25 Years Ago, I Learned About Sports Loss The Hard Way

Yesterday went by quietly enough. We talked about Anderson Varejao as a trade option, The Tribe’s free agent options for First Base, and explored why Mike Holmgren couldn’t pull do what the Raiders did with Hue Jackson. When I finished work for the day, I had Pardon the Interruption on in the background while playing with my kids. In the “Big Finish” portion of the show, they gave a Happy Anniversary to John Elway.

I quickly did the math in my head and realized it – it was 25 years ago yesterday that I learned what a real sports loss was all about. Twenty-five years ago yesterday, John Elway went 98 yards with the season on the line in the most hostile of territories, needing a touchdown to tie the game and force overtime in the AFC Championship Game.

I was there. In section 37, row four, seat four. To my left was my older brother, then my mother, and my father on the aisle. I was just 10 years old, but it was my formidable years as a Browns fan. I can tell you EVERYTHING about the 1986 Cleveland Browns. That was the year Ray Ellis replaced the late Don Rogers as the starting safety next to Chris Rockins. Mark Moseley took over as the kicker late in the season because Matt Bahr broke his leg making a tackle on a kickoff in the overtime win over the Steelers (which was won on the Kosar to Slaughter deep TD pass). I remember Major Everett and D.D. Hoggard being special teams standouts. I remember the Herman Fontenot halfback pass to Reggie Langhorne in the blowout win over San Diego which clinched home field advantage for the Browns.

A week prior to the AFC title game, the Browns and the New York Jets played in that epic double overtime 23-20 game down at Municipal Stadium in which the Browns came back from 10 points down in the last two minutes to tie the game and force overtime. It goes down as one of the great playoff games in NFL history, mostly because of the heroics of “The Lord,” Bernie Kosar, who threw for a playoff record 489 yards and saving the Browns from a Cleveland-esque collapse.

It only lasted a week.

While the Browns were making the impossible a reality against the Jets, I was in the car on the way home. My late father had enough with about four minutes to go and told us that we were leaving. So yes, I was one of those suckers who missed the amazing comeback, overtime and double overtime. Heck, I was even back at my Uncle’s in Shaker Heights watching double OT! So a week later, as we arrived at the stadium for the AFC Championship game, everyone around us was all over my father for leaving. Even in his eulogy in 2004, leaving the Jets game was referenced. So obviously we weren’t going anywhere a week later.

I will be honest – there are only a few things that I vividly remember about the game. First, before the game and at halftime, the Ohio State marching band entertained the crowd, which was in a frenzy all game long. Then there was the Brian Brennan fourth quarter TD, which gave the Browns a 20-13 lead. I seriously remember that moment like it was yesterday. Bernie fired down the left sideline for the reliable Brennan who caught the ball, spun one way, spun the other, and shook Broncos safety Dennis Smith for a 48 yard touchdown. The feeling in that stadium at that time was something that has still never been duplicated in the last 25 years. It was pure bedlam.

My 13-year-old brother and I were hugging and screaming “we’re going to the Super Bowl! We’re going to the Super Bowl!” It was a feeling that has stuck with me for 25 years. Unfortunately for me, at age nine, and for thousands of other Browns fans, we would never be that close again, and we still don’t know what a Super Bowl looks like.

Full disclosure, I don’t remember anything about “The Drive” other than Steve Sewell abusing Chris Rockins out of the backfield. Oh, that and my father almost having a heart attack while Elway was performing surgery on the Browns prevent defense.

Elway took his team 98 yards and hit Mark Jackson in the back of the end zone to tie things at 20. Its funny, 25 years later, I’m sure there are tons of people with revisionist history who think the game ended there. Its like the 1980 USA Hockey team’s win over the Russians. People think it was the gold medal game – it wasn’t. On to overtime we went. This time, there was no way my father would let us leave this one. Nobody would leave. We all wanted to be in the stadium when the Browns won to go to the Super Bowl.

Again, the rest of it up to the Rich Karlis field goal was a blur to me. All I remember is the kick going up, and Browns players on the field waving as if it were no good, despite the fact that the Broncos were all celebrating. I still to this day believe that kick was wide left. We sprinted to the car and we sat in stunned silence as we didn’t move from the parking lot for seemingly two hours. My father didn’t say a word the entire time.

Sitting in that silent car, I realized the magnitude of what had happened for the first time in my young sports watching career. You don’t get many chances like that one. We were so close, but at the time, I thought the Browns were just scratching the surface and would be back in years to come. I was right – they would make two more AFC Championship games in the next three years. Unfortunately, Elway and the Broncos took them down both times.

What Elway had done to us wasn’t lost on me either, despite my young age. You would think that I would despise the man with the Mr. Ed smile. Actually, its just the opposite – I respect Elway as much as any player who I ever watched. The guy led his team to the Super Bowl five times – also known as five more times that the Browns have. To me, Elway is the greatest QB to ever play the game.

With all of that said, he and the Broncos taught me a very valuable lesson 25 years ago yesterday – its never over until the clock hits all zeroes and the prevent defense prevents you from winning.

  • Shamrock

    25 years later and nothing has changed, well kind of for the Browns. Not in good way. I remember that game well but at the time it was just a very tough loss. Who would have imagined it’d be followed up by the rest of the tragic sports losses amongst the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians.

    Watching Elway celebrate this past weekend didn’t help. As much as the Steelers are disliked for me Elway and the Broncos are right up there. And all I can do is hope another teams ruins their dreams. Perhaps this is why I’m so bitter about the Browns at times.

  • Anonymous


  • To this day, I still swear that kick was no good. I was 7 years old at the time, and like you, I don’t have a ton of vivid memories of plays in the game. But I do remember that FG. My parents love to remind me that I actually cried, and I mean bawled, that it wasn’t fair that the refs could just pretend like a FG was good like that. Ah, youth. So yeah, this was my introduction to real sports heartbreak and loss as well.

    Great article, TD. 

  • theherd10

    I, too, saw the Happy Anniversary nod on PTI.  I don’t even watch PTI, I was getting my hair cut and the barber had the TV on ESPN.  It made me ill to watch it last night.  Then, as I read, your synopsis just now, my blood literally ran cold a couple of times thinking back on that game.  The memories of that final drive are just horrific.  Elway and the Broncos simply could not be stopped, at least on that drive.  I remember the elation that I felt when Brennan snagged that pass, though.  My beloved Browns were actually going to go to the Super Bowl.  It still hurts, 25 years later.  Y’know, when Denver eliminated Pittsburgh Sunday, I was actually clapping and hollerin’ when it was over.  Then they cut to Elway on the sideline, and I thought, “Oh, yeah – Elway just benefitted from this.”  My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat.    I wanted Denver to win Sunday, but it was a enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thing.  Man, that Drive still hurts…

  • boomhauertjs

    When I think of The Drive, I wonder if things would have been different if Don Rogers had been alive. He was on the verge of becoming an All-Pro safety. Ellis and Rockins were adequate, but how things may have been different with a Pro Bowler at safety…

  • Alex

    I was actually on the field of the stadium during The Drive. During college I worked as an usher at the old stadium and worked at that game. In the fourth quarter they put all of us ushers/security in a big ring around the field. We were the ones in the yellow coats. 

    From my vantage point I couldn’t see the playing field very well. There were so many people standing along the sidelines. All I could see was this big swarm of people and the flatbed golf-cart that the TV camera was on slowly move from one end of the field to the other, as the crowd grew quieter and quieter. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good.

  • Anonymous

    Wow.  It all came flooding back.  I was 12, not at the game, but glued to the TV.  I cried. (For some reason, though, I cried worse after the Fumble.)

    I couldn’t agree more about Elway, though.  The 3rd AFC Championship Game loss to the Broncos tempered my hatred and anger toward him somewhat, as they just handed it to the Browns for 3 quarters (if I recall correctly, only a couple of amazing 4th quarter catches by my hero, Brennan, kept the game partially close).  By the time he was playing in the Super Bowl as an “old” man, I was cheering myself hoarse (pun somewhat intended) for the guy – partly just for the connection that he brought to the team that I loved (but was no longer around).  It seems to me easier, and somewhat more honorable, to respect and cheer for an old enemy than it is to carry the hatred. 

    Bernie will forever be my favorite all-time QB, but I have tremendous respect for Elway.  I’m a big temporary Broncos fan this off-season.    

    [By the way, love the Edit function!]

  • Anonymous

    “For all the sad words of tongue and pen …”

    The appropriate lament of all Cleveland fans.

    And on, and on, and on . . .


  • JRS19

    Great recap of a painful memory…We’re the same age, and I remember watching with my family at home in Tallmadge and pretty much crying at the end.  I had my Cleveland Browns artwork that we all had made in school the Friday before the game with me throughout, hoping it would inspire some luck.  No such luck.  Or the next year, or 1990 either.  However, as bad as those losses felt, I’d take them anytime over what we’ve had since, which is just nothing to look forward to or get excited about. 

  • Jeremy Radwan

    I remember watching the game at home with my family and we were certain (as was the rest of Cleveland) that the kick was wide … we couldn’t believe the call. I do have some fond memories of that week before the game, particularly all of the fan-written Browns songs on the radio. Go Kardiac Kids!

  • Bbo13

    The details of the game are hazy to me as well (I was 5), but I distinctly recall the feeling of the air being let out of the room as the Broncos moved down field. We were at my aunt’s house, and there were 20-30 people–family, friends, neighbors–all crowded into the living room to watch. Many tears were shed when the shouts of “No good!” died out. My uncle punched a hole in the basement door. Everyone filed out slowly. To this day I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach evey time a Cleveland team seems on the verge, just waiting for it to fall apart. And just about every time, it has. I thought LeBron’s buzzer-beater against the Magic–a game I was in the crowd for–might change all that. I was wrong.

    See you next Sunday.

  • great article. I was oddly enough 7 years old at the time as well. My parents and neighbors always had great Browns “casserole” parties, but the kids under the age of 10 were always banished to the back room to play Atari… mainly due to the excessive swearing going on in the living room. The joke was most of us thought Kosar’s first name was the “F-word” (I’m playing nice on this site).
    So, point being, I never witnessed The Drive or the Fumble…. Only heard about it after the dead silent company left with their empty casserole dishes, heads hanging low. My own first taste of CLE sports misery was The Shot. I witnessed that alone in the back room, as there were no other basketball fans in my house. I bawled.

  • swig

    I was 6, so this was one of my first sports memories (I wasn’t on the field and it is a bit hazy).  Combine this with the fumble and I despise the Broncos to the point I have never played as them in a video game.

    I never understood why people wouldn’t also despise the Broncos (as I’ve stated before), but I guess anyone younger than me would have almost no recollection of these games.

  • Joemersnik

    BRUTAL memory for soooooo many of us.  Just one more reason to absolutely hate Aaron Goldhammer as he continues to pollute Rizzo’s show.  The Broncos jersey, non-stop Denver talk, etc. – just WRONG!  On mornings when I play WKNR in the background, as 92.3 The Fan is my primary local sports talk station, it amazes me how they just plug along with that contrived, condescending, BS format.  I got sucked into it when their was no real option.  Now? 92.3 all freakin’ day…actual conversations with sports fans in NE Ohio – wow!  What a concept…who knew!?  LOL…

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, sir. May I have another?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, sir. May I have another?

  • I was 6 and not yet burdened with the genius I now possess. Nevertheless, I remember cutting out playoff pictures from the Plain Dealer and the News Herald and taping them all over my bedroom window.

    Taking them down the the next day at the request of my mother was when the real sadness hit me.

    May we someday partake of the sweet taste of revenge on all the doubters/naysayers/fair weather fans.  May we parade down East 9th street/Euclid Avenue, flags flying high, with a championship.

    And, may this happen before our sun runs out of hydrogen.

  • Alex

    One other thing, Todd, you are right about the bedlam and the feeling in the stadium after Brennan’s TD catch. I haven’t experienced anything like it since either.

    My favorite souvenir of that day was a full page ad the Browns took out in the Plain Dealer the following Sunday. I still have it my attic somewhere, yellowed and crinkly. 

    The whole page was blank, except for a small black and white picture of Brennan and Fontenot celebrating in front of the Dawg Pound, with the fans going berzerk.

    The headline simply said, in bold letters:


    – The Cleveland Browns

    I thought the was so classy of the Browns, to take that ad out.

  • Ethan

    I didn’t realize I was one of the youngest guys to comment on this site (I’m 19). I wasn’t alive for just about any of the things Cleveland fans complain about. Heck, I don’t even remember the old Browns – all I know is the new Browns.

    Its even wierd for me to think the Browns were ever good. But great piece nonetheless.

  • Jay

    I can’t believe it’s been that long. Sheesh I’m getting old. Here’s my two cents on the whole thing. It’s amazing to me how many Clevelanders and Browns fans I saw last Saturday, Sunday, & Monday supporting the Broncos. I guess after 25 years, we’re able to forgive. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to see the Steelers get knocked out, but I didn’t change my profile picture to the Broncos’ logo, or Tebow, or any other crap that I saw. Having said that, I will now totally contradict myself – when Elway & the Broncos won the SB back to back (I think it was ’97-’98) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was happy they won, but it was nice to see Elway get his ring after being so close so many times. Also, Terrell Davis in his prime was a MONSTER RB!

  • E Guelch

    Any chance Sunday’s win vs. Pittsburgh sends them into the same downward spiral with decades of misery?

    If only life were fair.

  • Ctowndawgpound

    I was twelve and football around my house was crazy! I was the only Browns fan,my mom was a bungles fan,step dad and best friend were stillers fans,and my younger brother was a Broncos fan. For the games we all got decked out in our gear and I always had the match up of teams displayed with the little helmets of each team. I can remember the highs and lows of that game but thought NO WAY were we going to lose.I figured we’d be able to hold them off,DAMN PREVENT DEFENSE! Once the game was over,and I barely had a chance to dry my tears,my brother and best friend were laughing at me! In not one of my prouder moments, I smashed the Broncos helmet and took one of my brothers BRONCO horse stuffed animals and cut it in two on the chopping block with an axe! When they saw that they laughed even harder at my obvious pain, I then body slammed my brother,and then my best friend.They no longer thought it was funny. So from then on I always tried to watch games with at least one other Browns fan. The only thing I know for sure is that when we finally win the SUPERBOWL the champagne is going to taste so sweet! TRUE BROWNS FANS DESERVE IT!

  • Granted

    I’m also a young one and 19, so I was nowhere even close to being alive. But I do have the story of the game my father relayed to me, which he seldom ever discusses just because of the pain. For him, something extra makes that game – and that postseason – emotional. His mother, my grandma, died in mid-December. My mother has told my that after the Jets game my dad was so happy because he knew she was watching that one too. Then the AFC title game came along, and I can’t even imagine what it felt like in the circumstances. I understand people respecting Elway, but my dad has never forgiven the Broncos. And as long as he feels that way, I’ll never blame him for it.

  • Scott

    Also 9 years old.  Also tears (first but not last caused by the Browns)…

    I have a vivid memory of my Dad trying to comfort me.  He said – “Next year they’ll be even better and they’ll probably WIN the Super Bowl”.


  • The Other Tim

    I still watch the edited version of this nightmare every time I find it on ESPN or NFLN. There are great moments in that game and they make me smile. I originally saw it in O’Hare’s Red Carpet Club. With Bronco supporters in between me and the television. Just Brutal.
    It’s easy to forget that we won the toss in overtime. 3 and out.

    (Story I may have told on WFNY already. My son’s tackle team was one win away from the Super Bowl this year. Unlike Cleveland teams, they’ve made it to the Super Bowl every year since they were 7 year olds – 5 in a row!) This season the semi-final game was moved from its original location to Granada Hills High School at the last minute. No problem- less driving! Then I looked it GHHS on google maps. Right then I saw that their football stadium is called John Elway Stadium. Needless to say, we lost by 2 and missed the Super Bowl.)

  • Anonymous

    Stuffed animal mutilation!  Axes!  Body slams!

    Yeah, you took it harder than me.

    So, is it easy to find other Browns fans at the Correctional Facility?  And do you often get champagne?

    (all in fun, of course) 

  • porkchopxpress

    We are the hollow men
        We are the stuffed men
        Leaning together
        Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
        Our dried voices, when
        We whisper together
        Are quiet and meaningless
        As wind in dry grass
        Or rats’ feet over broken glass
        In our dry cellar

  • Tsm

    I had gone to the Jets game the week before.  We also “gave up” and ended up watching the OT on a portable TV in the muny lot.   The day of the Denver game, I was home since we had a birthday party for my son’s 4th birthday.   Also, I had a major work commitment beginning on Monday, and needed to stay sober to prepare.  Needless to say, my brothers and I were glued to the TV when my wife & the kids were opening presents and eating cake.   I kept thinking that we were going to the Super Bowl and we would need to begin making arrangements to get tickets, and make travel arrangements.   I am still mad at Marty for being conservative to start the OT and run Fontenot on 3rd down rather than letting Bernie go deep as he loved to do.   I don’t recall us blitzing once during “the drive” and sitting back in the prevent was our downfall.  Now, 3 additional sons later, none of them have wtnessed a Cleveland team winning a championship.    At least I was there in ’64.

  • Scott

    I was 14 in the way upper deck at the open end tip of the C. This game is woven into the fabric of my life as it is for many of you and the entire city. As painful as the memory is, I still love to rehash the game as there are many overall positive feelings. The city was on fire all month, the bedlam after the Brennan TD is iconic moment of my life, the camaraderie with family and friends we can all appreciate. As much as I have positive feelings and the upmost respect for what Elway pulled off, my final verdict as much as I hate to say, is that the Browns choked. I’m sorry but you don’t give up a 98 yard TD drive at home, with the best crowd in the country Going absolutely berserk to pump you up with the Super Bowl on the line and the weight of an entire downtrodden city resting on the outcome. Yes Marty went into prevent but someone needed to make a play. It was 3rd and 18 after that Puzzoli sack. That was an enormous play. I tip my hat to you Puz wherever you are today. You should be a local hero for the play that clinched the game. As much as the Brennan play was the biggest for most, to me the best feeling I ever had was the ensuing kickoff that pinned them on the 2. Kosar and Brennan gave us the lead, but the kickoff gave us the Super Bowl (or should have). I enjoy the reflection; shit that was half a lifetime ago for me. What a great time that was.

  • Scott

    I also remember the silent dirge walk back to the parking lot. Amongst the silence, one chant broke out cause it’s all we had: “Pittsburgh sucks…Pittsburgh sucks”. That brought a smile to my face despite the sadness

  • Anonymous

    Now that I think about it, the week before, as we were beating the Jets, the Steelers were in Denver, where they absolutely choked away the game in the last couple minutes.

    If Pittsburgh hadn’t gagged, we would have played them instead of Denver on that fateful day. We swept the Steelers that year. Both games were very close, but still, we swept them.

    Again . . . what might have been.

  • tag

    It WAS wide left.  Anyone who disagrees can kiss my shiny metal ass.

  • Frank

    It was wide left.  I was in the dawg pound and jumped up shouting “he missed it”, then realized that I was the only one around who jumped up…