Hall of Famer Dante "Gluefingers" Lavelli, a sure-handed receiver who helped the Cleveland Browns build a pro football dynasty in the 1940s and '50s, died Tuesday night at a Cleveland hospital. He was 85.
Lavelli had been hospitalized with congestive heart failure and had been treated for bladder and kidney infections, said Browns alumni relations director Dino Lucarelli.
Best known for his great hands, Lavelli was a favorite target of legendary Browns quarterback Otto Graham, who remained his close friend years after both had retired from football.
Lavelli was part of four championship teams when the Browns dominated the All-America Football Conference in the 1940s, going 15-0 in 1948. After Cleveland joined the NFL in 1950, he was a member of three title teams while playing for Coach Paul Brown and alongside Graham, Marion Motley and Lou Groza -- all Hall of Famers. Lavelli was enshrined in Canton in 1975.
An excellent all-around athlete who was 6 feet tall and weighed 191 pounds in his playing days, he started at right end for the Browns from 1946 to 1956. He caught 386 passes for 6,488 yards and 62 touchdowns, and in the early years also played defense. But because Cleveland played in the AAFC, many of his accomplishments are not recognized on the club's all-time lists.
Still, anyone who saw or played with Lavelli appreciated his greatness.
"If I had to throw the ball to get a first down and I had to pick any receiver in history, it would be Dante," Graham once said. "He had the best hands the game has ever seen, and he had the desire to go up and get the ball."
Along with his achievements on the field, Lavelli was instrumental in the formal beginnings of the NFL players' union. While playing for Cleveland, he and some of his teammates felt they shouldn't have to buy their own uniforms and sought to get meal money on road trips. They also demanded minimum pay and a pension plan.
Not long after Lavelli retired, changes were finally implemented to help players.
"It was a different game back then for sure," Lavelli said a few years ago. "I guess the biggest difference is loyalty. You were loyal to your teammates, your coaches, your city. You don't see that much these days."
Dante Bert Joseph Lavelli was born Feb. 23, 1923, in Hudson, Ohio. A star quarterback in high school, he went to Ohio State, where Brown was coach. Lavelli played in just three games for the Buckeyes before serving in the Army during World War II. An infantryman, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
"They kept coming and coming," Lavelli said of the advancing German troops in a 1944 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I started saying the 'Our Father' over and over for three days. Once, I had gone back to get Christmas packages for the guys and I would throw candy bars from one foxhole to the other so we could keep eating."
When the war ended, Lavelli got a phone call from Brown, who was putting together a professional team in Cleveland. Although he had limited playing experience, Lavelli's work ethic made a big impression on Brown, who admired his ability to get open and catch nearly anything thrown his way.
As a rookie, Lavelli led the AAFC in receptions and caught the winning pass in the 1946 title game.
When the Browns joined the NFL four years later, Lavelli continued to excel. The Browns mostly relied on their running game, but when they threw the ball, it was often in Lavelli's direction. In the 1950 NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, he caught 11 passes and scored two touchdowns in the Browns' 30-28 victory.
Lavelli often stayed after practice to work with Graham. Brown had control of the playbook, but Lavelli and Graham devised new pass patterns that they would take to their coach for approval.
Defenses had trouble stopping Lavelli, who said he earned his "Gluefingers" nickname during a training camp discussion between Brown and Browns broadcaster Bob Neal, who told the coach, "That young guy catches everything. It's like he has glue on his hands."
After retiring from the Browns, Lavelli opened a furniture and appliance store in Rocky River, Ohio.
He is survived by his wife, Joy; three children; and four grandchildren.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun