A new scholarship fund at Akron Community Foundation is carrying on the legacy of a local hero. Established in May, the Dante B. Lavelli Football Academic Scholarship Fund honors the career of the Browns football legend by helping athletes at Hudson High School – Lavelli’s alma mater – attend college.
Dante’s wife, Joy, said she established the fund because she wanted to keep Dante’s memory alive forever. “He was an athlete, and he loved Hudson,” she said. “(College) expenses are so high right now that every little bit helps.”
Already, news about the fund has spread, attracting gifts from current and former NFL players and coaches who respected Lavelli. Former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Randall McDaniel said that although he never met Lavelli, he wanted to make a gift to honor Lavelli’s accomplishments on the field.
“I believe it is important to recognize, respect and support the Pro Football Hall of Fame players who built the foundation of the NFL,” said McDaniel, who was himself inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. “One way to do this is to contribute to the causes and memorial celebrations of their lives.”
And what a life Lavelli had. Born in Hudson in 1923, the stand-out quarterback graduated from Hudson High School, which later named its football stadium after him. After attending college at Ohio State University, Lavelli joined the U.S. Army and served in World War II, during which he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Upon his return in 1946, Lavelli joined the newly formed Cleveland Browns as a receiver, becoming an original member of the franchise. In his rookie season, Lavelli led the league in receptions and caught the winning touchdown pass in the 1946 championship game against New York.
Nicknamed “Gluefingers” for his phenomenal talent as a receiver, Lavelli helped carry the Browns to four All-America Football Conference championships and three more NFL titles. He, along with such legends as quarterback Otto Graham and placekicker Lou Groza, helped the Browns build a dynasty in the 1940s and ’50s. In his 11-season career, Lavelli caught 386 passes for 6,488 yards and 62 touchdowns.
“He was one of the best I’d ever seen,” said Willie Davis, a former defensive end for the Browns. “He set the mold with his running patterns and catching the ball.”
Davis and Lavelli became good friends, staying in touch throughout the years, even after Davis relocated to play for the Green Bay Packers. Davis said Lavelli was known for his winning personality, both on and off the field. He never denied someone an autograph, and often stopped to talk with fans who came to see him play.
“He was absolutely just a model of a guy,” Davis said. After being notified of Lavelli’s death earlier this year, Davis was one of the first to make a contribution to the scholarship fund set up in his friend’s name.
“I went to college on a football scholarship,” he said. “To give something back now that gives young people the same thing is very satisfying.”
Several other organizations have stepped forward to contribute to the fund, including the Browns and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which inducted Lavelli into its ranks in 1975.
“Dante Lavelli was one of those players that rose above the rest,” said Hall of Fame Vice President of Communications Joe Horrigan. “He played on one of the greatest teams of all time and was an integral part of that team.”
Out of the 23,000 men who have played or contributed to professional football in its history, only 260 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. “To be a player among that elite group is a tremendous accomplishment,” Horrigan said.
With his fund at Akron Community Foundation, Lavelli’s legacy will help athletes at Hudson have that same opportunity to excel.
“Dante was a man who, in spite of his fame, never forgot where he was from,” said Hudson football coach Tom Narducci. He added that Lavelli frequently took time to talk to his players and instill in them the same dreams of greatness Lavelli had as a high school quarterback.
“(After) what he has done for our town and for so many people, the Hudson community has to make sure that legacy lives on,” Narducci said.
The fund, which is part of the Hudson Public Schools Endowment Fund family at Akron Community Foundation, awarded its first scholarship this year to Addison Carbone, a stand-out football player who is now attending Baldwin-Wallace College. Hudson Athletic Director Ray Ebersol said Carbone possesses many of the qualities Lavelli embodied, including perseverance, dedication and commitment to the game.
In the years to come, many more students will have the opportunity to pursue a college degree with the help of Lavelli’s scholarship.
“This fund will allow our kids to pursue their dream and play football at a school they want to go to,” Narducci said. “That’s something no one will ever be able to take away from them.”