'Larger than life' Braase never lost his Mitchell ties
In 1950, the National Football League was a still fledgling league in a sport still years away from becoming the mainstream juggernaut we see today.
It was not until 1950 that the New York Giants and Washington Redskins became the first teams in league history to have a contract for all of their games televised.
Back in Mitchell during the same year, Ordell Braase was just getting started. It was then, during his senior season, that Braase led the Kernels to the Class A state basketball championship.
It was the start of an athletic career that led him to the University of South Dakota—where he starred in football and basketball—to the United States Army and eventually the Baltimore Colts, where during his 12 seasons, he was a part of many of the iconic moments that brought the NFL to the forefront of American society.
Braase died quietly on March 25 at the age of 87 in Bradenton, Florida, but to many who knew him—including his partner and fellow Mitchell native DeAnne Robinson—he was "larger than life."
"He had a big personality," Robinson said. "People were attracted to him. They could see the goodness, the charitableness in him. I thought he was just a magnificent person."
When Braase was a high school student, he and his friends would pile into his Ford Model A and tool around town. His cousin and Kernel teammate, Dick Weller, could never imagine Braase becoming an NFL star.
It was due in part to Mitchell struggling on the gridiron at that time, along with basketball being his primary sport. USD offered him a scholarship for his ability on the hardwood and he averaged 12.4 points and 11 rebounds per game for the Coyotes as a senior. Yet it was football that came calling, when the Colts drafted him in the 14th round of the 1954 NFL Draft.
"I had no idea that he'd go on to be an NFL player," Weller said. "I couldn't see that in high school, but he worked hard and he got there, didn't he?"
Braase did not join the Colts until 1957, after serving in the Army, but he became a mainstay and a primary starter at defensive end. During his career, Braase was part of three NFL championship teams—including a 1958 victory over the Giants in the first playoff game to go to overtime—and a trip to Super Bowl III during his tenure.
Despite his status on one of the premier teams in the NFL, Braase—along with his wife, Janice, who preceded him in death in 1997, and four children—never acted or lived like a star. Throughout his playing career, like most NFL players at the time, he had a side job with a beverage bottling distribution company in Maryland.
"He was just our dad," said Elizabeth Hopkins, Braase's daughter, who lives in Darlington, Maryland. "We didn't get to go to all of the games. We only got to pick one game a year. I think we led a very normal childhood. It just so happened that he had a different profession than most fathers."
Some of his demeanor could be attributed to never losing his midwestern roots and qualities, despite living in the Baltimore area and Florida later in life. Braase often returned to Mitchell each year and maintained friendships and his love of pheasant hunting.
"He wasn't in a big hurry, he took time for people and he was very honest," Hopkins said. "I think of those as midwestern qualities and I think a lot of people admired him for that."
Those qualities also translated into the locker room and later during his service on the Maryland Racing Commission. Braase not only listened to those around him and created time for those who needed it, but he also developed leadership skills that led him to become the president of the NFL Players Association from 1964 to 1967.
As a teammate, he was generous and hard-working, but beloved. He often played in the shadows of fellow defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, only making two Pro Bowl teams after Marchetti's retirement. Yet he never clamored for the spotlight, leaving former teammate and Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore to call him the epitome of a teammate.
"He was a great teammate," said Moore, 85. "In other words, he was one guy I could probably say was the mode of all teammates. You're close, you care for each other and you would do almost anything for each other. He was a beautiful guy."
Mitchell also always remained a special place for him. He was a frequent visitor over the years and eventually began a scholarship through the University of South Dakota Foundation, established in 2016 to help Mitchell student-athletes, as well as football players throughout the state.
"It shows his love of athletics and it goes back to his roots," Robinson said. "They were looking to give priority to an athlete from Mitchell and if it didn't find anyone then it went to the entire state. He still loved Mitchell very much."