Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and fans of rock and roll music know the name of Tommy James as a very popular musician from the era of the 1950s and 60s. However, long-time Browns fans know there was also one of the best defensive backs in Browns history by the name of Tommy James.
James had the good fortune of playing for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown at three different levels of football. James, a Massillon native, played for Brown at Massillon High School, then followed him to Ohio State before joining the Browns to play professionally from 1948-55. James, Lin Houston and Horace Gillom are the only three players to accomplish the feat. Houston played with the Browns from 1946-53, while Gillom from 1947-56.
James’ career with the Browns was quite impressive as the Browns won the All-America Football Conference championship in his first two years with the Browns. When the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, they won the championship. They played in the championship in 1951-53 but lost, and won it again in 1954 and 1955. James was named to the Pro Bowl in 1954.
“We played in the championship game every year from 1950-55,” James said. “We didn’t always win, but we were in it.”
James considered it a privilege to play for the legendary coach at each level of football.
“It was good,” James said. “To have the same coach at all three levels was very exciting.”
James tried out with the Browns after coming out of the service, but started his career with the Detroit Lions before joining the Browns.
One of James’ fondest memories was holding the ball for Lou Groza in the 1950 championship game as Groza’s field goal sailed through the uprights to give the Browns a 30-28 win and championship.
“That was a big thrill,” James said. “The 1950 championship game, I had an interception and I held the ball for Lou Groza when he kicked the game-winning field goal.”
James was a defensive back, but during his career, teams didn’t pass the ball as often as they do today. He still had 26 interceptions in his career, including nine in 1950.
“I was always known as a good tackler,” James said. “Teams didn’t throw the ball like they do today. As a defensive back, you didn’t have as many opportunities to get interceptions.”
James’ nine interceptions in 1950 ties Eric Turner and Felix Wright for the second-best single season in interceptions in Browns’ history. Thom Darden had 10 interceptions in 1978. James is tied for eighth on the Browns’ all-time interception list with Wright and Hanford Dixon. James had two games with three interceptions to tie several Browns with the most passes intercepted in one game. He was the first Browns player to have three interceptions in a game against the Chicago Cardinals in 1950. He also had three interceptions against the Washington Redskins in 1953.
Players had to be more versatile during James’ playing days as opposed to the specialists of today’s player.
“Back then, we only had 35 players on the squad, so you had to be able to go both ways,” James said.
Besides playing cornerback and safety on defense, James returned punts, held on field goals and even carried the ball on offense.
Today, James lives in Massillon. He’s 77 years old, but still follows the Browns.
“I’ve been up to four games,” he said. “The alumni group and the Browns treat us well.”
James retired at age 69 from a sales position in trucking transportation. He has two sons in Massillon. One is the track coach at Massillon High School, while the other works for American Freightways. His oldest son lives in Michigan and works for the Sara Lee company. He also has four grandchildren.