Countdown to 2020: Best Cleveland Browns player to wear No. 80

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A Cleveland Browns Riddell helmet and mouthpiece on the field at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, October 1, 2006. (Photo by Kirby Lee/NFLPhotoLibrary)

The best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear No. 80

The countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 80 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 80: Len Ford.

Len Ford was born on February 18th, 1926 in Washington D.C. He was a young man with tremendous size and remarkable athleticism so playing college football was a natural fit for the District of Columbia native. Ford began his collegiate career at Morgan State University in Maryland where he played both football and basketball.

After one year at Morgan State, Ford had a brief stint in the U.S. Navy. After his service concluded in 1945, Ford decided to transfer to the University of Michigan.

It proved to be a wise choice for Ford, who excelled while playing for one of the most successful programs in America of that era. In 1947, Michigan went undefeated and won a national championship.

Despite his collegiate success, all 32 rounds of the subsequent NFL draft came and went without Ford being selected. The Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference were more than happy to take advantage of the NFL’s close-minded ways of that era. It wasn’t until the following year that an African American would finally be drafted by an NFL team.

Ford played on both sides of the ball for the Dons. They featured the uber-athletic big man at end (wide receiver) on offense as well as using him as their defensive end. In 1948, they were the only team to defeat the eventual league champion Cleveland Browns. After the 1949 season, the struggling AAFC came to an agreement with the NFL and sent three teams to join the more prominent league. The Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts merged with the NFL and the other teams of the AAFC, including the Dons, dissolved.

Ford also played professional basketball for the New York Rens in the 1948-49 season in the National Basketball League. Oddly enough, the Rens played their home games in Dayton, Ohio. That league would also merge with another league to form the NBA a year later.

Paul Brown seized the opportunity and signed Ford to a contract to join the Browns. The head coach had a different plan for Ford than his previous coaches had concocted. Brown intended to use Ford solely as a defensive end, a move that proved to be the best way to maximize Ford’s effectiveness.

Ford’s play proved Brown’s foresight to once again be ahead of the curve. By Ford’s second season in Cleveland, he was clearly one of the most dominant defensive players the league had ever seen. From 1951 through 1954, Ford was named first-team all-pro every year. In addition, Ford was named to the pro bowl those same four seasons.

When Ford’s career in Cleveland came to a close, he owned the all-time record for fumble recoveries with 19. Sacks were not yet an official stat, but if they had been, the legend of Len Ford would be even greater than it currently is. He is credited with being one of the first defensive ends to effectively employ an outside pass rush. Before Ford, an outside pass rush was not considered a valid strategy.

Ford played eight seasons in Cleveland before finishing his career with a lone season playing for the Green Bay Packers in 1958. After his football career concluded, Ford moved to Detroit Michigan where he would spend the rest of his days. At age 46, Ford suffered a fatal heart attack.

Next: Best Cleveland Browns player to wear No. 81

Len Ford was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1976 and named to the 1950’s All-Decade team. He was also elected to the University of Michigan Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996. Ford was an absolute force on the football field and is the best Cleveland Brown to ever wear number 80.

Honorable Mention: Bill Glass.