Dante 'Gluefingers' Lavelli, 85, Hall of Fame Browns receiver
CLEVELAND - Hall of Famer Dante "Gluefingers" Lavelli, a sure-handed receiver who helped the Cleveland Browns build a dynasty in the 1940s and 50s, died Tuesday. He was 85.
The cause of death was not immediately available.
Best known for his great hands, Mr. Lavelli was a favorite target of legendary Browns quarterback Otto Graham, who remained a close friend years after both had retired from football.
Mr. 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, Mr. Lavelli was a member of three title teams while playing for coach Paul Brown.
An excellent all-around athlete, Mr. Lavelli started for the Browns from 1946-56. He caught 386 passes for 6,488 yards and 62 touchdowns. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Lavelli was instrumental in the formal beginnings of the NFL players' union. While playing for Cleveland, Mr. Lavelli and some of his teammates thought they should not 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 Mr. Lavelli retired, changes were implemented to help players.
A star quarterback in high school, Mr. Lavelli 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. Mr. Lavelli played in just three games for the Buckeyes before serving in World War II.
After the War ended, Mr. Lavelli got a call from Brown, who was putting together a professional team in Cleveland.
As a rookie, Mr. Lavelli led the AAFC in receptions and caught the winning touchdown pass in the 1946 title game.
When the Browns joined the NFL four years later, Mr. Lavelli continued to excel.
Defenses could not stop Mr. 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."
Mr. 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."