From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life. — Arthur Ashe
It is mid-November in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Paying customers file into the same lakeside venue that had played host to their kind countless times before. The horde on hand, per usual, is predominantly male. Pre-event food and drinks are had. Typical banter ensues as the capacity crowd anxiously waits for the festivities to kick off. A large video screen plays short, well-edited clips of past events — crucial pass plays and celebratory high-fives — helping lift morale, mentally preparing those in attendance for the impending affair.
Fans are seated. Pleasantries are exchanged. The spotlight is on.
Brian Brennan has done this many times before. He has, for all intents and purposes, manufactured quite the career by performing in the clutch. The upcoming challenge should be no different. The only element that could make this day different is the throng of close friends and family members who have made the trip to see him perform. After all, it is those who are closest to you who can often provide the most pressure; his larger-than-life brother Marty was seated front and center.
Typical of an autumnal Cleveland day, the weather is bitter, but the city is alive. The din of passers-by mixed with whistles of traffic-guiding police officers and the occasional blare of a siren being emitted from a public service vehicle help provide a cacophony of chaos long embraced by this rust-belt town. His game face firmly in place, Brennan is in full uniform — white and orange accouterments accenting the dark base, shoulder pads helping provide structure to the 5-foot-9-inch man.
When called upon, Brennan would once again deliver in front of a sample population of the city long been considered home.
The year is 2012.
“Brian may not have been that fast, and he may not have been that tall, but he could catch a BB in the dark. He’s was the kind of guy then that every team wants to have today.”
– Former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano
Brennan’s descent upon Cleveland began like many others before him: with a simple phone call placed from a musty and confined and post-it note-filled NFL war room. The subsequent negotiations and travel plans are minutiae. The call is the first domino.The details surrounding Brennan’s call, however, is where otherwise similar paths being to diverge.
One of six children to be raised in the devout catholic Brennan household, Brian — a very successful wide receiver within Detroit Michigan’s equivalent of St. Ignatius or St. Edward high school — had his sights set on suiting up for the illustrious Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Unfortunately for Brennan, the Irish were gold helmet deep in a methodical run-first offense which, during Brennan’s senior year of high school, handed the ball off an egregious 301 times (in just 11 games) to running back Vagas Ferguson. Also working against Brennan: the pass-catchers who suited up for Irish play callers Dan Devine and Gerry Faust came armed with a stature which dwarfed his own considerably. Tony Hunter, Notre Dame’s leading receiver in 1981 and 1982, ultimately selected 12th overall in the 1983 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, stood at 6-feet-4-inches and weighed 235 pounds — seven inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Brennan.
Alas, rather than catching a handful of passes from Steve Beurlein amidst a 7-5 season in the company of Touchdown Jesus, Brennan attended the equally Catholic, but far less storied Boston College. He finished the 1983 season having been on the receiving end of 66 passes, totaling 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns from a like-sized quarterback by the name of Doug Flutie. While Gerard Phelan would catch the pass that everyone remembers — the aptly named Hail Mary that would prove to be the grand finale during the “Miracle in Miami” — it was Brennan who would haul in more passes from Flutie; just not the one.
Had it not been for Notre Dame’s size-focused omission, however, Brennan’s career may have led down a substantially different road with considerably different results.
In the early 1970s, the New England Patriots employed a man named Sam Rutigliano. During his stint with the team, he was tasked with providing leadership and advisory to the team’s quarterbacks and wide receivers. The Pats would not yield a record north of .500 through Rutigliano’s tenure with the team, but it was a relationship that had been forged with a local columnist and sports reporter named Will McDonough that would go on to change history in Cleveland some 10 years later.
As Rutigliano — now having a Coach of the Year award with the Browns on his mantle — was setting his board for the upcoming 1984 NFL Draft, he was forging through a season where the team’s leading receiver was Ozzie Newsome. The Browns were bereft of outside pass catchers — players who could help stretch the field to free up their run game and the Hall of Fame-bound tight end — and were in dire need of an influx of talent. The biggest name in the upcoming draft was coincidentally a wide receiver out of Nebraska named Irving Fryar, but it would be Rutigliano’s old team in New England who jockeyed their way to the top of the heap to select consensus first-team All-American.
Alas, the man affectionately known as Coach Sam was forced to do some digging if he was to find a player who could make an impact for his Kardiac Kids.
“Heading into the draft, you’re constantly striving for consensus decisions,” Rutigliano said of his selection process. “It’s better to have too much information than too little. That year, I received a call from Boston — it was Will McDonough, a man for whom I had tremendous respect. He told me, ‘There’s this kid from Detroit who is a wide receiver at Boston College. You have to come check him out.’ And the rest was history.”
On May 2, 1984, a follow-up phone call was made. This time, it was a recently enshrined Hall of Fame wide receiver in Paul Warfield who dialed a 2-4-8 area code in order to place a call to the Brennan household in Bloomfield Michigan.
“Brian,” Warfield said. “This is Paul Warfield with the Cleveland Browns. I’m going to put Sam Rutigliano on the line…”
The rest, as Rutigliano said, was indeed history.
“B.B. was ahead of his time. One thing we were all really good at was taking care of ourselves and staying sharp. But we would all get to the gym at 10 or 11 o’clock and he would already be gone, having gotten there at 5 or 6 in the morning because he had to go to an internship. He’ll tell you he was the fastest guy on the team, but it was that competitive nature that got him where he is today.”
– Former Cleveland Browns receiver Reggie Langhorne
Today, rather than running slot routes amidst the bitter elements of Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on a Sunday afternoon, Brennan is tucked within the warm confines of The City Club — dubbed the Citadel of Free Speech — serving as the headlining speaker at a Wednesday evening event designed to celebrate some of the brightest financial minds the city has to offer. The Dawg Pound has been replaced by a sea of linen-clad tables. Banquet-style place-settings rest in front of each paying customer. Formerly a brunette, Brennan’s hair is now a politician grey. And instead of a mud-riddled jersey with his name stitched to the back, the now-50-year old is draped in a dark two-button suit, harboring a crisp, freshly pressed white button-down with a bright orange silk tie knotted with the utmost intricacy.
After he is introduced by the evening’s emcee, Brennan emphatically snags the microphone as if it were one of 334 passes he had hauled during his career as an NFL receiver. As with most financially fueled discussions, acronyms were universally understood and the headline buzzwords were flowing like house wine: Interest rates and liquidity; reform and de-leveraging; inflows and outflows, economic growth and the much-ballyhooed “Fiscal Cliff.” No topical stone left unturned, no subject too specialized.
Brennan is the Managing Director and Division Head for Fixed Income within KeyBanc Capital Markets, a business line within a regional bank of similar name, headquartered within — ironically — the state’s tallest building. He has swapped the option-route system of the mid-80’s Browns offense for swaps and options along various spots on the yield curve. Instead of curls and drags, it’s convexity and duration. As opposed to being called upon for third-and-critical, Brennan now analyzes capital, capacity, character and collateral — the “four C’s” of the credit world. And rather than memorizing the intricacies of plays like “I-Tight Slot Fake 42 Dive 456 X,” Brennan focuses his mental resources on the nuances of the material that has garnered him licensure by the series numbers of 7, 9, 10, 24, 53 and 63.
In his speech, Brennan marries finance with motivation, mortality with competitive success. Avoiding the inexplicable jargon that tends to be the hallmark of the finance world, the football player of old shines through in nearly every word. “Nobody does it on their own,” Brennan says, reminding the audience that even Bill Gates had a partner in Paul Allen upon the founding of the technology behemoth Microsoft. He speaks of the playing field, but also the more level version of today where celebrity — while it may lead to a few additional speaking engagements — does very little when it comes to the business of investing. Instead, it is the relationships, and the inherent building and cultivating, that he says are of utmost importance.
Endeavoring to not drown the emerging professionals with the banalities of their respective day-to-day grinds, Brennan weaves stories of his former (and exponentially more exciting) life within the more structured threads of today. He would discuss past teammates and former coaches1, speak honestly about the not-so-popular men like Art Modell and Bill Belichick, and tell stories that would garner laughs among even the stuffiest of crowds; the room nodding in unison as if Piano Man just popped on the jukebox.
As suits and ties reminisce of perennial contention, romanticizing the days when talk radio discussed wins over whines, Brennan casually paces back and forth, the way motivational speaker does throughout auditoriums across the country.
He continues to fall back on an overriding message that is not exactly common knowledge among fans of today’s Browns: the city of Cleveland is flowing through Brennan’s veins today just as it did during the days when he proudly wore the city’s most important jersey across his chest. His collar may have changed shades, morphing from workman blue to executive white, but the narration was no different.
Despite multiple moves toward the end of his playing career, down Interstate 71 to Cincinnati and across the country to San Diego California, Brennan still maintained his home in the lakeside town. He may not have been recruited by Notre Dame of South Bend, but Brennan is actively involved in Cleveland’s Notre Dame College. As if he was not engulfed in his own career while raising his three children, Brennan has also served as the director of football operations at Gilmour Academy and held more than two dozen consecutive golf outings for the Boys Hope Girls Hope of Northeast Ohio for underprivileged youths in Cleveland.
He reiterates that not only did he love being a Cleveland Brown, but he still does to this day — a feeling endemic only to a small number of individuals who had the opportunity.
And for good measure, the wide receiver shares a story that would make even the most depressed Browns fan smile. Last winter, while in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, Brennan spotted former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway at a party. The Hall of Famer was attempting to sneak through a crowd. This was the man responsible for multiple years of heartbreak in the city of Cleveland, one of which ripped the carpet right out from under the feet of Brennan’s late-game heroics. Nothing he could do would re-write the history books in the Browns’ favor, but this would not impede the former wide receiver from stopping the now suite-housed executive dead in his tracks to deliver a message from thousands back in Cleveland.
“I stopped him to introduce myself,” said Brennan. “After doing so, I made sure to tell him that in Cleveland, there are three men who will forever live in infamy: Art Modell, LeBron James, and John Elway.”
As the crowd provides nods and smiles of approval for Brennan’s unsolicited delivery of the spoken-word telegram, he tops the colloquial sundae with an orange and brown cherry: “Ain’t no team as lucky as the Denver Broncos.”
If muddy, white Adidas low-top cleats were socially acceptable to wear with a freshly pressed suit and tie, it’s evident that Brennan’s black leather lace-ups would have been kicked to the curb.
“I try not to say that any of the teams I coached were my favorite, but if I had a favorite year, it was those two seasons in Cleveland, that group that Brian played in. It was a fun place to be that I will always remember. We put together an offense that suited Brian’s abilities. In this business you have to be lucky to go somewhere where people can use your skills – Brian was as good as we had in getting the job done.”
– Former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Lindy Infante
There are several lasting images of Brennan from his playing days. The first is ensconced in as much jubilation as it is what-could-have been. The shifty slot receiver hauled in a 48-yard touchdown pass with just under six minutes remaining in the 1986 AFC Championship game – the words of the late, great Nev Chandler still echoing in the minds of many2 – and stride across the goal line with the football extended in his right hand as if he were a 5-foot-9-inch Statue of Liberty, shining Lombardi light on a city previously stricken with a plague of darkness.
The latter image was snapped exactly one year and one week later, providing just as much emotion as the one prior. Browns running back — and ’84 draft class colleague — Ernest Byner stood at the Denver Broncos goal line, hands on his knees, hunched over in absolute devastation having fumbled what would have been his third touchdown of the game, one that would have capped off an amazing come-from-behind journey in the 1987 AFC Championship game. While 20 other men were fighting for a ball that had undoubtedly wound up in the hands of the opposition, it was Brennan who had the natural reaction to walk over to Byner to console and provide immediate support, hands placed on his emotionally fallen teammate’s helmet.
Former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Lindy Infante, now 72 years young enjoying retirement on the shores of the east coast of Florida, recalls training camps from upwards of 25 years ago. His two sons, who were obviously considerably younger at the time, continued to gravitate toward Brennan, a still-wet-behind-the-ears child when it came to NFL experience. This was a team that was loaded with talented athletes like Webster Slaughter and Ernest Byner, and was still polishing its shiny new toy in quarterback Bernie Kosar. But it was the scrappy, punt-returning Brennan who would earn the respect and attention of the younger Infante boys.
“I always liked to say that they were a good judge of character,” said Infante. “It doesn’t take very long to figure [Brian] out.”
Talk to anyone who had the fortune of playing alongside Brennan in what turned out to be the glory days of Cleveland Browns football of the mid-1980s, and similar thoughts will be shared. Doug Dieken, a friend and former teammate of Brennan, expounds that the former wide receiver has always been consumed with being successful both on and off of the playing field. Reggie Langhorne, also a former teammate and current friend, lauds his drive, determination and direction — this coming from a man who competed for the same snaps. Rutigliano, the man who was responsible for bringing Brennan to Cleveland, touts his concentration, balance and courage, stating that while physical talent and athleticism is God-given, it is character that is the ultimate choice.
It is this character — the traits which encompass it and the goodwill it evokes — that is brought up by those in nearly every walk of Brian’s life. It is this much-discussed character that has allowed him to compete and succeed as a professional athlete despite a glaring size disadvantage and then completely change gears once the playing days had come to a close. While 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or in financial distress after two seasons in the league, Brennan not only managed to make the most of the funds he was fortunate enough to amass as a wide receiver, but extend his earnings window well beyond that of his average peer. This is not a former local celebrity putting his name on a bar and grille or a used car lot and raking in royalties. This isn’t a lifetime of mid-summer, west-side football camps and appearances at east-side bat mitzvahs, living solely off of novelty and nostalgia. Brennan — using the work ethic and relationship-building skills he refined as a player — completely reinvented himself within an industry that had ultimately proven to be the bane of so many others in his former field.
Potentially the most surprising aspect of Brennan’s transformation is that it surprised no one who actually knew him. Existing within a sport saturated with hype and image, it was the inexplicably frisky kid out of Detroit who, as his friends confirm, always had his eyes on the next milestone, be it statistical or professional.
“Brian is one of those feisty, competitive guys. We always used to bust his chops about [Doug] Flutie’s pass to Gerard Phelan. During his second year in the league, he and I went golfing with [assistant coach] Bill Cowher and [local golf pro] Rich Casabella. Brian is about a four handicap, so he teamed up with Bill and I was with Rich. We were at about the 17th hole and he owed me $20; we made a bet that if he won the 18th hole, we’d call it even but if he lost, he would have to carry my bags on every road trip for the rest of the season. We’re both on the 18th green, putting for the win. Cowher lined up for the put that would have sealed the win, looked up with a smile and intentionally missed. I made sure to let him know that I’d be bringing my bowling ball along.”
– Former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Doug Dieken
Rutigliano likes to say that Brian Brennan was made here, and stayed here — Cleveland, this rustbelt vortex that simply never lets go. While it was Coach Sam who unearthed the diamond, it was the receiver who took it upon himself to be front and center in helping additional recruiting and acclimating his new teammates. When bringing in players whom the team would have interest, it was common that dinners would take place with legendary players like Lou Groza and Dante Lavelli. The obvious goal was to use the star power and history in order to sell the orange helmet as an honor. It was not long before Brennan would join in on said outings, more than holding his own.
When the Browns would go on to select Reggie Langhorne out of Elizabeth City State with a seventh-round selection in 1985, providing immediate competition to a wide receiver position that would ultimately see the two men share snaps through their seven seasons as teammates, it was Brennan who took the rookie out to help acclimate him to the city of Cleveland — the very city which Langhorne is still a part of to this day, working in various analytical capacities.
Brennan will be the first person to point out his own short-comings, willingly adding “The Drop” to the list of Cleveland-centric dismay3. He still has not watched “Cleveland ’95” and maintains a lot of the friendships he had during his playing days regardless of current affiliations, but he will be the first man in line with every fan of the in the city when it comes to the overriding feeling of disappointment that ensued once the news of the team’s move to Baltimore became public knowledge. Brennan will tell stories of former Browns running back Johnny Davis — when asked to say The Lord’s Prayer before a game — growing stoic and assured before opening with “Now I lay me down to sleep…” He will then get a chuckle when former teammates tell stories about him giving them a call asking for help with a speaking engagement, looking for jokes to help loosen the crowd — only the engagement was merely hours away. He will talk about the day when Bill Belichick called him a “chicken” for running a punt return out of bounds before being hit. He will then counter it with the time Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott hit him so hard that he walked off of the field only to realize that he was on the San Francisco 49ers sideline.
Those who are current cohabitants of the fourth floor of Cleveland’s Key Tower will echo the give-and-take barbs that are common in Brennan’s world. While it is not a locker room atmosphere in terms of the R-rated nomenclature that is typically intertwined with today’s renditions, Brennan runs a ship that is thought highly of by all who have had the opportunity to take it for a ride. There is no pretending; Brennan is who he is. He will take part in crucial sales calls one day while signing old Browns memorabilia for a co-workers Christmas gift the next.
As if the ability to run precise routes with the stickiest of hands while having the innate knack for the big play was not enough, Brennan took that Midas touch with him once he hung up his cleats on that final Sunday. The golden moments of the past colliding, full speed, into the ones that almost were and those yet to come. The mud-filled Marlboro Country, filled to its capacity while every waking moment reverberated off of the wooden seats every Sunday afternoon; the plush fourth-floor office in the middle of Cleveland’s financial district, the morale of constituents reverberating from 8 AM to 5 PM every Monday through Friday; his home where Bethany, his wife of 27 years, raised their three children to follow in the footsteps of a man who, to this day, still means so much to his community — doing so all while continuing to keep a low profile, leading with his actions more than the glitz and glam of his modern-day brethren. Brennan is a goodwill ninja, high regard without the headlines; a knight who has swapped his armor and shield for a banker-grey suit and a wit.
In his day, Brennan caught a lot of passes — one specific one should have put the Cleveland Browns in to the Super Bowl. He has served on several local boards, having given countless hours of his time to ensure things are executed efficiently and correctly, baring no difference to his days on the field. He has been enshrined in various Halls of Fame for his work as a player as well as philanthropically, raising countless dollars for local youth. He has been the subject of heaps of praise from teammates and co-workers. And on that mid-November night, in front of Cleveland’s future, he educated and motivated. But, to those who know Brian, all of this slots in as a distant second place.
“Having drinks in the comfort of friends who have no reason to not be anything but honest, I have never once heard a bad word be spoken about Brian,” says a former colleague. “To me, I think that’s the best compliment you can pay someone.”
(Presentation photos courtesy of CFA Society of Cleveland, edited by WFNY)
- Per Brennan, Ernest Byner is pound-for-pound the toughest player he has ever seen; Webster Slaughter is the most talented receiver he played alongside; Doug Dieken is the “King of the Jokes”; Marty Schottenheimer was a technician, but emotional. [↩]
- BRENNAN TURNS ONE WAY…THEN THE OTHER! [↩]
- On November 3, 1991, Brennan dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown with only 31 seconds remaining against the then-winless Cincinnati Bengals. A subsequent Matt Stover field goal attempt would be blocked and the Browns would lose [↩]