When you think of the great names who played for the Cleveland Browns it is unlikely Walt Michaels comes immediately to mind. Well, it should.
Long before Michaels would become defensive coordinator of the New York Jets’ team that upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III, he was a standout linebacker for Paul Browns’ championship teams of the 1950s, although not before Brown cast him out.
Cleveland drafted Michaels in the seventh round in 1951 but traded him during training camp to the Green Bay Packers, where he immediately became a starting linebacker as a rookie. Having quickly realized the error of his ways, Brown traded three offensive linemen to the Packers to get Michaels back the following offseason, and he became an immediate fixture in a defense that led Cleveland to five NFL championship games in six years, winning twice.
Michaels was known not only for his toughness but also his football intellect. He called the defensive signals in Cleveland for most of the 10 years he started there, first at left outside linebacker and then on the right side, a switch made prior to his third year back in Cleveland.
The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Michaels once recalled Brown lecturing him about toughness. Michaels cut him short reminding his coach that people like his father, who immigrated to the United States from Poland with no money and no knowledge of English yet put every one of his children through college on a coal miner’s wages, were tough.
“Playing football was easy,’’ he told Brown.
“He understood two things about football,’’ Michaels once said of his father. “If you hit, you win. And if you win you are successful.’’
That became Walt Michaels’ formula for NFL success, and he had plenty of it. He was named to five straight Pro Bowls between 1955 and 1959 and was selected second-team All-Pro in 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960. For most of the decade of the 1950s Walt Michaels was one of the game’s finest outside linebackers.
At six feet, 230 pounds, Michaels was an aggressive run stopper but also someone who could play in the passing game. He had four interceptions in 1952, when teams threw infrequently and played only 12-game seasons. He would finish his career with 11 interceptions, two returned for touchdowns.
When Cleveland won back-to-back NFL titles in 1954 and 1955, Michaels made his presence felt. He had a pass interception and fumble recovery in the Browns’ 56-10 victory over the Detroit Lions in 1954 and an interception in their 38-14 championship game win over the Los Angeles Rams in 1955.
During an 11-year playing career (plus one game in 1963 when he stepped in to play linebacker for the depleted Jets’ defense he was coaching) Michaels started 127 of 133 games. He missed only two games in his career. He may not have been as tough as his father, but Walt Michaels was as tough as anyone playing in the NFL of the 1950s and far better than most.
"I watched Walt when he was in Cleveland,’’ recalled Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Namath, who grew up not far from Michaels’ western Pennsylvania hometown of Swoyersville. “He was a heck of a player.
"I met him briefly when the Jets came to Mobile for a preseason game. One of the first stories I heard when I got to the Jets was the Jets were thin on personnel, and Walt coached the defense ... and I will be damned, but he suited up and played linebacker one night when he was the coach.
"hat was a heck of a thing to do. He was a great player in the NFL. Walt, while he was coaching, put the uniform on and went out and played. You can't make that up."
In 2013 Cleveland.com, the digital arm of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper, picked the 100 Greatest Cleveland Browns of all-time. It put Michaels number 21 on its list, far ahead of names that might be more readily remembered today. In fact, Michaels is more well known as the hard-nosed coach of the Jets, first as defensive coordinator of that Super Bowl III winning team and later as head coach from 1977-1982.
Michaels was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1978 and in his final season in New York led the Jets to the 1982 AFC championship game, losing 14-0 to the Miami Dolphins. Michaels stunned the Jets when he resigned after that game, citing a need to get away from football after a long year in which the league was rattled by a player strike and where he spent months tending to the needs of his dying mother as well as coaching the team.
Walt Michaels is one of those players who accomplished a lot in the days before highlight films and constant hype made far less talented players household names. But for those who knew him best, the fans who watched him play dominating defensive football in Cleveland between 1952 and 1961, his is a name that has not been forgotten.
The voters at the Pro Football Hall of Fame should go back and take a good look at it, too.