Len Ford’s first pro coach said of him: "Len can become the greatest all-around end in history. He has everything -- great size, speed, strength, great hands."
Although Jim Phelan was right in his assessment of Ford's talents, he was wrong about the "all-around" part. Ford became a defensive star, one of the best in the history of pro football.
After a stellar career at Michigan -- he starred on the undefeated 1947 team that slaughtered USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl -- Ford (1926-1972) joined the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference.
For two seasons, he made Phelan's prediction look inspired. He played both ways, specializing in spectacular one-hand catches and rock-smashing tackles.
But when the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, the Dons were no more. Len was put into a special draft of players cast adrift by defunct AAFC clubs.
Coach Paul Brown, whose Cleveland team had been taken into the league, grabbed Ford and made him strictly a defender. After some fine games, disaster struck. The Cardinals' Pat Harder, a terrific blocker, caught Len full in the face with an elbow. Ford suffered a broken nose, two fractures of the cheekbone, and several lost teeth. He needed reconstructive facial surgery.
It was assumed his season was over. But Len worked hard and was back at defensive end for the championship game. His pass rushing was a factor in Cleveland’s narrow 30-28 win.
At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Ford was nearly unstoppable when he went after a passer. An opponent’s scouting report described him thus: "LEN FORD: Really blows in. Does a lot of jumping over blockers. Does not predetermine this -- if he sees a fellow going very low to block, he will jump over. Plays inside very tough. Must be blocked or he will kill the passer. He claims there is no one in the league who can take him out alone."
With Ford an annual All-NFL selection, the Browns played in six straight championship games, winning three.
To learn more about football greats, see:
- Great Football Players
- Great Offensive Football Players
- Great Defensive Football Players
- Great Football Coaches