Playing for the awesome Cleveland Browns teams of 1947-1953 which produced seven players and a head coach now enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, he was one of the very best. An All-American tackle at Ohio State, he became the first African-American player signed by an All-American Football Conference team when Paul Brown recruited him for his new Browns team in 1946. Despite weighing barely 215 pounds he became an immediate starter both on the offensive and defensive line. But it was his lightning quickness and devastating tackling as a middle guard that elevated him above the pack. And it was those skills which he combined to create his signature play, one which deserved a permanent niche on the positive-side list of sports memories forever emblazoned in the minds of Cleveland’s long-suffering sports fans, opposite “The drive,” “The Fumble,” and “the Shot.” “The Tackle” took place on the afternoon of December 17, 1950 in the final quarter of the NFL American Conference championship game between the Browns and the New York Giants. With Cleveland clinging to a fourth quarter 3-0 lead, the Giants Choo-Choo Roberts broke into the open from the Browns’ 36 and seemed headed for a decisive touchdown when suddenly Willis flashed into the picture. Gaining ground with every step, he caught Roberts from behind at the four, paving the way for an 8-3 victory and a conference title which enabled the Browns to move on to capture the NFL championship in their first season in the league. It may have been the best of many incredible feats that were to earn him selections to three All-AAFC and four All-NFL teams, to play in three NFL Pro Bowls, to help his teams to four AAFC and one NFL title and propel him into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1977.
Joe left the comparative tranquility of rural Illinois in 1970 to accept an offer to come to Cleveland and become the radio play-by-play voice of the newly formed Cleveland Cavaliers. It turned out to be one of the best deals the Cavs ever made. Certainly none of their transactions have had a longer lasting impact on the community. Beginning his broadcasting career in 1956 as an undergraduate at Monmouth College by airing the games of his beloved future alma mater, he happily stuck with it for 14 seasons before the Cavs uncovered him. Now, when the Cavs’ 2005-06 season opens he will be starting his 51st year in broadcasting, his 34th season with the Cavs and his 36th year of doing NBA basketball (he left to broadcast the New Jersey Nets games in 1981-82 and those of the Chicago Bulls in 1982-83). Even in his two seasons away from the Cavs, his familiar baritone continued to boom across the Cleveland airwaves calling the games of the Cleveland Indians on radio and/or TV, assignments be handled from the 1972 to the 1988 seasons. In 1988, Cavaliers management, deciding perhaps the man might have some promise, tightened their grip on him by naming him their broadcast vice president. Now the unchallenged dean of Cleveland sportscasters, he has, entering the 2005-06 season, broadcast 2,747 Cavaliers games as well as all 188 games of the organization’s currently defunct women’s counterpart, the Cleveland Rockers, plus well over 2000 Indians contests. In addition, he has been the TV voice of Mt. Union College football for 17 years. During these years he has been chosen the Ohio Sportscaster of the Year eight times, and will be entering his sixth Hall of Fame with his induction into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. But who’s counting?
Warrensville Heights already boasted an enviable record as a small school which produced outstanding athletes when one of its future students began his adolescent growth spurt in the mid-70s. By the time he reached high school age, he was nearly seven feet tall, and while he was a bit on the spindly side, it was evident that WHS was on the brink of welcoming its next quality sports star in the person of basketball prospect Brad Sellers. Hope became reality, and by the time he reached his senior season, major college scouts were beating a steady path to the doors of the Tigers gym. Wisconsin won the recruiting battle and Sellers enjoyed two good seasons in Madison, averaging 15.3 points and nine rebounds over 55 games in 1981-82 and 1982-83. His 838 points made him just the fourth UW player to top 700 by the end of his sophomore season. But, at the end of that second season, he elected to transfer to Ohio State, where he stepped it up a notch, averaging 17.8 points and a prodigious 10.8 rebounds over two years. His 416-rebound total in 1985-86 still ranks as the fourth best single season total in OSU history. Even more impressive, his 187 blocked shots rank as the Bucks’ third best CAREER total. The Chicago Bulls made him the 9th pick in Round One of the 1986 NBA draft and he went on to play the first three of his six NBA seasons with Chicago, then split three ensuing campaigns among Seattle, Minnesota and Detroit. Although his best season was the 1987-88 campaign with the Bulls when he started 76 games averaging 9.4 ppg, his most memorable moment may have come in the 1987 playoffs when he made the last second pass to Michael Jordan that Jordan converted into “The Shot” which eliminated Cleveland from the playoffs. Still living in Warrensville Heights, he is now the city’s community liaison director.
Honors went hand-in-large-hand with the consistently solid basketball play of one Michael “Campy” Russell during a spectacular college and professional career. The Pontiac (MI) Central High product played just two varsity seasons with the University of Michigan, averaging 18.4 points as a sophomore, then 23.7 points and 11.1 rebounds as a junior in 1973-74. His second-year totals were enough to enable him to lead the Big Ten in scoring, finish second in rebounding, earn unanimous acclaim as the Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American status, and sufficiently impress the Cleveland Cavaliers to take him with the 8th overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft. He more than lived up to his college reputation during a nine-year pro career which ended in 1984. Seven of those seasons were with the Cavs, reaching a zenith in 1978-79 with a career high scoring average of 21.9 ppg, a single game career high of 41 against Phoenix and a place on the NBA All-Star team. He averaged 15.0 ppg for the Cavs’ revered “Miracle of Richfield” team of 1975-76, which made the playoffs for the first time and advanced to the second round. He finished his playing days, which included two seasons (1980-82) with the New York Knicks, with a cumulative NBA scoring average of 15.8 ppg and a playoff scoring average of 16.6 ppg. From 1975-76 through the 1981-82 season, he averaged double figures in scoring every year. In 1999 he was voted to the Cavs’ all-time team and into the University of Michigan Hall of Honor in 2002. He lived in Michigan from shortly after retirement as an active player until 2002 when he accepted an offer to return to the Cavs as an Outer Market Event Specialist. A proud father of five, Campy currently makes his home in Shaker Heights.
Joe Nossek spent 43 years in professional baseball, 37 of them in a major league uniform. No native Clevelander had ever matched those numbers when he hung up his Chicago White Sox uniform for the final time in the spring of 2004 to retire with his wife, Jean, to their home in Amherst. His lengthy list of baseball honors began accumulating early. He earned first team All-Ohio laurels as a senior at Euclid High in 1958, after which he was signed from Ohio University as an amateur free agent by the Minnesota Twins in 1961 after winning first team All-American and All-Mid-American Conference recognition. He joined the Twins as an outfielder in 1964, beginning a six-year career which included stops at Kansas City/Oakland and St. Louis, including the realization of the dream of every player when he appeared in six games of the 1965 World Series with the Twins. When his playing days ended, he spent two years as a minor league coach and manager, then joined the Milwaukee Brewers as their third base coach in 1972, launching the long final phase of his career in which he established himself as one of the most astute coaches in the game and perhaps baseball’s finest sign stealer. His tour on the coaching sidelines included five years back home as the Indians’ third base coach and culminated with a 20-year stint from 1983 through 2003 in Chicago, the last 13 as the White Sox bench coach.
On a quiet news day in 1968, unsuspecting Greater Clevelanders were mildly surprised to learn that a little-known local attorney had purchased the Cleveland Arena and its prime tenant, the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League. Little did they know they were reading the opening chapter of a local sports saga which in the next decade would see the construction of the largest sports empire in the city’s history, with surprises galore to come. The ink had barely dried on the Arena purchase papers when Nick Mileti set out to lure an NBA expansion team to his new building. In 1970 he was rewarded with a team he named the Cleveland Cavaliers and dressed in the Wine and Gold colors of his alma mater, John Adams High. Next, he turned his eyes to the Cleveland Indians, who were openly seeking greener fields. Teaming with a group of civic activists, he purchased the team on March 22, 1972 for $9 million. A month later, learning the Calgary Broncos of the newly-formed major league-conscious World Hockey Association would be shifted because of financial woes, he bought the franchise, shuffling the minor league Barons off to California. Now, with two indoor sport teams in his bulging major league stable, he turned his attention to replacing the aging Arena with a state-of-the-art big league home. Unable to work out an arrangement for a site in the City of Cleveland, he pulled off his climactic sports surprise by building the opulent 22,000-seat Coliseum midway between Cleveland and Akron on a site in Richfield literally surrounded by cornfields. He opened the building with a gala Frank Sinatra concert in 1974. The empire would slowly dissolve after that, but when he left Cleveland in 1979 for Beverly Hills to produce and finance plays and motion pictures, he left behind him Indians and Cavaliers teams whose presence would serve as the impetus for the construction of a new downtown sports complex forever altering the heart of downtown Cleveland.
He came to Cleveland from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada in 1983 to play for pay for Cleveland’s professional indoor soccer team, the Cleveland Force. His rookie season left ample room for improvement, covering five games and producing one assist. His chance to redeem himself would be a long time coming. It would be six years, and stints with the Minnesota Strikers and Los Angeles Lazers, before he would appear again in a Cleveland uniform as a member of the renamed Cleveland Crunch. It would prove to be an historic reunion, one which would last 15 years and enable him to make a convincing case for a permanent place on a list of the city’s all-time time finest athletes. When the case was closed in 2004 there was no disputing the verdict. The evidence included 1,223 goals and 761 assists in 685 regular season games, another 224 goals and 104 assists in playoff games, six league MVP awards, and election to 14 All-Star teams. Fourteen times he helped lead his team into playoffs and three times—in 1994, 1996 and 1999—to the championship of the National Professional Soccer League. The first of those titles, in 1994, marked Cleveland’s first in any professional sport since the Cleveland Browns’ NFL championship in 1964. When he retired as the all-time leading scorer in professional indoor soccer, he had for some time been generally acclaimed as the best indoor soccer player in U.S. history. In May of 2005, the Major Indoor Soccer League cemented that claim by announcing its Most Valuable Player Award would henceforth be known at the Hector Marinaro Trophy. The popular Marinaro elected to remain in Cleveland after his retirement and currently makes his home in Brunswick with his wife, Jodi, and their two children.
In a nine-year span, which began on the neighborhood fields of Cleveland St. Joseph’s High and culminated in the plush surroundings of the Louisiana Superdome, Desmond Howard assembled a collection of football honors matched just twice before in the history of the sport. The talented speedster earned high school All-American honors as a tailback at St. Joseph’s in 1987, won the Heisman Trophy as a wide receiver for the University of Michigan in 1991, and collected the Super Bowl MVP award as the return specialist for the Green Bay Packers after the Packers’ 35-21 win over New England in Super Bowl XXXI in January, 1997. Those were but the crown jewels in a stunning set of accomplishments for Howard. At St. Joseph’s where he was also an All-Ohio two way player, he made USA Today’s High School Honor Roll by scoring five touchdowns in eight carries in a 41-28 victory over archrival Euclid. In his Heisman year as a Michigan senior, when he scored a school record 23 touchdowns and 138 points to become the first receiver to lead the Big Ten in scoring, he also garnered the Maxwell Award, the College Football Player of the Year Awards of The Sporting News and The Walter Camp Foundation player of the year award and was a unanimous first team All-American selection. Drafted by the Washington Redskins with the fourth pick in the 1992 NFL draft, Howard went on to play 11 seasons with five teams (the Redskins, Jaguars, Packers, Raiders and Lions), setting numerous team records for punt and/or kickoff returns in 1997, including a Super Bowl record 99-yard kickoff return which helped him to become the first special teams player to win the Super Bowl MVP trophy, and was named to the 2001 NFL Pro Bowl team. He retired after the 2002 season.
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