Monday, August 15, 2022

The Story of Len Ford: Rectifying a Diminished Legacy—Part 5

 By Nick Webster 
The Decline
As the 1955 season approached Ford was adding extra unwanted pounds. Having returned from his broken jaw low of just over 200 pounds to 225 for the 1950 Title, he played the better part of 1951 to 1954 in the 245 – 255 Lbs. range. Coming into 1955, Ford was well above that coming into camp. Again, he entered the season nicked up, again with a sore foot bothering him.

The Browns had another successful campaign sending Otto Graham off as an MVP and a champion, winning a title over the Rams. Both the Browns’ offense and defense ranked first in the league in points, though again, the pass rush was less ferocious than in earlier years. The team logged just over a sack per game and Lenny only had three confirmed sacks, though he likely netted double that amount, given what isn’t known from film.

The Browns – along with the rest of the league – are now running a full-time four-man line on defense.  This has eliminated some of Ford’s advantages, he’s back to playing with his fist in the dirt and is more frequently engaging directly with offensive tackles at the snap.

Ford remains first-team All-Pro though he was not a consensus choice for the first time since his injury-shortened 1950. Gene Brito, Andy Robustelli and even Tom Scott picked up first-team spots and the most impactful D-Line play of 1955 was surely that of Gene Brito. Brito notched numerous sacks but more importantly made impactful game-changing plays with a frequency of no other D-Lineman with numerous stuffs and timely forced fumbles. Brito’s play single-handedly won games against the Browns, Eagles and 49ers. A Defensive Player of the Year would have to be selected among Brito, emerging middle linebackers Joe Schmidt and Dale Dodrill, or a defensive back with Jack Christiansen again in the running.  The Washington DC Touchdown Club, admittedly biased, named Brito the NFL MVP – not just defensive Player of the Year – though Otto Graham was accepted as the League’s best, but Brito did receive votes which was rare for a defender, and he tied for fourth in UPI vote tally.

In the summer of 1956, only Darrel Brewster, Carleton Massey, and Ford are considered locks to make the club. Early in camp, Ford is replaced by youngsters, perhaps to save his legs and to get a better look at youngsters as the roster is beginning to turn over. Paul Brown believed, in early August, that Ford was actually better prepared than at the same time a year ago, though his weight is still elevated.

Ford notches a short sack in the first game of the year against the Cardinals, but this is not his best statistical campaign. He’s only known to have had two sacks on the season, though again, he was likely in the mid-to-high single digits if unassigned sacks could be attributed. A mid-season tilt against the Steelers sees Ford and Steeler lineman Bob Goana ejected for fighting. Lenny felt he was being illegally held and kicked at Goana who retaliated with a punch, a melee ensued with Goana and Ford on the turf and numerous Browns running to the rescue. Ford now held an inauspicious and very unofficial record of being tossed out of 3 league games. In the 1970s Joe Greene would join Ford, who would log another ejection in 1958, getting kicked out of four games, putting Lenny in select company. By December, Paul Brown is formally rotating Lenny with Jim Ray Smith, and the rest appeared to improve Ford’s play.  

The Browns’ defense again leads the league allowing just under 15 points per game, though the team flounders with the offense nearly going first-to-worst, unable to replace Otto Graham with George Ratterman or Tommy O’Connell (they finish 11 of 12 in PPG with under 14).

Post-season honors accurately reflect Ford’s diminished performance in 1956 as, for the first time since 1950, he doesn’t make a single First-team All-Pro. The mantle of best D-Lineman has shifted to Andy Robustelli, Gino Marchetti and Gene Brito. Ford did not make the Pro Bowl, and only received honorable mention from UPI and second team honors from the New York Post. The likely defensive Player of the Year, were one awarded, would have been selected from Joe Schmidt or Bill George as the league was entering the age of the star middle linebacker.

For the first time going into 1957, Ford’s status with the team is in question. Ford is the lone D-Lineman who is still around from the 1950 team, he’s older, nicked up, heavier and facing competition from younger talent. There’s even speculation that Lenny will not make the squad. In camp in late August, Paul Wiggin, the Stanford rookie who will be a mainstay for the next decade, is taking considerable snaps away from Ford. Bill Quinlan, back from the Army and down from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the IRFU (to become the CFL), mans the left defensive end spot. Talk around camp turns, however, and would sound familiar to modern ears, Ford is “trimmed down”, “best shape of his life” however, he’s trimmed to around 265, well north of what’s optimal and even that is achieved by way of a rubber shirt.

Lenny holds his starting role and the teams’ pass-rush is better than in prior years, though it’s mostly driven by Quinlan and Bob Gain. Ford has 3.5 known sacks though he’s likely – again – to have been in the mid-single-digits. Lenny posts 1.5 sacks in both the second and third game of the season but his performance stalls down the stretch. The October 27 matchup against the Cardinals sees Lenny and tackle Len Teeuws involved in a melee as the teams were leaving the field at the end of the half by the Comisky first-base dugout.  Lenny may have been lucky the action occurred after the gun sounded and off the field of play or a fourth ejection would likely have come in 1957. Going into December, Lenny is bothered by a sore shoulder and increasingly ceding time to rookie Paul Wiggin. Finally, on December 8 visiting the Lions, Wiggin and Quinan start and right and left end respectively; Ford doesn’t play, missing his first game since 1950. The Browns are again in the title race, boosted by spectacular rookie RB Jimmy Brown, and Paul Brown plays a balancing act of resting players (Ford in Detroit) but keeping them in playing shape, Lenny finishes up as the starter in New York.  Again, there is post-season disappointment and again at the hands of the Lions who won their third title of the decade all at the expense of the Browns.
Len Ford brings pressure on Conerly in his final game as a Brown, but Conerly gets the pass off for a long gain as the aging For is unable to finish

After the season Ford undergoes surgery on his right shoulder at his alma mater the University of Michigan to fix the injury he’s been living with all season long. Lenny is almost shut out of post-season voting but makes Second-team UPI, on reputation alone, again a Pro Bowl visit was not in the offing.

In May of 1958, Ford’s days in Cleveland come to an end, Lenny is traded to the Packers for an undisclosed 1959 draft choice at the time, which would later be their fourth pick.  Paul Brown calls the trade part of the teams’ continuing rebuilding program noting that Lenny, “should be able to help the Packers for a couple years.” Acquiring Packer Coach Scooter McLean says Ford, “still has the speed and finesse to put a lot of pressure on the passer.” McLean notes that he expects “fierce competition” on the D-Line acknowledging however that he’s not 100 percent sure Ford will make the team. The Associated Press notes that, “His last big year was 1954” . 

Ford battled Jim Temp and Nate Borden for his position on the Packers’ squad. When the time rolled around to report Lenny was late to camp, though he was not considered a holdout, an inauspicious start to what will be a challenging stint with the Packers. When Lenny does arrive, he’s “sick” and doesn’t suit up for the first few practices. Lenny has trimmed down however showing up at just 255 while admitting that he would report to the Browns weighing as much as 280 pounds, “I even played at that weight, but it was no good.” After fully sitting out a few days Ford begins participating in light calisthenics, however, days later he finds himself in the hospital saying, “I’ve been feeling terrible, even the medicine doesn’t work.” On exiting the hospital Lenny has slimmed down more, tipping the scales at 251 pounds Ford again deals with nagging injuries during camp with pulled muscles holding him out a few days.
Ford in the ‘Green-and-White intrasquad scrimmage for the Packers and back in his three-point stance

Packer Coach Scooter McLean, a former halfback for the Bears under George Halas, is not the disciplinarian that Paul Brown was, and the team is known for its wild ways; not a good fit for the drinking and partying Ford, nor such partners in crime as Paul Hornung.  An October letter to the Press-Gazette penned by nine fans asked, “(W)hy pay $4.75 to see the Packers on Sunday afternoon when for the price of a drink you can see them any night on the town.” You can understand the famous phone call Bart Starr made to his wife upon meeting Lombardi saying, “we’re gonna’ win now,” in this context.

Ford started the opening game in late September hosting the Bears in City Stadium and logged the team’s only sack, an 11-yard loss, but the Bears prevailed 34 – 20. The following week, Ford was ejected from his fourth league game in the Week 2 matchup against the Lions. Tossed for slugging declining future Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur in frustration after the star continued to hold, the game resulted in a 13 – 13 tie. In Week 3 against the defending champion Baltimore Colts, Ford notched a second sack that was controversially not called a fumble. Per Packer accounts, Unitas was clearly separated from the ball before he hit the ground and there was a clean recovery by rookie Ray Nitschke. Alas, the QB was ruled down. This continued a surprisingly promising start to the year for Lenny, though the Pack lost yet again. From there on out, things deteriorated, Ford only logged half a sack that is known for the remainder of the year and certainly finished with less than five sacks, a disappointing season. Ford admitted that he was playing “quarter-to-quarter.”

Given the difficulty of travel in the era – particularly from remote Green Bay – the team would couple trips to the West Coast at the end of the year. In fact, for the ninth consecutive season, the Pack would travel to the Coast for back-to-back Road games against the two California teams.  In 1958 it was a December seventh tilt in Kezar Stadium against the 49ers followed by a Week 12 closing matchup against the Rams in the Coliseum.

After a bad loss to the 49ers on December 7 the Pack went to Los Angeles to prepare for the season’s final game with just one win and one tie in hand, and rumors that Packer brass was in contact with Curly Lambeau about his returning to the team to replace Coach McLean. The team trained in Brookside Park in Pasadena – the same location Paul Brown had his Browns train when Lenny was there – just a stone’s throw from the Rose Bowl during the week of practice. Lambeau removed his name from consideration publicly but did visit the Pack in camp on Wednesday as speculation turned to the next coach being Blanton Collier, University of Kentucky head coach and former Browns assistant during Lenny’s stint.  

Despite the possibility of being reunited with Collier, mid-week Len Ford said he’ll retire after the finale against the Rams stating, “Circumstances could make me change my mind but right now I’m planning on retiring for good as a player.” A nod to what everyone knew, Ford admitted, “I’m not the football player I was five or six years ago . . . I was faster then and more active.”  Also unspoken, Lenny in far better shape, lighter, and less hooked on the bottle. Astutely, Ford also noted that strategy changes have impacted him, “They used to pull guards out to block against us defensive ends” of course this was when defenses played five-man lines, “which meant that I got a start of two or three steps. With that start, it was easy to just overpower the guard or run around him and just step over the back. Now . . . the tackle plays head-on with us defensive ends. You don’t get those two or three steps anymore”. It turns out Blanton Collier was wrong about moving to a four-man line to get Ford “closer to the QB.” Upon reflection, Ford always played better as a ‘stand-up’ end, even on the five-man line; and his primary pass rush ‘move’ was what would today be called ‘speed-to-power,’ which, as Lenny noted, benefitted from being further from the blocker at the snap.

Finally, on the Friday night before the finale, Ford didn’t come to bed and was first seen walking into practice the following morning. Coach McLean approached him asking where he’d been to which Lenny replied, “I got lost in the fog on the freeway.” Teammate Jim Temp recalled that ‘He obviously got drunk or got some broad. But he was gone’. Scooter’s patience had run out, he had a 1-9-1 record, a team known more for carousing than their play on the field, and an alcoholic aging star showing up late to practice after a full night out. Ford was suspended, the official reason was for ‘breaking training rules’.

The following day in the Coliseum the Packers lined up without Lenny on the line for the first time, the D-Line featured the typical left end Nate Borden at right end, backup Jim Temp replacing Borden at left end and the tackle alignment Hawg Hanner and J.D. Kimmel unchanged. Despite another loss, the Ram game was a surprisingly good Packer showing. After the game, coach McLean said of Ford, “That’s an awful way to finish a great career and he’ll be terribly sorry when he realizes what happened.” The team also refused to pay Ford’s salary for the game $916.66 off his $11,000 annual salary over 12-games.  That would become a matter of contention as the years passed. 

Post Retirement

Post-retirement Ford didn’t meet with the same success as he had on the field. Lenny and his wife divorced in 1959 though they remained close and would often dine together with the children at her home.

In 1960 Ford was fined $150 for a reckless driving charge in Detroit, but this charge and the associated fine were arrived at only after traffic judge George Murphy had reduced the original report of drunken driving.

In December 1961, Ford filed suit against the Packers in Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit to collect the game check from his final game plus $10,000 for damage to his reputation caused by the Packers' releasing him.

Lenny spent his post-football years working at the Considine Rec Center in Detroit as an assistant recreation director. He attended classes in Detroit but he never graduated with the law degree he sought but most of all Ford struggled with alcohol, a problem that had begun during his playing days. A teammate would remark that you could find Lenny in practice as the player with the snow melted around him as he was “sweating out the alcohol.” In 1958, Lenny’s Packer roommate Nate Borden said Len would get up in the morning, pour a water tumbler full of Vodka and drink it right down. Descriptions of him in his post-playing days are sad. People remarked on his lack of drive, his physical decline, and his inability to move forward. In his later days as alcohol took over Lenny was not taking care of himself.  He lost weight and was in poor physical condition, some certainly due to aftermath of rough play, but some due to abuse. Years later in 1980, friend and ex-Dodger pitching great Don Newcombe, himself a recovered alcoholic, would lament, “(H)is life was decimated because of alcohol . . . He became a wino stumbling around in alleys . . . why didn’t somebody find Lenny Ford and help him?”

In February of 1972, Lenny was hospitalized with a heart condition, Ford suffered a heart attack and died shortly after in the Hospital on March 14. Survived not only by his ex-wife, sister, and daughters but sadly also by his mother – his end coming far too soon. Lenny was laid to rest at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland just across the Anacostia River from where he grew up and played as a kid in D.C.  The plaque at his grave reads, somewhat oddly: “Leonard Guy Ford, Jr., 1926 – 1972, Lenny N.F.L., Cleveland Browns, 1950 – 1959”.

As early as 1949, Ford was already considered a college great, even drawing mention along with Bob Mann and Bill Hewitt by a first-term Congressman from Michigan’s fifth district – and ex-Michigan Wolverine football great – Gerald R. Ford in a Touchdown Club Speech on January 8, 1949, in Washington, DC.

In Jim Brown’s 1964 autobiography Off My Chest, he rated Ford as the best defender he ever saw, Gino Marchetti second. He was always considered a tough player up there with the likes of Ed Sprinkle, Leo Nomellini, Bulldog Turner, and Hardy Brown.

In 1969 when the NFL revealed its 50th Anniversary Team Lenny was the second defensive end behind Gino Marchetti. The team technically didn’t field 11 players on defense so only one DE one DT, etc. were selected. This structure technically meant that Ford was an honorable mention or Second-team, though he would be First-team on a squad of 11 that had two DEs. When the NFL issued its 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, Gino Marchetti, Deacon Jones, and Reggie White were the three DEs selected with Lenny dropping off.  

Finally, the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team selected in 2019 had DEs Gino Marchetti and Deacon Jones as unanimous selections and Doug Atkins, Bill Hewitt, Lee Roy Selmon, Bruce Smith, and Reggie White closing out the team. Bizarrely, Doug Atkins and Bill Hewitt each completed their careers prior to the selection of the 50th-anniversary team of which Ford was a member, yet somehow, they leap-frogged him on the 100th.

In 1976 Ford was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in, at the time, the smallest class the Hall had initiated (tied with 1972’s three-man class) along with Packer fullback Jim Taylor and player/coach Ray Flaherty.  Ford’s family requested that both Morgan State and Michigan be listed on his profile.  Ford was presented for enshrinement by his old high school coach Ted McIntyre and his daughter Deborah accepted on his behalf saying.  “He was guided by the philosophy that winners never quit and quitters never win and if he was alive today, I’m sure he would be a symbol of that wisdom.”  She finished off with, “To my father, who longed for this day . . . Congratulations, Daddy.  You’ve made it”.

A 1977 Pro Football Digest All-Time Team now placed Deacon Jones in the second slot above Ford. Ford was placed in the Hall of Honor at University of Michigan in 1996, the second ‘Ford’ in the Hall, joining former President Gerald Ford.

So where is Lenny’s place in the pantheon of pass rushers?  In our view his peak is on par with the best of all time, as good as that of Gino, Deacon, Reggie, and J.J.; but like J.J. albeit for different reasons that peak was too short to be on the Mt. Rushmore of pass rushers which suites Marchetti, Jones, and White with a great debate for the final spot. Leonard Guy Ford was an all-time great and a marvel to watch but both his athletic peak and his life were unfortunately short making him in many ways a sad cautionary tale.  

1 comment:

  1. Nick, thanks for this wonderful 5 part tribute to an all-time great and oft overlooked of course know that the 1958 Colts (as mentioned in 3rd game above) were not the defending champs....a nitpicky nitpick to a fabulous documentation of Mr. Ford.....awesome!