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Ewbank, Donovan and McCormack common threads in shared history

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Art Donovan? A Cleveland Brown? It happened, in 1951.

Donovan spent that summer in the Browns' training camp. Why Cleveland?Baltimore was between franchises in the NFL, and when the old Colts foldedafter the 1950 season, Donovan needed a job.

He didn't make the team. The Browns, defending NFL champs, were rich inlinemen. Donovan got hurt in practice. And then there was his relationshipwith coach Paul Brown.

"I don't think he liked me," Donovan says.

"I played three exhibition games, but never really got a chance. All theirtackles were back; I was odd man out. I thought I was better than most, butthey [Browns] didn't."

Worse, Donovan was badly injured in a scrimmage when a teammateaccidentally stepped on his face. "I was trying to make a tackle, and herecomes a shoe," he recalls. Fifty-eight stitches closed the wound, but duringDonovan's recovery, the Browns tried to lose him.

Weeb Ewbank, then an assistant coach for Cleveland, urged Paul Brown toreconsider.

"You can't cut Donovan now," Ewbank said. "Wait until he gets well, andcan fight for his position."

Ewbank remembers another reason for postponing Donovan's departure:"Arthur was cut up pretty badly. I couldn't send him home to his mother with aface like that."

In the end, the Browns peddled Donovan and another ex-Colt, Sisto Averno,to the New York Yanks, who became the Dallas Texans, who became the BaltimoreColts in 1953.

A year later, Donovan made All-Pro, en route to the Hall of Fame.

"The Browns did me a favor," he says. "That trade was the best thing thatever happened to me."

News of the Browns' move to Baltimore sent shock waves coursing throughDonovan, who is in China, vacationing with his wife.

"What's with Art Modell? Is he starving in Cleveland? He's doing to themwhat [Bob] Irsay did to Baltimore," he says. "I never thought the NFL wouldcome to this. The crack is in the dam, and it's not going to get any better.

"How are you going to start rooting for the Browns? They've got VinnyTestaverde; he'll take them to the championship -- in 2010.

"What happens to the Stallions? Are they moving to Harrisburg?

"This is hard to believe. Modell is going to charge people thousands ofdollars so they can buy season tickets. I can't find a cheeseburger. And thebeds here [in China] are half my size.

"I think everybody's gone nuts."

Ewbank as double agent

It's Draft Day 1954, and Paul Brown is seething. Another NFL team appearsto be bugging his thoughts. Stealing his notes. Reading his mind.

That team is Baltimore. All day, the Colts have been turning over the samerocks and beating the same bushes as Cleveland, which prides itself on itssophisticated preparation of the draft.

Yet the Colts, a fledgling organization, seem interested in some of thesame obscure names on the Browns' top-secret list. And it's really getting toBrown, the Cleveland coach.

There's a leak in his command, and Brown can't find it.

He glances suspiciously at Ewbank, his longtime assistant, who helped planCleveland's draft. Ewbank is a lame-duck Brown, having agreed to coach theColts in 1954. He should be huddling with the Colts' brass, but Paul Browninsisted that Ewbank sit beside him on draft day. Ewbank knows all the Browns'secrets.

Is he the source of the leaks?

In the 20th round, the Colts pick a myopic, pigeon-toed receiver fromSouthern Methodist University -- an underclassman, to boot. Cleveland isstunned; how did Baltimore learn of Raymond Berry?

In the 21st round, the Colts choose Robert Lade, a heretofore unknownlineman from Nebraska State Teachers College. . . . and Brown hits the roof.He turns red, clenches his fist and slams it on the table, interrupting thedraft. Lade was his find, a sleeper, now gone.

"I'd never seen Brown so mad," says The Sun's John Steadman, then areporter for the Baltimore News Post.

Lade proved a bust. Brown never confronted his Deep Throat. And Ewbank,now 88, never has admitted to stealing Cleveland's thunder. But that's whathappened, says Steadman.

"I carried his messages to the Colts' table myself," Steadman says.

Ewbank's response?

"I don't remember passing notes," he says. "I might have winked, orsomething like that. But I never did anything that Paul Brown wouldn't havedone."

Stock in trade

In 1953, the Browns and Colts rocked the NFL with a 15-man trade, stillthe biggest player exchange in league history. The deal served both clubs: thenew Colts (Art Spinney, Carl Taseff, Bert Rechichar) would help Baltimore toback-to-back championships in 1958-59. Cleveland's acquisitions (Tom Catlin,Don Colo and John Petitbon, Ritchie's brother) did the same for the Browns,NFL champs in 1954-55.

The key figure in the trade for the Colts, a rookie quarterback namedHarry "The Golden Greek" Agganis, would never play pro football. Agganis, atop Cleveland draft choice from Boston University, chose baseball instead,signing with the Red Sox for a lofty $25,000. The Colts acquired Agganis,hoping to change his mind. They failed. Shortly thereafter, Agganis became illwith pneumonia and died.

Two of those involved in the trade later would boss the Colts. Baltimorelanded Don Shula, a 23-year-old halfback who'd prove to be a better coach thanplayer. The Browns got Mike McCormack, a young tackle who blossomed inCleveland, made it to the Hall of Fame and returned here in 1980 as Colts headcoach.

McCormack learned of the swap while in the military. He was standing on awind-swept airstrip in Missouri when a serviceman in a Jeep approached.

"Armed Forces Radio says you've been traded to Cleveland," he was told.McCormack shrugged; he'd never even been to Baltimore, which, in 1953, was anew team in the league.

"I never set foot there, as a Colt, until I became coach," he says.

At Cleveland, McCormack quickly became a starter on the Otto Graham-ledchampionship teams of the mid-'50s. He relishes memories of the aftermath ofthe 1954 title game, a 56-10 thrashing of Detroit at Cleveland's MunicipalStadium.

"The fans crowded onto the field and went berserk," he says. "Players hadno police escorts then; it took us one-half hour to get off the field. Peoplewere asking, begging, for souvenirs. I gave my helmet to one kid, the chinstrap to another. All I kept was my jersey."

McCormack is now general manager of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte,N.C., the city that beat Baltimore in the expansion race of 1993. He spokeabout the cyclical nature of pro football.

"Fifty years ago, the Cleveland Rams won the world championship and movedto Los Angeles, which allowed the Browns to come into existence. Now, the Ramshave moved again -- and Cleveland is without a team again," he says. "Whatgoes around, comes around."

Snapshot of the city

Creaky old hotels. Narrow, cobbled roads. Superb seafood.

Dante "Gluefingers" Lavelli, the Browns' 72-year-old Hall of Famereceiver, has fond memories of post-war Baltimore. Why not? Clevelandclobbered the Colts seven straight times between 1947 and 1950, whileoutscoring them, 192-37.

For Lavelli, who had 62 career touchdown receptions -- six fewer than theColts' Raymond Berry -- a trip to Baltimore meant carousing in Little Italy,where the Browns went for their post-game repast.

"The lobster tails were terrific at a place on South High Street," Lavellirecalls. "We'd go there Sunday nights, after [beating] the Colts.

"The downtown area was old. The Lord Baltimore, where we stayed, wasreally old. I remember the motorcycle charlies [police] would escort our busfrom the hotel to the stadium. The streets weren't real wide then."

If the Colts couldn't beat Cleveland, neither could most other clubs. In1948, the Browns won 15 straight in the All-America Football Conference,including three games in one week on the road.

Lavelli speaks of those days with pride.

"We beat the Yanks in New York on Sunday, then flew to Los Angeles andbeat the Dons on Thanksgiving," he says. The cross-country fight took 24hours, with three stops for refueling.

"Then we flew to San Francisco and beat the 49ers on Sunday, without anypractice."

Only the last game was close.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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