State Your Case: Does Lou Rymkus deserve another shot at the Hall of Fame?
Lou Rymkus is considered one of the greatest players in the greatest era the Cleveland Browns ever knew. So great that in 1988 he was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But he wasn’t elected and almost immediately disappeared into the fog of history. It’s hard to understand why.
In 1943, Rymkus was drafted out of Notre Dame in the seventh round by the Washington Redskins and became an immediate two-way starter at offensive and defensive tackles. He proved so proficient at both that he was named to the All-NFL team after a spectacular rookie season in which he not only blocked and tackled far in excess of expectations but scored two touchdowns -- one on a blocked punt he recovered and ran in and the other on a 21-yard interception return.
The sky seemed the limit for Rymkus until the needs of the nation intervened. With the world at war, Rymkus joined the U.S. Marine Corps after his rookie season and for the next two years served at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station before finally being shipped out to Hawaii. By then, Rymkus had caught the eye of Great Lakes’ head football coach, Lt. Paul Brown.
After the war ended, Brown convinced Rymkus to join his newly created Cleveland Browns in the equally new All-American Football Conference which intended to compete with the established NFL for the hearts and dollars of pro football fans.
Unsure what to do, Rymkus called Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall to tell him the Browns had offered to double his 1943 salary of $2,000 if he’d jump leagues. Marshall reportedly asked, “Why would you want to play with those renegades?’’ He then told him he was welcome back in Washington … for the same $2,000 he’d been paid in 1943.
Rymkus took Brown’s $4,000 offer and, at the advanced age of 27, began a six-year run as one of the finest linemen in the AAFC on the finest team in pro football.
Rymkus was named to a combined NFL-AAFC All-Pro team in 1946, playing over 50 minutes a game as both an offensive and defensive tackles. But to get to Cleveland he had to take a circuitous route. Short on cash, Rymkus left his wife behind in Nappanee, Ind., and hitchhiked the 130 miles to Cleveland’s summer training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio.
It turned out to be worth the trip for both Rymkus and the Browns.
The following season he would begin a three-year run of being named All-AAFC and as an integral part of what would become four straight AAFC championship teams (1946-1949). So key was Rymkus’ blocking to the success of an offense led by quarterback Otto Graham and fullback Marion Motley, that in 1948 Brown made the decision to keep him exclusively on offense, a move Rymkus opposed.
The move proved prescient. The Browns continued to steamroll their way through the AAFC before merging with the NFL in 1950, Rymkus was twice named All-NFL second team at offensive tackle, giving him a six-year run where he was named all-league every season and played in the league championship game six straight years.
This was all the more remarkable because Rymkus suffered a serious knee injury his first season in Cleveland but hid a torn knee cartilage from the coaching staff. Although the knee would lock as many as six times a game that season, he had learned from the team’s trainer how to unlock it himself by manipulating the joint.
He never missed a game. Or a practice.
“In those days, if you didn’t play on Sunday you weren’t there on Monday,’’ Rymkus once explained when asked how he could perform so consistently for so long on a damaged knee.
Rymkus was a guaranteed presence along the Browns’ offensive line and remained so in all but his final season in Cleveland -- meaning that for nearly six years he was not only in every game but at every practice while performing at such a high level he was named to the All-Pro team in whatever league his team was in.
When the Browns finally became part of the NFL, men like Marshall scoffed at them despite their dominance of the AAFC. Led by the blocking of Rymkus and future Hall-of-Famers Frank Gatski and Lou Groza, Cleveland’s offense terrorized the NFL, winning the NFL title in 1950 and losing the championship game to Los Angeles Rams, 24-17, in 1951.
By then 32 and with a knee that needed surgical repair, Rymkus retired as a player but agreed to become the only assistant coach on the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. A year later he was back in the NFL as an assistant in Green Bay.
After seven years as an NFL assistant in Green Bay and later for the Rams, Rymkus signed a three-year contract to take over as head coach of the upstart Houston Oilers in a startup operation called the American Football League. Once again Lou Rymkus would leave the NFL for, as Marshall might have put it, “those renegades.’’
Rymkus sparkled as a rookie head coach, leading the Oilers to a 10-4 record and the first AFL championship. That championship game held special significance for Rymkus because he defeated his old boss, L.A. Chargers' head coach Sid Gillman, with whom he’d had a falling out during their years with the Rams.
Named Coach of the Year, Rymkus seemed headed for a successful second career in pro football only to be told by Oilers’ team owner Bud Adams that he wanted the team to train in Hawaii for several weeks before the 1961 season. Rymkus didn’t like it, and the team got off to a slow, 1-3-1 start.
Rymkus believed it was because the Oilers wasted two weeks practicing among palm trees rather than Texas heat. He believed they had not been prepared for the grit required to defend a championship.
Predictably, Bud Adams did not agree. He blamed his coach, firing the AFL’s first Coach of the Year four games into his second season in Houston. The Oilers went on to repeat as AFL champions but Rymkus disappeared. Although he did work as an assistant coach on several teams he never again served as an NFL head coach.
The quality of the play of Lou Rymkus may have been forgotten with the passage of time, but the man who knew him best, the one who had lured him to the Cleveland Browns by doubling his salary in Washington, would not be.
“Lou Rymkus was the best pass protector I’ve ever seen,’’ Paul Brown once said.
Admittedly, that was before he saw Anthony Munoz, who became a Hall-of-Fame tackle for Brown’s other NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals. But it was still high praise for a one-time Hall-of-Fame finalist who deserved more consideration for a bust in Canton than he got.