Legendary fifty-fortitude

The late Tom DeLeone was "the glue that holds the line together," according to Kardiac Kids coach Sam Rutigliano.

I wouldn’t be much of a Browns blogger without offering a brief appreciation of Tom DeLeone, the center of the Kardiac Kids who passed away yesterday at age 65.

Like many on that fondly remembered team, including his roommate Brian Sipe, DeLeone was an overachiever. One of the smallest linemen in the league at 245 pounds, he handled the pivot exceptionally well and served as the long snapper too. He was one of three Cleveland offensive linemen to earn Pro Bowl honors for that magical season.

I’ve read several of the pieces appearing in local media, and this one by the Akron Beacon Journal’s Nate Ulrich offers colorful tributes from several of those who knew him best as a Brown.

“Tom was the best of the best,” former Browns fullback Cleo Miller said. “He was undersized for the position and had a big heart and took on the role of leadership with the linemen. There wasn’t anything you could call on Tom to do that he wouldn’t try to do to actually help. That was just Tom. He had all the linemen’s backs, and if anything would go wrong, he was the first one to be there to take care of them. He was the ultimate teammate.”

The Kent native and proud Ohio State Buckeye All-American played 11 years with the Browns, including more games at center than anyone in team history. I ranked him the second best of all Browns centers, behind only Hall of Famer Frank Gatski.

No Buckeye since him has come close to having a better career as a Brown, although Pepper Johnson and Donte Whitner did make the Pro Bowl, and fellow center LeCharles Bentley got paid more for his sole, fateful practice snap than DeLeone earned in his entire NFL career.

But DeLeone had a successful second career, serving over two decades in federal law enforcement. He had already overcome supreme hardship, enduring the loss of his young bride to cancer during the 1976 season, when he started every game for the first time despite traveling to New York each week to be at her hospital bedside. As he told Bill Scholl of Browns News/Illustrated in 1982:

“For two months after that I was totally lost… I didn’t know what direction to go. I didn’t eat right and my weight went down. My body was so run down, I got a mouth disease and my dentist said I had to straighten myself out. I knew I had to keep going. Your life doesn’t stop.”

“DeLeone a-hikin’ ” was the gift for the ninth day of Cleveland Browns Christmas. As fans, we thank him for gifts he gave us as a role model of tenacity, technique, and teamwork. Sympathies to all those who knew and loved him personally, especially Mindy, his wife of 38 years, and their three children.

Age 65 is too soon to go, but he fought valiantly against brain cancer, which has now claimed all three of the 1980 Kardiac Kids to have died so far, the others being Lyle Alzado and Ron Crews. The memories (and the mementos) shall live on.

The late Browns center was the focus of a September 27, 1982 cover story in Browns News/Illustrated

The late Browns center was the focus of a September 27, 1982, cover story in Browns News/Illustrated.