The Browns’ hotly debated drafting of Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel sounds a distant echo to an often forgotten chapter of Cleveland’s colorful sports history.
Exactly seventy years ago last month the Cleveland Rams — yes, there was another NFL team in the city before the Browns — drafted high-profile rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield and signed him to a lucrative rookie contract. Though Waterfield too had been a college star, leading UCLA to the Rose Bowl in 1942 (then spending several years in wartime military service), howls of protest rose from some Cleveland sportswriters. Waterfield isn’t worth the attention or the money, they said. The Rams were more interested in getting publicity than a quality back, they said.
Waterfield went on to have the kind of rookie year Browns fans can only pray Manziel will replicate. In a glorious 1945 season, in home games at the Indians’ League Park and at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and with “Big Jim” Benton as his primary receiver, Waterfield went on to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.
Even better, the Rams — who like the current Browns had posted years of non-winning seasons — stunned the football world by capturing the NFL Championship over “Slingin'” Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins in the title game, 15-14, at Cleveland Stadium.
Two months later, Waterfield and the Rams were gone — moved to Los Angeles as the first major-league sports teams on the West Coast in the postwar era. But the allure of a rookie player coming in and instantly reversing a mediocre team’s fortunes remains in Cleveland.