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Sport: Success Story of the Year

4 minute read
Tom Callahan

Maybe the success story of the year came out of the horror of the football season: a death by cocaine. On June 27, the free safety of the Cleveland Browns, Don Rogers, died at 23. In the first assembly of training camp, Coach Marty Schottenheimer observed simply, “Life is a fragile thing,” and charged each player with applying the lesson “in his own way.” No one noticed at the time, but the Browns set about becoming a team.

Already the stuff of a pretty good team had been gathered by Ernie Accorsi, the general manager since 1984, when Schottenheimer replaced Sam Rutigliano eight games and seven losses into another sad season. Rutigliano’s locker-room slogans had grown tinny; Schottenheimer had them removed. A bespectacled and thoughtful sort of 43, he favors the English major he once was at Pitt more than the linebacker he tried to be in Buffalo. As Accorsi is inclined to credit Schottenheimer, the coach is given to praising his assistants.

The Browns finished ’84 well, and the following year an amazing event occurred. A brilliant quarterback evaded the draft by his own scholarship (an early graduate) and picked his spot in the N.F.L.: Cleveland. KOSAR WANTS TO COME HOME blared the old-style headline. The city beamed.

Although 6-ft. 5-in. tall, Bernie Kosar of Youngstown, Ohio, and Miami, Fla., was still only 21. To give Kosar time, Veteran Gary Danielson was acquired from Detroit, but in the fifth game last season Danielson fell. By then, he knew his understudy’s talent. “I’ll either be out two weeks,” he predicted, “or 15 years.”

Cleveland’s defensive secondary was similarly gifted but vain. Cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield barked like dogs at their own great plays. Bones began to fly out of the grandstands, and a wooden doghouse became a bleacher fixture (until one Sunday a security guard noticed it took more fans to carry it in than out, and investigating, found a keg of beer inside). After last January’s narrow play-off loss in Miami, the 8-8 Browns were plainly getting better but were still 17 years between postseason victories.

“Then Donnie died,” says Chris Rockins, Rogers’ best friend and replacement at free safety. “Hanford settled down, became quiet and purposeful ((and all-Pro)). We all did. Some put Donnie’s number, 20, on a wristband, others on a shoe or a glove. But we all drew strength in our own way, came together and maybe just grew up. His picture is in the lounge, and sometimes I come in and catch guys just looking at it.”

Winning twelve of 16 games this season, the most in the modern history of the franchise, Cleveland has the brightest record in the American Football % Conference and the biggest head of steam. However far the Browns go in the play-offs, they will not have to leave town. “The main thing with our team,” Kosar says, “is that we are a team.”

Neither the offense nor the defense is ranked with the league’s elite. No rusher, not even Kevin Mack, stands among the top 20. No receiver is in the top 30. But it is a team that does not hurt itself much anymore. Of the 531 passes Kosar has attempted, just ten have been intercepted.

In place of the empty slogans and insincere legends that used to clutter the clubhouse walls, a small portrait of the Super Bowl trophy was mounted this year in the entranceway. Two weeks ago, after they defeated the Bengals in Cincinnati, 34-3, the Browns players came into work and stopped. It was the same picture, except for one thing. It had grown to the size of a billboard.

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