 1965 to the Green Bay Packers. It was the last season before the Super Bowl era began.

Ryan was like a star who blazed through the sky, then was gone.

From 1963 through 1967, he was one the NFL's top quarterbacks, leading the league in TD passes in 1964 and 1966, and being picked for the Pro Bowl all-star game three times from 1964 through 1966.

Yet early in the 1968 season, Ryan's performance began to slip. Collier replaced Ryan with Bill Nelsen, and Ryan remained a back-up for the rest of his career.

Ryan may be best known as the only NFL player to have held a Ph.D. during his career. His doctorate was in mathematics from Rice University.

His expertise in math provided jokes for sportswriters including the legendary Red Smith, who once wrote that the Browns' offense consisted of a quarterback who understood Einstein's theory of relativity and 10 teammates who didn't know there was one.

Ryan left his mark during his 13-year NFL career.

He was featured in the first sports book I ever received as a Christmas present from my mom, Bettie Lesko -- "Great Quarterbacks of the NFL" by Dave Anderson, published in 1965.

The book profiled Graham and Ryan along with Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Y.A. Tittle, Norm Van Brocklin, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton and Charley Johnson.

RYAN WAS an easy going fellow during my encounters with him.

When I worked for another newspaper years ago, Ryan, without getting upset, allowed one of my co-workers to redo an hour-long tape recorded interview with him after the original tape broke.

More recently, Ryan was a good guy when I spoke with him at an autograph signing event in Berea, where he appeared with Collins.

Ryan has a good sense of humor. When he first joined the Browns, the right-handed Ryan played a prank on local photographers, posing for photos as a left-hander.

He also played a trick on some of his teammates, calling them on the phone and disguising his voice so they would think it was one of the assistant coaches. Then Ryan told them they didn't have to go to practice the next day.

Later that day, he called his teammates back to tell them it was a joke so they wouldn't get in trouble.

Ryan once jokingly said, "I owe my recovery from two ankle injuries (as a player) to the suggestion of a lady fan. She prescribed a daily eight-ounce cocktail -- one part sherry, one part honey and half vinegar. I got better just thinking about it."

After Ryan retired, he once humorously analyzed his defeat in a board football game by saying, "I looked through the play-selection cards and couldn't find one with Jim Brown's name on it."

Today, Ryan, 76, lives in Vermont.

It has been 48 years since a major Cleveland pro sports team won a league championship -- Ryan's 1964 ClevelandBrowns.

As the anniversary of that epic game approaches, the quarterback of that memorable team deserves a salute.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187

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