From Vintage Browns, by Terry Pluto
If you listen to Doug Dieken, you begin to think his entire career could be summed up with these words: “Better to be lucky than good.”
The good-natured Dieken tends to make you think that belongs on his tombstone.
Lucky? Of course Dieken was blessed by fate at certain key points in his life. That’s true of many successful people.
But that doesn’t tell you much about Dieken. This self-effacing man has a relentless spirit. Part of his career is due to a willingness to show up consistently with a good attitude. And it’s a willingness to adapt to change without much complaining.
Consider when Dieken was drafted by the Browns . . .
Those words might surprise some people who listen to Dieken broadcast Browns games on radio with Jim Donovan. Even some Browns players over the years had no idea Dieken wore an orange helmet for 14 years. Or that he still has the NFL record for consecutive starts by a left tackle—194.
Or that he still has a hard time figuring out how that happened.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be a tackle,” said Dieken. “I didn’t even know I had that consecutive game record until a guy at Cleveland Clinic told me when I was there for my brother’s heart surgery. The guy there looked me up on his phone and told me about it.”
We’ll get to that story and some others in a moment. But first, a few things to know.
The 72-year-old Dieken is an engaging storyteller, but also a good listener. He is a caring man with very little ego. He’s been doing Browns games on the radio since 1985, missing only two. In many ways, Dieken has been like the national anthem for the Browns ever since opening day of the 1971 season—he’s part of every game.
* * *
The year was 1971, long before the NFL draft was a media event.
“On draft day, I was sitting at home waiting for a team to call,” said Dieken. “I was watching TV. Not the draft. It wasn’t on back then. My mother was upstairs with her bridge club.”
This was in Streator, Illinois, where Dieken grew up. The town of about 13,000 is about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.
“The phone rang. I picked it up,” said Dieken.
“This is Nick Skorich, head coach of the Cleveland Browns,” said the man on the line. “We just drafted you in the sixth round as an offensive tackle.”
Dieken paused for a second, wondering if they had the right guy. He’d never played tackle at Illinois. He was the team’s leading receiver for three years as a tight end.
“Any chance I could play tight end?” Dieken asked Skorich.
“We’ll see when you get here,” said the coach.
That was the end of the conversation.
Dieken went upstairs to tell his bridge-playing mother about being drafted by the Browns.
“That’s nice,” she said.
Then she looked back at the ladies and said, “Three clubs.”
* * *
Dieken was 6-foot-5 in high school, a star basketball player and baseball pitcher. His town was small, without much youth football. He didn’t play the sport when he was young. Dieken had a brother who was 6-foot-8. He assumed he’d grow to be at least that tall, and basketball would be his ticket to college.
“The high school basketball coach said he wanted me to get in shape in the fall before basketball started,” said Dieken. “He wanted me to run cross country or play football.”
“That’s an easy decision,” Dieken told the coach. “Football.” He wanted no part of running miles and miles in cross country.
While his family didn’t own a farm, his father managed them.
“He gave me all the lousy jobs he could find like baling hay,” said Dieken. “He wanted to see if I could work hard. My mother’s family was in the grain commodity market.”
Along with agriculture, Streator “was the glass container capital of the world back then,” according to Dieken. His parents were graduates of the University of Illinois, so Dieken expected to go to college. This is Midwest small town. While the movie “Hoosiers” was set in rural Indiana, the landscape and the sense of place reflects where Dieken was raised.
When you head out of town, the fields are flat. The sunsets are gorgeous, as the reds and yellows burst across the big sky of the plains.
It was not a place where you grew up thinking about playing pro football. The NFL seemed to be a million galaxies away—even for a very good high school athlete.
And Dieken was indeed very good.
By his junior season, Dieken surprised himself by being an All-State wide receiver. In basketball, he led his team by averaging 12.6 points and 9.5 rebounds.
“But I shot about 35% from the foul line,” said Dieken.
Actually, it was 47%.
In his final baseball game of his senior year, he threw a no-hitter.
“And I lost, 1-0,” he said, laughing.
The accidental football player ended up being a two-time All-State selection. He was recruited by Big Ten schools and picked Illinois, the university his parents had attended.
* * *
When Dieken arrived at Illinois, he never saw what was coming.
“The basketball and football coaches were fired because of a scandal having to do with a slush fund,” said Dieken. “The NCAA said I didn’t have to honor my commitment. I could go anywhere, but I stayed. Jim Valek was the new coach, the poor guy. None of us knew how bad it would be.”
Dieken’s team had records of 1-9 and 0-10 in his first two seasons. Back then, freshmen didn’t play varsity football. The team was 2-4 in Dieken’s senior year and some boosters and members of the athletic department wanted to fire Valek.
“We were playing Ohio State,” said Dieken. “I had heard they wanted to fire Coach (Valek) after the game. We lost (48-29). After the game, Woody Hayes said, ‘That coach they want to fire—they ought to fire me, because that guy out-coached me.’ ”
After the game, the team was informed that Valek was being fired. Dieken asked all the coaches to leave the room.
“Hey guys,” Dieken told his teammates. “If Coach isn’t here on Monday, I’m not going to be here. Anybody want to go with me?”
The players raised their hands. The team sent a letter to the athletic department saying they either keep Valek or the players would refuse to play next week.
“They had an emergency meeting and rehired him for the rest of the season,” said Dieken. “Back then, they didn’t fire coaches in the middle of the season. It wasn’t right.”
Valek was rehired. The team finished 3-7.
This story says something about Dieken, who generally is a go-along, get-along guy. He has a sense of right-and-wrong. When something was flat-out wrong, the man from the Midwest was willing to stand up and say it—and challenge others to follow.
He did that when playing with the Browns, demanding better play and harder work from some of his fellow offensive lineman.
As Dieken talked about his college football days, he mentioned Tim McCarthy, a walk-on football player who was a soccer player. On March 31, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot. Dieken saw McCarthy’s picture flashed on the television set.
“He was the Secret Service guy who took a bullet for the president,” said Dieken. “He was one of about 30 of us in that first football class. I think there were only five left by the time we graduated.”
* * *
After his draft-day conversation with Skorich in 1971, Dieken was still trying to figure out why they wanted him to play tackle. As far as he knew, only one NFL scout ever showed up at an Illinois practice.
“It was Lou Groza,” said Dieken. “I never talked to him. We knew who he was (a former Browns player). But that was it.”
Dieken played in the Blue-Gray all-star game and the Senior Bowl, two senior showcases. Dieken was a first-team All-Big Ten tight end, and was in that position in both postseason games. Future Browns coach Sam Rutigliano coached the receivers in the Senior Bowl.
Rutigliano must have had some influence on the play calling.
“They didn’t throw a pass to a tight end all day, everything was to the receivers,” laughed Dieken.
The Browns still picked him, the 142nd selection, in the 1971 draft.
“I showed up at the old Fleming Field at Case Western (Reserve University) for rookie camp,” said Dieken. “They handed me jersey No. 73 and pointed me toward the offensive line.”
The message was clear: 73 was a number for a lineman. (Years later it would be the number of Browns star left tackle Joe Thomas.)
* * *
Dieken’s first contract had a $5,000 bonus. The salary was $16,000 (not guaranteed) with a chance to earn another $6,000 in incentives if he played more.
When he was measured, he remembered to stand as tall as possible. A scout at the Senior Bowl had told him that if he measured at least 6-foot-5, it could be worth an extra 500 bucks. He came in at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds.
He signed his contract. He spent the night at the old Hollenden House hotel in downtown Cleveland with the other rookies. The next day he met owner Art Modell and some coaches at Municipal Stadium. When it was over, a member of the front office was supposed to drive Dieken to the airport. Instead, he dropped Dieken off at the Terminal Tower.
“He told me to take the train going west,” said Dieken. “When it ends, get off—that’s the airport.”
Not exactly a coddled rookie.
“I saw only one NFL game in my life before I got to the Browns,” he said. “It actually was the Browns. They were playing the Bears at Wrigley Field.”
Dieken has one distinct memory from that game.
“Dick Butkus was playing linebacker for the Bears,” he said. “He hit (Browns running back) Ron Johnson and I thought he killed Johnson.”
A few years later, Dieken met Johnson and mentioned the hit.
“I thought he killed you.”
“So did I,” said Johnson.
* * *
When Dieken joined the Browns, they put him at left tackle—behind veteran Dick Schafrath. Late in training camp, he was told to go see Skorich. The coach explained they were putting him on waivers with the idea of eventually having him on the “taxi squad,” or practice squad as it’s known today.
Dieken was confused. It sounded as if he was being cut. Then he received word he was claimed by Miami. It turned out one of Miami’s assistant coaches was Monte Clark, a former Browns lineman. He called current Browns lineman Gene Hickerson, who praised Dieken.
The Browns scrambled, pulling back the waivers. He ended up making the team.
Why all the roster manipulation? The Browns were trying to keep third-round pick Paul Staroba on the team. Just imagine if the Browns had let Dieken go—to protect an all-Big Ten receiver from Michigan whose NFL career consisted of 10 games and two receptions.
But at this point, Dieken was a sixth-rounder learning a new position in the NFL. He was mostly on special teams early in his rookie season. Then right tackle Bob McKay became injured.
“I went in, and I’d never played right tackle in my life,” said Dieken. “I played maybe three quarters at left tackle in the preseason games. No tackle in college.”
Dieken survived. When McKay healed, Dieken returned to the bench. But a few games later, an angry Skorich benched veterans Jim Houston, Gary Collins and Schafrath. In his book, “Heart of a Mule,” Schafrath said he learned of the changes in The Plain Dealer. He was in his 13th NFL season and his body was falling apart.
Dieken became the starting left tackle on Nov. 21, 1971. He stayed there until Dec. 16, 1984, never missing a start.
“The biggest adjustment was pass blocking,” he said. “But then I figured out it was like blocking out your man in basketball. Instead of keeping your body between the man and the rim, it was keeping your body between the man and the quarterback. You square him up. Footwork is the key.”
Then Dieken explained that one part of the way he played the position was wrong.
“If you play left tackle, your left hand is on the ground and your left leg is back,” he said. “But I played with my right hand in the dirt, the right leg back. It was backwards.”
Early in his career, no one bothered to change him. Later on, he played for Howard Mudd—considered one of the best offensive line coaches in NFL history.
“Why didn’t you change me?” Dieken asked Mudd.
“You’re playing it well,” Mudd said. “No need.”
* * *
When talking to Dieken, the conversation becomes like a winding country road with a few side trips. For example, Dieken explained he never used an agent when talking contract.
“It’s almost like salaries were slotted back then,” said Dieken. “You know what starting offensive linemen made, and that was about what you’d get.”
Dieken played 14 seasons, doing all his own contracts. His highest salary was $250,000.
“If nothing else, I saved a lot in agent fees,” he said.
Dieken said some of the guys on the team once asked him how he negotiated with Modell.
“It’s easy,” said Dieken.
He knelt down and said, “Please Art, please play me!”
“That was my strategy—begging,” he said.
* * *
Early in his career, Dieken’s teammates would tell him, “We never should have traded Eppie Barney.”
“Eppie Barney,” said Dieken. “The Browns traded him to the Bears for the draft pick they used on me.”
Eppie Barney was from Cleveland and had played at Collinwood High and Iowa State. He was a third-round pick by the Browns in 1967. The receiver played only 26 games in the NFL, catching 19 passes.
Dieken loves to tell this type of story, going for laughs at his own expense.
* * *
How do you play 194 games in a row at left tackle in the NFL? You don’t just play hurt, you play injured. You play when you know you should sit. If you’re Dieken, you play through the pain because you remember something your father said.
“What life gives you, you handle it,” said Dieken. “Life gave me left tackle.”
Dieken was not about to let it go. In the middle of his second season, something was wrong with his right knee. He went to see the team doctor.
“You need surgery,” Dieken was told. “You tore a cartilage. You can have the operation and miss the rest of the season. Or you can tape it up and play.”
He taped it up and played. Surgery after the season.
Then right before the opening game of his third season, something was wrong with his other knee.
“You tore the cartilage,” he was told. “You can have surgery and miss the season, or you can tape it up and play.”
Same story, different knee. He taped it up and played. Surgery after the season. There were three knee surgeries in his career. And broken hands. Broken thumbs. Torn tendons, strained ligaments. He played wearing a cast on a fractured arm.
“I had a concussion or two,” he said. “Maybe four or six. Hard to know.”
“That’s what you did back then,” said Dieken.
By the end of the 1984 season, he knew his body couldn’t take it anymore. He retired. Since then, he’s had both knees replaced. Both hips replaced. A degenerative disk in his back.
Dieken laughed. He knows the litany of injuries and all the pain is not funny, but what else can you do? But he did what he always did.
* * *
In 1984, Dieken knew his career was about over. Browns radio broadcaster Gib Shanley asked him what he planned to do next. “I have no idea,” was the response.
“Why don’t you get into this business?” Shanley asked. Then, Shanley opened the door in a couple of ways. First he sold the Browns and the radio station on Dieken’s on-air potential. Then Shanley left for a job on the West Coast.
In 1985, the Browns had Jim Mueller and Nev Chandler alternating as play-by-play men, with Dieken doing color commentary. The next season, they paired Chandler and Dieken. Dieken has been on the radio ever since. His partners were Chandler and Casey Coleman until the team left for Baltimore after the 1995 season. Chandler and Coleman both died of cancer.
He was teamed up with Donovan when the team returned in 1999.
“Sometimes, it’s more about timing than talent,” said Dieken.
He was thinking about high school, how basketball turned into football. About the NFL, how he was dropped into the left tackle spot.
“I played next to two great guards—Gene Hickerson and later Robert Jackson,” said Dieken. “That’s what I mean about timing. Those guys really helped me.”
Then broadcasting. As he had at left tackle, in radio he started at the pro level with zero experience. But that is at the heart of Dieken—the power of showing up. Doing the right thing, day after day, decade after decade.
“My father once told me that there will always be guys with more talent than you,” said Dieken. “But you can outwork them.”
After Dieken was drafted by the Browns, Charles Dieken told his son he’d give Dieken $100 if he ever made the Pro Bowl. It finally happened in his 10th pro season. Dieken called his dad, reminding him about the $100.
“That’s good,” said Charles Dieken. “Think you can do it again?”
Charles Dieken did not believe in handing out compliments—or money—frivolously.
Then Dieken told one more story.
“My brother Paul was in the Special Olympics and he loved it,” said Dieken. “That got me interested in it.”
Over the years, he’s helped raise about $250,000 for the organization.
“One day, my brother won four ribbons and medals,” said Dieken. “He got in the car, held them up to me and said, ‘How do you like that, Hot Shot!’”
Dieken laughed as he told the story, one that says so much about him and his late brother.
Photo: Richard T. Conway / The Plain Dealer. Used with permission of The Plain Dealer.