Browns

The Curse of Paul Warfield — A loving look at a 45-year slump: Reliving Yesteryear

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Our gazes remained fixed, for an extra moment. As he began to realize, my trivia question wasn’t merely rhetorical.

“Rocky Colavito to Detroit, for Harvey Kuenn. April 17, 1960.” His countenance had morphed into a half-smile/furrowed brow combo. He was clearly thinking: “You’re really coming at me with the easy, ‘what’s the worst trade in Cleveland history?’”

Jerry apparently had a pretty nice job, during the week. On Saturday mornings, he worked here, at the old family hardware store owned by his father-in-law. To Jerry, this was a place to go for goofing around. After all, there were plenty of power tools here, to try out—“Hey, a bunch of those new Weed Eaters just came in! Let’s take one out back to see what it can do.” He relished the chance to catch up on local gossip- er, news, with some of our regular customers. Many of these were contractors, or maintenance men from various local factories; they all were fairly plugged into the ‘word on the street.’

If nothing else was going on, Jerry hung out in the back, with us teenagers. We engaged in our share of horseplay, but never nearly as openly as the comfortably secure Jerry. He was likely to laugh the loudest, and being near him felt as though we’d be looked at as lazy and disrespectful kids. We liked Jerry enough, but we were wary of being seen with him. He was usually interested in knowing stories about the mischief we’d been involved in. Tales involving our dalliances with girls were always a big hit.

On this day, I was in the middle of re-screening a dozen sliding doors for an apartment complex. Jerry was camped in the middle of the aisle, next to the wide, carpeted work table. He was fiddling with a small fishing pole from the hobby area (it didn’t occur to him to ‘hide’ behind store displays when idle, as we were known to do). I shook my head at him.

“Colavito was a bad trade. Both of them were- the one that brought him back to Cleveland was awful, too. But there was a trade that was worse.”

Jerry stood smiling, almost nodding. He quietly snorted in a quick rhythm through the bushy brown mustache that matched his perfectly permed, white-man afro.

It was the same bemused reaction I had gotten the year before, when I challenged him before that 1977 Ohio State- Oklahoma game. Hey- I love the Buckeyes, always have. But Jerry was over the top, strutting like a banty rooster that morning, chirping about how Oklahoma had no chance in Columbus. Perhaps because I didn’t agree with him right away, he kind of got in my face and began acting like I was anti-Buckeye. So I told him I’d take the Sooners in a bet, straight up. On that day, if you were rooting for Oklahoma, the game played out like a Disney movie. Things were good, then they were bad, then they were very bad, until everything was good again at the end.

We’d wagered “lunch”, and when von Schamann hit the field goal to win it, the other adults pressed Jerry to pay up. I was almost as upset as Jerry over the game, but… was he actually going to welch on the bet? He eventually stormed up to me and slapped a one dollar bill on the table.

The others howled. A dollar?! Where could one buy a legitimate lunch for that? Even McDonald’s would cost more than a dollar! I hadn’t touched his money. Jerry returned and laid a second dollar bill on top of the first, eliciting groans. The others ordered me to hold out for more, but I figured it had gone on long enough. As I suspected, Jerry would pay for some time to come, through a public shaming that extended all the way across the store to the paint department.

“The worst trade ever in the history of Cleveland sports was made by the Cleveland Browns.”

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October 15, 1973. The 3-1 Cleveland Browns were playing host to the defending Super Bowl champions, the Miami Dolphins. It was a Monday night.

Monday Night Football was in its relative infancy. In the four seasons since its Cleveland debut, the weekly outpouring of hype and emotions surrounding the NFL showcase was unforced and frenzied.

The fervor on this night seemed to be even a bit more intensified. It began to culminate as the PA announcer issued the pregame introductions for the Dolphins. The home crowd dutifully heaped a cascade of boos over them—until it was Paul Warfield’s turn.

That was when the throng rose to its feet, with a prolonged standing ovation for the star receiver out of Warren and Ohio State. This was their first chance to show their deep appreciation for his six years as a standout performer for their Browns. Miami coach Don Shula (himself from Grand River and Harvey High School) was sufficiently moved to approach and congratulate Warfield during the roaring tribute. Warfield would later recount the moment as one of his career highlights.

So how did the Ohio boy become a prominent fixture of a perennial Super Bowl powerhouse in Miami, Florida?

Paul Warfield graduated from Warren G. Harding High School back in 1960. He’d been a three year star running back and defensive back. He also set an Ohio long jump record while with the Harding track team.

At Ohio State, he was All-Big Ten twice, playing halfback and cornerback. His track career extended to his Buckeye years, as well, and he shined as a hurdler, jumper and sprinter.

By 1964, Cleveland Browns patriarch Paul Brown was a little over a year removed from his firing as head coach of his team, at the hands of owner Art Modell. Modell was the brash, young, attention-loving ad executive who had borrowed to the maximum to purchase the franchise. Although Modell had won the power struggle, Paul Brown was still under contract. His role had shifted to team consultant, which consisted of making personnel recommendations. He advised the Cleveland Browns to select Paul Warfield in the 1964 NFL draft.

The Browns’ head coach by now was one-time Paul Brown protégé Blanton Collier. Collier was a quiet, player-friendly type, whom football historians acknowledge as vastly underrated in his coaching ability. Paul Brown saw Warfield as a defensive back of the future for the team. Collier agreed: he’d been a two-way player as a Buckeye, but was known primarily for his defensive play.

Warfield was taken by the Browns with their first round pick, number 11 overall. For a team that boasted fullback Jim Brown and perhaps the finest offensive line in football, it began to appear to be a case of the “rich getting richer.”

That 1964 draft sent eleven Hall of Famers to the NFL, more than any other draft in history:

  • Charley Taylor, halfback from Arizona State University taken third overall by the Washington Redskins.
  • Roger Staubach, quarterback from Navy taken in the 10th round, 129th overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Leroy Kelly, running Back from Morgan State taken in the eighth round, 110th overall by the Browns.
  • Mel Renfro, cornerback from Oregon taken in the second round, 17th overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Paul Krause, safety from Iowa taken in the 2nd round, 18th overall by the Washington Redskins.
  • Dave Wilcox, linebacker from Oregon taken in the third round, 29th overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Bob Brown, offensive Tackle from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln taken in the first round, second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Carl Eller, defensive End from the University of Minnesota taken in the first round, sixth overall by the Minnesota Vikings.
  • Bob Hayes, wide Receiver from Florida A&M taken in the seventh round, 88th overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Bill Parcells, offensive tackle from Wichita State University taken in the seventh round, 89th overall by the Detroit Lions (inducted as a coach).

There were only 14 teams in the NFL in 1964. Thus, two rounds of draft picks then roughly equaled one round today.

Shortly after the draft, Coach Collier held a spring practice session at Lakewood High School. Unofficially, it was the first NFL minicamp, ever. Paul Warfield spent much of the day with the defensive unit. Before the day was over, the Browns’ coaches asked him to line up on offense, just to see how he looked on that side.

On one passing play, Collier and offensive coordinator (and ex-Browns player) Dub Jones observed Warfield’s natural talent as he made a cut to get past a defender.  As Warfield related later, Collier said, “That’s it. You’re a receiver.”

At training camp at Hiram College that fall (about a 20 minute drive from where he grew up), Warfield was taken under the wing of long-time Browns receiver Ray Renfro. Warfield had speed, hands, and perhaps to an underrated extent, physical strength. But he credits Renfro with helping him with the mental game, with insights and anticipation of events that occur on the field. He insists the mental aspect is what separates the good players from the great.

Cleveland fans know that 1964 was the last championship season for the Browns—or any Cleveland franchise. It is burned into their brains, and handed down from generation to generation (to generation). It was a season in which the Browns were favorites to play in the December title game. Paul Warfield was a rookie in 1964, and he began to make his mark as a receiver and a kick returner.

His first significant contribution came in a 28-20 victory at Philadelphia. Jim Brown ran for 104 yards in that game, and beat the Eagles linebackers on a 40 yard catch and run for a touchdown. Warfield accounted for 97 of quarterback Frank Ryan’s remaining 153 yards passing, on six catches. One connection was for 24 yards and a touchdown.

The next week represented the Cleveland Stadium coming out party for Paul Warfield. On a day the Browns beat the Dallas Cowboys to move to 3-0-1, Warfield “leaped and danced” (in the words of the Plain Dealer account) for 123 yards, on five catches. The back breaker was a 40 yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. On a second-and-seven play, Warfield was in double coverage. He was able to shake free, and caught the ball at about the five yard line on his way to the score.

Warfield suffered a couple nagging leg injuries in 1964. Still, he was able to battle through those enough to continue to contribute to the cause. He caught a 62-yard touchdown at home to help the Browns sweep the Washington Redskins, to improve their record to 7-1-1. He also nabbed a TD the following week, in a home win vs. the Detroit Lions. The Browns lost at Green Bay in Week 11, but Warfield had a great day. He caught two touchdown passes from Ryan, for 48 and 19 yards. He had the defense beat all day. Uncharacteristic errors by the Browns added up to the loss.

Warfield had another big day at St. Louis, with six catches for 91 yards. He had a great fourth quarter. Unfortunately, that game was the Browns’ second loss in three weeks, and some concern was growing among the fans and media.

All of that was forgotten the next week, after a 52-20 crushing of the Giants in New York. That game clinched the NFL Eastern Division- their first since 1957. There were several stars of that game. Paul Warfield pitched in as the Browns’ leading receiver, with five catches for 103 yards. He caught an eight yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, and had wowed observers near the end of the first half with a great catch for 47 yards that put the ball at the Giants’ one yard line. The Browns would punch it in from there.

As we well know, the Browns would shut out the powerhouse Baltimore Colts two weeks later, for the NFL Championship. They had been underdogs, but played like the favorite.  They removed all doubt as to the outcome in the third quarter, when their ball control offense took over after the defense had stifled Johnny Unitas and company all afternoon.

In the years following 1964, the Browns enjoyed several strong seasons. In 1968, veteran quarterback Bill Nelsen was acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (That was the most recent trade between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, until the 2013 NFL draft day trade.) Nelsen took over for Frank Ryan, and showed tremendous leadership in leading the Browns to several big wins. Inconsistency was a problem, however, and nobody was sure how long Nelsen’s old, beat up knees would last. The team was doing well overall, but Cleveland needed a quarterback of the future.

Warfield says Art Modell informed him, in person. He’d been traded to the Miami Dolphins, for their first round draft pick (No. 3 overall; the No. 1 pick would be Terry Bradshaw to the Steelers). It was a shock, to Warfield and to the fans.

With the pick, Modell selected All-American quarterback Mike Phipps out of Purdue (he had been the immediate replacement at Purdue for Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese). Phipps’ career had some bright spots, but he is universally seen as an NFL bust. He had some truly awful stretches as the Browns’ quarterback. Phipps would be traded after the 1976 season, paving the way for backup Brian Sipe’s run with head coach Sam Rutigliano.

Paul Warfield’s five seasons in Miami cemented his status as an NFL Hall of Famer. He was an integral part of the Dolphins’ three Super Bowl seasons in the ‘70s (they won two, and achieved one perfect season). The Dolphins famously ran the ball, with Jim Kiick, Stow’s Larry Csonka, and Mercury Morris, but Warfield was a dangerous scoring option via the pass.

His statistics while in Cleveland remain significant. Examples: he ranks sixth on the team’s all-time receiving yards list, and second in postseason yards. He was a Pro Bowler in his rookie season of 1964, and also in 1968 and 1969.

After the 1974 Super Bowl, Warfield, Kiick, and Csonka signed contracts to play in the upstart World Football League. This stunned the NFL, and opened the door to the ascendancy of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. By 1976, Paul Warfield was back in the NFL- finishing out his career with the Cleveland Browns.

Warfield was a sports news anchor in Cleveland, shortly after his retirement. He is currently retired, and occasionally adds to his countless appearances, both in Cleveland and in Columbus.

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Terry Pluto is a writer whose work I have admired and enjoyed my whole life. On this we agree: trading an all-time great local sports hero sent his former team into a tumbling free-fall of misfortune. The player spent the prime of his career elsewhere, before eventually returning to Cleveland. But as his “Curse of Colavito” book asserts, was dealing “The Rock” the worst trade in Cleveland history? I don’t need to recount the post-1970 misfortunes of the Browns, do I? Suffice it to say: they may have come close a couple times, but at least the Indians never moved away. Of all the trades that have undermined a local franchise, I believe Warfield for the rights to draft Phipps was the worst. The mid-1970s Browns seasons were the worst in history, up to that time. They enjoyed a couple runs in the playoffs, but seemed snake bitten. They were moved, and have mostly looked like an expansion team ever since (don’t even get me started on the offensive abomination we’re seeing as the 2014 season approaches).

I’m right again, Jerry. And as last time, I am not very happy about it. But let me know if you want to bet.