A late Sooner

Lots of Browns news floating around from the first day of minicamp, but I didn’t want one sad note to get overlooked. Former Browns linebacker Tom Catlin has died at age 76 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

I dare to say that most fans today don’t remember him. His playing career ended before I came along as well. Here’s what I can tell you about his time as a Brown:

He was drafted by the Colts in 1953 but soon came to Cleveland as part of one of the largest trades in NFL history. He played two seasons at linebacker before honoring his military commitment. After two years as an Air Force pilot, he returned for parts of two more seasons in Cleveland, finishing his playing career in Philadelphia in 1958.

The strong, smart and silent type, Catlin wore 50 during his first stint as a Brown and his old college jersey number, 54, after his service discharge.

1954 was his best season. He was credited with three fumble recoveries and one interception and was named 2nd team all-NFL by UPI. More importantly, the Browns reclaimed their place as NFL champions after three straight years as runners-up. The Cleveland defense was the league’s best, allowing the fewest points and yards.

The best player in the big Browns-Colts trade was Mike McCormack, who started on defense but soon became an All-Pro offensive tackle and eventually a Hall of Famer. He was among those interviewed in Andy Piascik’s authoritative book The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns, Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty.

Newcomer Catlin epitomized Cleveland’s deadly combination of aggressiveness and smarts as well as anyone. “Catlin, I think, was the most intelligent linebacker I have ever seen, McCormack said. “He just studied and analyzed everything … he just knew where to be — knew his defense, knew his coverage.” And, McCormack added, Catlin “was tough.”

Catlin would be a significant contributor to Cleveland’s ascent back to the top of the football world. However, his stint with the team was interrupted by military service that cost him two full seasons and most of a third. Like so many of the Browns of that era, he had a long career as an assistant coach after his playing days.

In fact, Catlin’s longest coaching stint was with Seattle, shortly after the arrival of McCormack in the early ’80s. He stayed 13 seasons in such roles as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.

Given the length of his military commitment — and its timing right in the heart of his career — Catlin lost the opportunity to make a more memorable mark in Browns history. If one were to rank the team’s greatest linebackers ever, he would probably be in the mid-20s.

But in all the years of Browns football, there is only one player from the University of Oklahoma who clearly made more of an impact during his time as a Cleveland Brown than did Catlin. That’s no dig, because few really can compare to Greg Pruitt.

My football wish for the day is for Brodney Pool and Travis Wilson to find inspiration from Catlin’s career. May these fellow former Sooners blossom as truly diligent students of the game.