Joe Haden wasn’t ready. Back in the spring of 2011, I asked Haden why he felt he wasn’t starting in Eric Mangini’s defense despite being a top-10 draft selection, and he outright told me he wasn’t ready. Whether or not he was just being modest — the guy would go on to pick off six balls his rookie season — or was simply towing the company line isn’t important. What he was, however, was exactly what Cleveland needed during some of its lowest times.
As timing would have it, Haden was gifted to Cleveland in the late spring of 2010, just months before LeBron James would leave for Miami in that July’s NBA free agency period. At the time, he knew nothing about Cleveland. Growing up in the DC-Maryland area and playing collegiate football in Florida, Cleveland was foreign land. But at a time when sports morale was at a nadir and civic pride was reaching a crescendo (while the rest of the world was comparing cold, industrial Cleveland to the bright lights and white sands of Miami), Haden came swooping in to be the spirit animal of an entire region.
As fans, we want our professional athletes to care about the cities they represent as much as — if not more than — we do. Every member of the Indians, Browns or Cavaliers has “Cleveland” stitched into the front of the uniforms they wear on a given day or night, symbolizing a representation larger than that of their respective teams. While we root for these 20-somethings to perform and a high level, we also subject them to the unfair expectations of having pride in a city to which they have no ties outside of the origin of their weekly pay stub. Joe Haden understood the passion. He understood the hope. He understood the misery.
Joe Haden was the conflict-free athlete from a fan standpoint, performing at a high level on the field, and being an ambassador of the city off of it. While most NFL players seek warmer climates in the winter, it was Haden who was court side for Cavalier games during a season which just so happened to be the third worst in team history, oftentimes wearing a head-to-toe Cleveland uniform. He would take fans to games, using Twitter to sort out the lucky plus-ones. He held countless mid-winter autograph signings. He’d shoot the shit with fans who would happen to run into him in restaurants. He represented the city during the NBA Lottery. He was Cleveland.
“I want to make sure that I can get my face out there as much as possible and show the fans that I appreciate them,” Haden told WFNY. “We have amazing fans that come out. And just for them to show the support, the least I can do is give autographs or hold events for the fans who watch Cleveland sports. As much as I can give back, I try.”
In my time covering Cleveland sports, I have attended just one press conference in Berea — Joe Haden following the signing of his five-year, $68 million contract extension in May of 2014. Joe spoke of the expectations that would come with signing such a lucrative deal with a team that had not been well-known for extending its cost-controlled rookies. At the time, he was paid at a level that was second to only Seattle’s Richard Sherman, and he had been playing at the same level.1 In a room that also included his parents and newlywed wife Haden spoke of his plans for the future, plans which — once again — included the fans.
“When you get your rookie contract, it’s because of what you did in college,” he said. “But when you get that second deal, it’s because of what you’ve been doing since you’ve been in the league and it’s just something that it made me feel like the coaching staff believed in me, the owners believed in me and it just made me want to go harder.
“The fan base is one big part because of the way they feel about the team and the Browns. I feel if we can really start winning here, there’s no other place I’d rather play. If we can get this organization turned around, it would be the best.”
Off the field, Haden continued to be nothing shy of amazing, be it hosting a charity-based celebrity softball game or helping a local kid get a date to prom. On the field, however, Haden would start to see his body betray him as his 2015 season was cut short after the cornerback would suffer multiple concussions. He would go “dark” on social media as fans began to turn on him, the perception being that the cornerback signed a big contract and was no longer invested in the team’s success. But in an emotional interview following his placement on the Injured Reserve, Haden spoke about how that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I want them to know that the Browns, the fans, the team—they mean everything to me,” Haden said. “It’s so difficult for me not being out there being able to help them out. I love playing. I love the city of Cleveland. I know that it’s super tough given the way this season has gone, but my whole thing is wanting to be out there with them. I’m here. This is my city. I want us to be here. I signed my extension to be here when we turn it around. I don’t want anyone to question my investment. I’m here. I want to be here. I love it here. This concussion thing is something I’ve never been involved with. I can’t wait to be able to get back out there.”
Unfortunately for Haden and the city of Cleveland, he never truly would get back. The 2016 season was once again littered with injuries and underperformance. Fans were forced to watch the decline of a local hero unfold live on television. The guy who once threw out the first pitch at an Indians game wearing a custom stitched jersey that combined Grady Sizemore with Colt McCoy — two players who embodied the hope and passion that came with the city of Cleveland — was slowly seeing his career go the way of the former Indians center fielder, a player who so desperately wanted to play at the same levels of years past, but his body simply would not let him.
On Wednesday morning, Haden’s career in Cleveland came to an abrupt end. The unfortunate part of large contracts in the NFL is they rarely end with as much jubilation as was present upon the initial agreement. Players are oftentimes rewarded for past play while teams structure them in a way where cap hits are minimal toward the final years. Fans may be upset that the Browns didn’t “get” anything for Haden, choosing to outright release him just one week before the start of the regular season. And while a sixth- or seventh-round pick likely could have been had, letting a 28-year-old Haden choose his landing spot was the biggest “thank you” the team could provide.
Whether he was ready or not, Joe Haden was there when Cleveland needed him the most. It is only fair that the city would eventually reciprocate.
This Week in #ActualSportswriting:
- “An NFL Rehearsal: With Beth Mowins and Rex Ryan in the Monday Night Football Practice Booth” by Richard Deitsch (Sports Illustrated)2
- “Roger Federer, LLC: How the G.O.A.T. Got to the Top of His Game, in Businesslike Fashion” by John Wertheim (Sports Illustrated)
- “The Life, Death, and Legend of Joe McKnight” by Micah Peters (The Ringer)
- ““Who Does This To People?”” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Simon Baumgart (ESPN OTL)3
This Week in #ActualNonsportswriting:
- “There Are More Of Us Than There Are Of Them” by Karl-Anthony Towns (Players’ Tribune)
- “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylan Roof” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansa (GQ Magazine)4
- “Fake Polls Are A Real Problem” by Henry Emten (FiveThirtyEight)
- “Touching Death: The Turbulent Life of One of America’s Last Snake-Handling Preachers” by Jordan Ritter-Conn (The Ringer)