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Where are your former Browns now? QB Jim Ninowski

25 questions with a member of the 1964 NFL Championship Browns

Former Cleveland Browns signalcaller Jim Ninowski could have been in the conversation of one of the franchise’s greatest quarterbacks. Four things killed his path to greatness of which none was his fault.

After college, Ninowski played in the North-South Shrine Game where he was selected the game’s MVP. Then to the Hula Bowl, Senior Bowl and finally he was named the starter in the annual Chicago Charities College All-Star Game which pitted the top incoming rookies against the current NFL champs.

Usually, the NFL team wins, and is a sense of pride despite being an exhibition game. There were 70,000 fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field for the Friday night game. The Lions were 14-point favorites, but the crowd cheered loudly for the All-Stars. But Nino guided the youngsters to a rousing 35-19 victory over the Detroit Lions. The 35 points scored were a record for the All-Stars. For his efforts, Nino was named the co-MVP of the contest.

In his rookie season, he was one of four quarterbacks in the Browns’ training camp after getting selected in the fourth round out of Michigan State. In two weeks’ time, he had elevated himself as the backup to starter Milt Plum. Plum had been drafted in the 1957 NFL draft which saw the team take FB Jim Brown in Round 1. Head coach Paul Brown had wanted one of the two best QB’s in that draft in Len Dawson or John Brodie. Cleveland’s All-World quarterback Otto Graham had retired for good, and Coach Brown was looking for his replacement. When both Dawson and Brodie were drafted ahead of Cleveland’s pick at slot #6, Coach Brown settled for the fullback. In the following round, Plum was taken.

As the seasons rolled along, Coach Brown was not happy with Plum and thought his arm was weak. So he kept bringing in QBs through trades or the draft until he might hit on another good one. The Browns’ offense depended on a strong arm plus a good runner. So far, none of Graham’s replacements fit the bill of both.

Ninowski had a cannon for an arm, and he was a great runner. While at Michigan State, all they did was run so the leader of the offense had to have good legs who could get production and throw darts when needed. Since State was a run-first offense, Ninowski’s passing stats were minuscule, and wasn’t much on him regarding throwing the ball. His final two seasons he threw just 110 passes for 955 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Plum was named the starter at the end of the 1958 training camp. But by newspaper clippings, most writers had Ninowski as the best quarterback on the roster. The problem was, in those days, rookies rarely played (Jim Brown was one of the very few exceptions). The thought process was for the young bucks to study, make mistakes, practice hard, and learn from the veterans. Rookies were considered the bottom feeders on the roster. Veterans did not sit with rookies nor did they socialize with them. In fact at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Cleveland Indians/Browns home locker room had two levels. All rookies and special teamers were stationed upstairs where the heat didn’t always work, there were nails in the walls for clothes hangers, and the showers were all located downstairs.

Philadelphia Eagles v Cleveland Browns
Jim Ninowski #11 is the holder on a Lou Groza kick
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The thought process was that maybe into their third season a rookie might crack the starting lineup. This pertained to all positions regardless of draft status.

Not starting Ninowski when he clearly won the starting job despite being a rookie was the first negative domino in his career.

Coach Brown was not in any mood to break tradition and start a rookie. At quarterback. No sir. No matter how good he looked in practice or his domination was in the six preseason games they played.

After two seasons, Coach Brown shipped Ninowski off to the Lions for linebacker Bob Long plus Detroit’s first-round draft pick in 1961. The move was perfect for both clubs. Ninowski was from the Detroit area and had all of his family still there. Plus, he ended up starting for two seasons during which the Lions finished second in their division both years. They had a good football team and the offense was finally rolling with Nino at the helm.

At this juncture, Ninowski was becoming one of the NFL’s budding new young offensive stars.

Post cereal football trading card #57 cut from boxes of Alpha-Bits 13 oz. box, Crispy Critters 13 oz. box, and Post Toasties 18 oz. box

Then the second domino fell. With Ninowski’s success in Detroit, Coach Brown wanted him back and stated later in life that he had always regretted trading him. His rapid progress fueled that fire and had an option-type offense going for Detroit as a good runner plus could easily throw the long ball.

Ninowski was furious regarding the trade. In those days, players and most coaches had off-season jobs. During his playing days, Ninowski began two businesses in the Detroit area where he was from and the majority of his family still lived. He began a window company and also a sales business that dealt with the automotive industry nearby. After he hung up his cleats, both of these companies did very well. His window company had over 100 employees at its peak. Plus, the Lions were winning while the Browns were just average at the time.

On March 29, 1962, Cleveland and Detroit completed a major trade that centered on their starting quarterbacks. The Browns dealt QB Milt Plum, HB Tom Watkins, and LB Dave Lloyd to the Lions for Ninowski, DE Bill Glass, and HB Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.

Coach Brown had been criticized for inflexibility and was now making moves that would give the offense a different style. Ninowski was coming back to Cleveland.

In 1962, Nino started the first seven games but broke his collarbone in Week 7. Domino number three. Backup QB Frank Ryan took over for the remainder of the season.

Before the following training camp, Modell told Ninowski that he was the team’s starting quarterback and all the reasons that Paul Brown had traded to get him back remained. Before the final preseason game, new head coach Blanton Collier informed both Nino and Ryan that whoever started that game would be the season’s starter.

It was Ninowski. After the game, a 16-7 loss to Pittsburgh, Ryan shook his hand and congratulated him on winning back his job. It was true that Nino did not play exceptionally well in that game, but he had aced preseason. Days later he was eating breakfast at a restaurant, picked up the newspaper to which the sports headline read, “Browns to Start Ryan.”

The final domino had fallen. Despite being healthy and ready to perform, despite being the starter whose job assumedly cannot be lost due to an injury, despite being told by the owner that he would remain the starter, despite outperforming Ryan in the preseason, Collier chose the backup Frank Ryan as the starting quarterback going forward.

In the end, Ninowski was regulated as a capable backup. He had an agreement to jump leagues with the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League but that fell through. He then played for the Washington Redskins for two seasons and finally one year with the New Orleans Saints.

After football, he concentrated on his businesses which became very successful.

Jim Ninowski with daughter Julie in a Ninowski Browns jersey at FirstEnergy Stadium

Today, Ninowski, age 87, is retired and lives in Sterling Heights, Michigan with his wife Judith Ann. The couple have been married for 65 years and have a son Jeffery and daughter Julie. They are devoted Episcopalians.

Dawgs By Nature caught up with Ninowski to find out why he was upset when he was traded back to Cleveland, what Paul Brown was like as a person and coach, and why he lost his job after he healed from his injury.

1958 Chicago Charities College All-Star Game

DBN: You had a good senior season at Michigan State and then were selected to play in the Senior Bowl as well as the North-South Shrine Game, Hula Bowl, and the College All-Stars against the reigning NFL champs Detroit Lions. Why was it important for you to go to All-Star games?

Ninowski: At that time it was the norm. In fact, we all fought to get in such a big game. They were all on television and there weren’t all that many football games broadcast each week like it is now. The week after my last Michigan State game my wife and I got married. Then we went to Miami for the North-South Shrine Game in the Orange Bowl. From there we went to Hawaii to play in the Hula Bowl Game, then off to Mobile for the Senior Bowl. All expenses paid. She and I had a great time and I didn’t spend a nickel. She might have thought I was rich but she is smarter than that.

DBN: You were co-MVP of the College All-Star game and then MVP of the North-South Shrine Game passing for 295 yards and one touchdown. Michigan State was a running team. Were you happy to finally get to throw the ball?

Ninowski: Absolutely, I was in seventh heaven. After handing the ball off so many times at Michigan State I was ready to air it out. We just didn’t throw much so that game was good for me to show what I was capable of as far as a passer.

DBN: Against the Lions, your College All-Stars won 35-19. Usually, the NFL club always won. After beating the defending NFL champions, did this give you a false sense of what playing in the NFL would be like?

Ninowski: Not at all. It was just another game. You throw the ball the same way - he gets open and he catches it. Their defense took some time to recognize, but we got going on it and was able to score some points. They were the NFL champs and didn’t back down even though it was just an exhibition. That game meant a lot to all the players.

DBN: The Browns drafted in the fourth round. What was your first training camp like?

Ninowski: It was good and kind of what I expected. I got there late because of the College All-Stars game. I hung in there the best I could and fortunately, I threw the ball very well. I had a very good camp and played well in the preseason. All the newspapers wrote about how well I threw the ball.

DBN: You had played with Bobby Mitchell in the College All-Star Game and then the Browns drafted both of you. What type of player was he?

Ninowski: He was a very good player. He came to the Browns as a running back and later he was traded to Washington who made a receiver out of him. Now he has his name in their Ring of Honor as a receiver. He was a good player and I was glad to get to know him at the All-Star game.

DBN: We have heard a lot of things about Paul Brown. What was he really like?

Ninowski: Kind of a jerk. He was such a dictatorial and he kinda had his finger in everything. And his personality didn’t rub well with the players. He wasn’t all that friendly and would just give you a “Hi Jim.” That was about it. He was very organized and that is about all I can say.

DBN: In Cleveland, you were one of four quarterbacks in camp. Milt Plum became the starter, but as a rookie, you beat out the other two for the backup job. A lot of people thought you had beaten out Plum despite being a rookie. Your thoughts?

Ninowski: I thought so too. I threw very well, but they didn’t want to take any chances on a rookie. But I was ready to play and there was no question I was ready to play physically and mentally. I had a very good preseason and thought I had won the job.

DBN: You had a cannon for an arm. The ball boys did not want to warm you up. What do you say to those who said you threw too hard?

Ninowski: Check with my receivers. A guy going across the middle didn’t want you to walk the ball over to him. He wants the ball in his hands. My release was good, too, so I was able to get the ball out quickly and thought the time in the air should be the very least.

DBN: Bobby Layne had just retired as the starting quarterback of Detroit. How did you find out that you had been traded to the Lions in 1960?

Ninowski: I got a call from the Lions’ head coach George Wilson that they had made a trade for me. I was excited to go to Detroit. I was coming back to my hometown and had a lot of family still living there. My mom and dad and seven of us children – four brothers and three sisters. I was the youngest of them all. I celebrated that phone call. Layne had left the team so there was an opening and I wasn’t playing in Cleveland anyways. I had every opportunity before me to start. And went home.

DBN: You finally got to start with Detroit and had a lot of success with two second place finishes and even participated in the Playoff Bowl. Did players like this third-place game?

Ninowski: Oh yeah. It was a chance to get out and have a vacation because win or lose you couldn’t advance to the league championship game. So the game was real loose but you still played hard. And it was another game check. Playing for Detroit was a great break for me. All they had when Layne left was Earl Morrall who I played with at Michigan State so I knew I had a good chance of winning the job. I started for two years and we won both years and finished second in the division. I loved it there and felt I had established myself in Detroit.

DBN: So in 1962, Paul Brown called you and said he was visiting Detroit and wanted to have lunch at the airport. You felt something was up and talked to Coach Wilson. What was that conversation like?

Ninowski: Coach Wilson said they were trying to get a running back to help me. As I was about to leave I asked point blank, “George, did you trade me?” He said, “Oh no. We didn’t trade you. Why would you say that?” I then asked him why Paul Brown would be in Detroit and want to meet for lunch. He then told me he had no idea why Paul Brown called, but then as I was walking out the door he said, “Nino, yeah. We traded you.”

DBN: At the time of the trade with Detroit, you did not want to go back to Cleveland because you had business ventures already going in Detroit plus your family lived there. Was it true you considered retiring from the game?

Ninowski: I was mad about the trade. I had started two businesses in the Detroit area, had all my family there, was from that area, and had two very good seasons for a good team. My first words to Paul Brown was, “Why the hell did you trade for me? Why would you bother me?” I wasn’t happy because I didn’t want to go back to Cleveland. I was the Number 1 quarterback in Detroit and now I had to disrupt my family and businesses. I had a sales company that we represented businesses to the automotive industry, and I had a window manufacturing company. Now I had to go and compete once again to be the starter? I could have retired, but that was my only other option and had no place to go. I was just 26-years old. I had to go to Cleveland if I still wanted to play.

DBN: You were a very good runner. The Browns had Jim Brown and had just traded for Ernie Davis. Wasn’t the 1962 season ahead met with a lot of buildup as another championship year?

Ninowski: Definitely with Ernie Davis coming in. He was so talented and such a neat guy. He only had two practices and didn’t play in any games before they diagnosed him with what he had. That was the end of that. Good guy who didn’t deserve that ending. We really thought that we could run all day long with what personnel we had and I was ready for it. I was the only veteran in camp and so became the starter and wanted to have a good season. And we had a good team. We beat the Giants in our opening game 17-7 and they won the championship.

DBN: Paul Brown was famous for sending in plays via messenger guards in a day when quarterbacks called their own plays. When you came back to Cleveland, you had a deal struck with Coach Brown about play calling. What were the facts?

Ninowski: You bet. I told Paul I am not coming back unless I can call all the plays – period. Before each game, he had 10 plays he wanted me to call in order. I would call the first play and then forget about his list and call the rest of the game myself. He would say, “Why didn’t you.....” and I would tell him it wasn’t the right time. He didn’t want people to know he wasn’t calling the plays so each down he would send in a messenger guard. I called the entire game.

DBN: Recently your friend Jim Brown passed. It has been noted that him and Paul Brown had an odd relationship. How did Coach Brown get onto Jim without causing a huge disturbance between the two?

Ninowski: Jimmy did his thing and Paul let him do his thing. Paul would never criticize Jimmy in public or in front of the team. One time against the Eagles I had a bad knee and Jimmy missed the block and the guy crushed me. When we were watching the film, when that play came up, Paul said, “If I had a bad knee I wouldn’t want to be hit like that.” What he would have said to everyone else is Jimmy why did you miss the block and then run the play over and over. He wouldn’t call him out but he would call everybody else out. After the meeting, we got outside and Jimmy said he was sorry for missing that block and didn’t realize that I got hit that hard. I told him that Paul was just trying to get into his head. It’s football.

DBN: Paul Brown named you the starter for the first seven games, then you dislocated your shoulder against the Pittsburgh Steelers. What happened in that play?

Ninowski: I had torn a ligament in our second game against Washington but didn’t really know it and the knee kept feeling better. Then in the seventh game against the Steelers, I went back to throw in the first quarter and got hit from the side from Big Daddy Lipscomb. He got me in a bear hug. He was the only 300-pound guy in the league. He hit me on my leftside and then drove my right shoulder into the ground. I separated my shoulder with all his weight coming down on me. It hurt. That was a third down play so we had to punt and I came off the field and felt a burning sensation. I went over to the team doc and told him about my right shoulder. He reached up inside my shoulder pads and told me I was through. I asked what did he mean I was through? He told me I had broken my collarbone. Even if I tried to go back they wouldn’t let me.

DBN: At the end of that 1962 season, Art Modell fired Paul Brown. Where were you when you heard the news, and what was your reaction?

Ninowski: I was back home in Michigan. Blanton Collier called me and told me he had gotten the job. Of course, I knew that would happen. Frank Ryan had started for me while I healed. Blanton told me they were going to an open competition for the starting quarterback job. I thought I was still the better quarterback. I could throw the ball a helluva lot better and harder. I really didn’t have any kind of reaction when I heard that Paul had been let go. I felt it was part of the business. He and Modell had been fighting so actually it didn’t surprise me.

DBN: The unwritten rule in football is that the starter can’t lose his job due to an injury. Yet in 1963, new head coach Blanton Collier stuck with Frank Ryan as his starter who had completed the 1962 season while you healed. How did you deal with that, and what was Collier’s explanation?

Ninowski: I dealt with the news very, very poorly. I was the starting quarterback. He told me that he had made the decision to go with Frank. Was nothing I could do about it except play out my option or request a trade or retire. I couldn’t complain either and kept being a team player. And the next year we won the championship with Frank as our starter.

DBN: There were many games where Ryan would have a bad performance and the crowd would chant your name. In Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, Coach Collier had you warming up in the fourth quarter. At that point, did you think that your chance had finally come back?

Ninowski: In the preseason I threw eight touchdown passes with no interceptions, one of those touchdowns for 99 yards, and the next game against Pittsburgh I threw five touchdowns. I asked Blanton, “Well, do I get my job back?” He didn’t say anything. I said, “Bullshit. You’re supposed to get your job back if you are healthy.” Against the Cowboys, I absolutely thought I was going in and kept warming up and kept waiting. You don’t wish the worst for the other guy, you just want to play. I prepared each week like I was going to play. There were times when we weren’t moving the ball and I would be off on the sidelines thinking “I know this play will work.” But you don’t say it. I saw coaches put in plays that I suggested in meetings. I couldn’t show my emotion. The last thing I wanted was to divide the team.

DBN: Aren’t you the one responsible for Ryan getting traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the Browns?

Ninowski: (pauses) Yes. We went to camp in 1962 when Paul Brown was still the head coach and we had two rookie quarterbacks. He asked me what I thought about the performance of the two young kids we had. I told him neither was ready to play. Paul then told me he could try to trade for veterans Zeke Bratkowski, King Hill or Frank Ryan. I told him I liked Ryan because I had played against him when he was with the Rams and thought he would be a good backup. Every time I tell that story my wife says, “You and your big mouth.” Who knows, maybe she is right.

DBN: On the day before the 1964 NFL Championship Game, you were rushed to the hospital. What was going on?

Ninowski: The last game of the season was in New York. We went to a restaurant and got some kind of stomach bug or food poisoning. They never did tell me exactly what it was. But after that game and the two weeks before the championship game I lost 20 pounds. It was the end of a tough year for me because I only threw nine passes. But we won the league championship. I walked in and was the backup. I was warming up and Dub Jones said I should still be in the hospital. I could play.

DBN: The Browns were 17-point underdogs in that game. What was the strategy that enabled Cleveland to not only win but trounce the Baltimore Colts 27-0?

Ninowski: The game was 0-0 at the half. Our defense played exceptionally well to keep that offense off the board. In the second half we got a couple of breaks and Frank threw two touchdowns. Our defense kept their offense on the sideline which won the game.

Limited Edition lithograph 1964 Cleveland Browns NFL Champions - Ninowski signature upper left as well as other players

DBN: Jim, that 1964 Browns team was your team. You helped develop it. Yet you never spoke ill of Frank Ryan or Coach Collier in the media, or never caused a scene regarding your status of being the backup. Why was that?

Ninowski: The players really liked me and respected me. They knew my knowledge of the game and while Frank was the starting quarterback they knew I would help him. Even though I wasn’t playing. The newspapers could have written a story and rallied attention for me, but I thought if I spoke up that would be destructive to the team. I had so much respect for the other players I didn’t want to disrupt the team. I had a good relationship with Frank. We never went out to dinner, but Frank and I got along very well. He was very receptive to my suggestions so that is good for us. In his first start, I called two plays on the sidelines and both went for a touchdown.

DBN: While still with Cleveland in 1967, you were negotiating a contract with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL-rival American Football League. Later, you threatened antitrust action against both leagues. Is this something you would want to discuss?

Ninowski: I had a deal with Oakland for a four-year contract worth $400,000. That would have made me one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in either league. I was making $40,000 with the Browns. So I called Modell and told him I was going. He told me I couldn’t go and I said like hell I can’t go. A week before I was going to New York to sign the contract, the two leagues announced a merger. I called Al Davis with the Raiders and asked about our agreement. He said there wasn’t an agreement since the contract was never signed. So, that’s where I was - stuck back in Cleveland sitting on the bench. I filed a suit with the anti-trust and wouldn’t go back to Cleveland. I told Modell I had enough of him and he traded me to Washington but I had to settle the lawsuit. Al Davis told the commissioner that they had never talked to me. I was asked to take a lie detector test and passed. Davis refused to take the test. So, they made a settlement and part of the agreement was that there would be no publicity because they didn’t want other players in the same position to come forward. Washington upped my salary to $50,000. I would have gone from 40 to 100 and instead went from 40 to 50.

DBN: What is your fondest moment of being a Cleveland Brown?

Ninowski: Those seven games I started before I was injured were supposed to be the beginning of a long career, but were special to me. I had a very good start and the offense was moving well. Then the following year’s exhibition season where we didn’t lose a single game and I played well. And I still have my 1964 NFL championship ring. It’s somewhere.