Winnetka Resident Shares Memories of Growing Up with an NFL Team
By David A. F. Sweet
In fifth grade, Ann Cole obtained an interview for her school paper with a football coach. His name was Paul Brown, a future NFL Hall of Famer who had an entire franchise – the Cleveland Browns – named after him.
“I was so nervous. I was scared to death,” Cole recalled. “But he was so nice. I was so proud to do it.”
How did the Winnetka resident get the exclusive? Her father, Dan Sherby, served as a co-owner of the Browns.
While sipping tea and eating sweets in her beautiful home near Lake Michigan, the 84-year-old shared memories of her girlhood surrounded by football as the Browns celebrate their 75th anniversary this year.
As you can imagine, her memories are plentiful. Sitting on the lap of radio announcer Bob Neal as he broadcast a Browns’ game. Flying on a plane with her father to Chicago to watch the Browns play while wearing her favorite plaid jumper. Seats on the 50-yard line at hulking Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
And then there was the handsome player she was captivated by.
“I had a mad crush on Dante ‘Gluefingers’ Lavelli,” recalled Cole, who left Wellesley College before graduating because she had an even stronger crush on Roger Cole, who became her husband and a prominent doctor. “I kept thinking I would call Dante. I never did. I would have fainted if I had met him.”
As a child, Cole always wanted to talk about the Browns with her father.
“We’d carry on conversations from the start of dinner until the end about the Browns and business,” she said.
The Browns started in the All-America Football Conference, launched in 1946 by Chicago Tribune Sports Editor Arch Ward as a competitor to the NFL. With World War II had recently ended and plenty of able-bodied young men back in the United States, the timing seemed fortuitous. Further, the AAFC owners were quite a bit wealthier than their NFL counterparts.
Realistically, though, it would be tough to outlast the established league. A merger was eventually discussed, and Sherby played a large role in facilitating it.
“My Dad was 100 percent responsible for the merger with the NFL,” Cole said, pointing to articles with headlines such as “Sherby Pro Grid Deal Pays Off for Browns” that described his work. “It was controversial. A lot of teams didn’t want to do it.”
Before joining the NFL in 1950, the Browns won all four AAFC championships. Given that their coach was the already legendary Paul Brown, who recruited the top players in absence of a draft, it’s not as surprising as it might seem. In fact, the Browns captured their first possible championship in the NFL after they and two other teams – the Baltimore Colts and the San Francisco 49ers – were admitted. Contrast that to today; the Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl, much less won one.
Only three years later, Browns principal owner Arthur B. McBride, along with Sherby and other partners, sold the team for $600,000. Though it was twice as much as any NFL team had previously been sold for, today Forbes values the franchise at $2.35 billion.
And then, only in his 40s, Dan Sherby passed away in 1954.
“I worshipped my father,” Cole said. “He had a wonderful personality. He died when I was only 17.”
To add to that pain, much of her father’s Browns’ memorabilia was later stolen by her mother’s housekeeper. In 2007, she discovered an auction house was promoting the sale of the Dan Sherby Collection. The items were pulled once Cole explained they had been pilfered.
But two crucial items remained in family’s hands. The first is the 1946 AAFC Championship trophy presented to Sherby. It was passed down to Gary Cole, his oldest grandchild (featured in these pages recently), who donated it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The second one arrived at Ann Cole’s home only a few weeks ago. It was a scrapbook her mother Clementine had compiled that she called “Sherby Says” of all the newspaper articles that quoted her husband. Cole had called her younger sister, Ellen, because she was going to be interviewed about the Browns.
“I said, ‘Ellen, it makes me so sad the scrapbook is gone forever.’ She told me she had it. For 20 years, I thought it had been lost.”
Cole is also well-known for her Purple Cow website (www.purplecowathome.com) that help parents discover fun ideas their kids can implement at home. She and two friends started Parents as Resources (PAR) in the late 1960s, which led to writing the books.
“Doing education for parents was totally new then,” Cole recalled. “They would learn the importance of engaging the child in conversation with a puppet. We gave workshops for inner-city parents at Cabrini Green and elsewhere.”
Given her many decades in Chicago, she is no longer a Browns fan; she roots for the Bears. And her passion for football and other sports fostered in childhood remains undiminished.
“I still read the sports page first in the newspaper,” she said, “and love to discuss sports with all four of my kids — girls and boys equally.”
Sporting Life columnist David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich about the 1972 Olympics. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.