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.