He was known simply as “The Toe.”
But Lou Groza, who died Wednesday night, was more than just a kicker to generations of Cleveland Browns fans. To them, he symbolized a bygone era when Cleveland dominated pro football, and when athletes played for the love of the game.
The Hall of Fame kicker and lineman died of an apparent heart attack at age 76.
Beloved Browns Player
In failing health in recent years with Parkinson’s disease, Groza was brought to Southwest General Health Center in Middleburg Heights after collapsing following dinner with his wife, Jackie, at a country club.
Groza, one of the most beloved players in Browns history, played 21 years in Cleveland from 1946-67. He retired as the franchise’s career scoring leader — a distinction he still holds.
In his 21 seasons, Groza signed 21 one-year contracts. The last in 1967 was for $50,000.
Groza was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
Groza was an All-Pro tackle six times, and was selected the NFL’s Player of the Year in 1954. A nine-time Pro Bowl selection, Groza finished his career with 1,349 points, with only six of those coming on his only career touchdown — a tackle-eligible play in 1951.
Using a head-on approach to kicking the football that’s rare in today’s game, Groza, who also wore No. 46, transformed the art of placekicking and helped make kickers more of an offensive weapon.
College football’s top kicker each year is given the Lou Groza Award.
In 1950, Groza kicked a 16-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in the NFL championship game to help the Browns beat the Los Angeles Rams and win the title in their first season in the league.
Groza played in 216 games and nine NFL championship games with the Browns, who won three titles during the 1950s and another in 1964.
After playing briefly at Ohio State, Groza was a starting offensive tackle for the Paul Brown-coached Cleveland teams that dominated the All-American Football Conference during the late 1940s and the NFL in the ’50s.
In his MVP season of ’54, Groza anchored the left side of the offensive line alongside guard Abe Gibron and center Frank Gatski, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Groza also made 16 of 24 field-goal attempts and 37 of 38 extra points that year.
A back injury forced him to take off the 1960 season, but Brown convinced him to return the next year, and Groza spent his final seven years as a kicking specialist.
When the Browns won the title in 1964, Groza finished the season with 115 points, making 49 of 50 extra points and 22 field goals.
Stayed Involved With Team
Groza remained active with the Browns even after his retirement, and up until this season, he attended home games. He kept his home in suburban Berea and was involved in many of the team’s alumni activities.
The last of the “original” Browns to retire, Groza had attended the reunion of Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinees in July in Canton.
When former owner Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season, Groza was one of the more vocal former players who urged the NFL to bring a team back to Cleveland.
During one of the downtown pep rallies the city held when it was fighting to get its team back, Groza was overcome with emotion and tears rolled down the giant man’s cheeks.
Last year, the new Browns honored Groza by renaming the street in front of their Berea training facility “Lou Groza Boulevard.” The facility’s address is: 76 Lou Groza Blvd.
And although he was not in good health, Groza was at training camp this summer to see the new Browns prepare for their second year back in the league.
Groza was born on Jan. 25, 1924, in Martins Ferry. His younger brother, Alex, was an All-American center for the NCAA championship Kentucky basketball teams of the late 1940s.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three sons, a daughter, and nine grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not complete.