Hall of Famer Dante "Gluefingers" Lavelli, a sure-handed receiver who helped the Cleveland Browns build a dynasty in the 1940s and 50s, has died. He was 85.
Fairview Hospital spokeswoman Denise Smith said Lavelli died Tuesday night. He 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. After Cleveland joined the NFL in 1950, Lavelli 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.
He was enshrined in Canton in 1975.
"We are deeply saddened to learn of Dante's passing," said Hall of Fame president Steve Perry. "He was not only a good friend to all of us at the Pro Football Hall of Fame but also to the many legions of Cleveland Browns fans across the country."
An excellent all-around athlete, Lavelli started at right end for the Browns from 1946-56. He caught 386 passes for 6,488 yards and 62 TDs. But because Cleveland played in the AAFC, many of his accomplishments are not recognized on the club's career lists.
Still, anyone who saw or played with Lavelli appreciated his greatness.
"He had the strongest hands I've ever seen," Brown once said. "Nobody can take the ball away from him once he gets his hands on it."
Along with his achievements on the field, Lavelli, who was born on Feb. 23, 1923, was instrumental in the formal beginnings of the NFL players' union. While playing for Cleveland, Lavelli 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."
A star quarterback at Hudson (Ohio) High School, Lavelli once got a tryout as a second baseman with the Detroit Tigers. He received a football scholarship to Notre Dame but turned it down when Brown was hired to coach at Ohio State. Lavelli played in just three games for the Buckeyes before serving in World War II.
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 virtually anything thrown his way.
As a rookie, Lavelli led the AAFC in receptions and caught the winning TD 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. He caught 37 passes for 565 yards and five TDs in 1950. One year later, he had 43 receptions for 586 yards and six TDs.
Lavelli often stayed after practice to work with Graham. Brown had control of the playbook, but Lavelli and Graham devised new pass patterns they would take to their coach for approval. Lavelli borrowed one of his moves after seeing a game at Yankee Stadium not long after returning from military duty.
"If you wore a G.I. uniform, you could get in free to a Giants game in New York, so I did," Lavelli recalled. "They were playing Washington in one of Sammy Baugh's last games for the Redskins. He kept passing to this little flanker who wore double-zero, Steve Bagarus. I'll never forget how he just caught one pass after another. He'd turn right angles to the sidelines and the ball was there.
"They just couldn't defend it."
Defenses couldn't stop 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."
Lavelli said he developed his knack for catching at an early age.
"I loved to throw a tennis ball against the wall and catch it," he said shortly after his induction in Canton. "And I played baseball every chance I could get."
After retiring from the Browns, Lavelli opened a furniture and appliance store in Rocky River, Ohio. He was an avid golfer, active in the Browns alumni association and often attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
He is survived by his wife, Joy, three children and four grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.