I apologize for re-opening up old wounds, but the events of yesterday, along with this week’s upcoming opponent had me thinking back to one day 12 years ago. I remember it all to well….because I was there.
On November 4, 2001, my life was completely different. The world had been changed forever two months earlier with the tragic events on September 11th. I had just gotten married and was living in Chicago in an apartment in the Lakeview neighborhood. No kids. No dog. Just me and my bride. My father was alive and healthy. LeBron James was a 16-year-old high school phenom, nowhere near becoming a Cavalier. The Indians had just finished up a season where they lost in game five of the ALDS to Seattle. The game is remembered mostly for Robbie Alomar dogging it down the line when hitting into a bases loaded, one-out, double play. Then there were the Browns.
The 2001 season was one that was going to be full of optimism. Team President Carmen Policy pulled off a coup after his first head coach, Chris Palmer, failed miserably. In all fairness to Carmen and his GM Dwight Clark (not that they deserve any sort of pass), Palmer was about their fifth choice. This time around, they were determined to hit a home run. Nobody thought that Butch Davis would leave the power that he had built at the University of Miami. But not many knew the gravity of Butch’s massive ego either. For those who don’t remember how good and talented Davis’s Miami teams were – think Alabama of these past four seasons. At one point, he had Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, and Clinton Portis in the same backfield!
Landing Davis in Cleveland was supposed to be the start of something big. Two-thousand-and-one was when he began maiden voyage as an NFL Head Coach. I was on my honeymoon for the season opening 9-6 loss to Seattle. But I came back to Cleveland for my annual Browns opener visit and watched an inspired group beat the Detroit Lions 24-14 on an emotional day at the Lakefront. The Lions win was the start of a three game winning streak. With Tim Couch at QB throwing to the likes of Kevin Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, JaJuan Dawson, and Tight End Ricky Dudley and James Jackson at running back, the Browns had to win with their defense, Davis’s calling card. They headed into the bye week at 4-2 after knocking off the Baltimore Ravens 24-14 (Randall Cunningham came on in relief of Elvis Grbac for the Ravens that day).
The young Browns were riding high, the surprise of the AFC Central, and emerged from the bye for a road game with the 5-1 Chicago Bears, one of the best defensive teams in the game. Chicago is the haven for midwesterners who want to move to the big city after college. I know, because I was one of them. Thousands of Browns fans were inside Solider Field on that now infamous day including yours truly. I went down with ten friends who were spread out around the stadium, all born and raised Clevelanders and die hard Browns fans.
As we walked towards the stadium on the cold day, we saw Browns fans everywhere. It was a big game for both teams. Some saw the Bears as a lucky team with an opportunistic defense, while the Browns were the new kid on the hot block with the top college coach trying to make a statement.
Almost instantly, Butch’s bunch were out to prove they were the ones who were for real. Two-thousand No. 1 overall pick Courtney Brown, who played the best game of his young career that day, had three sacks and returned a fumble back for a touchdown to put the Browns on top 7-0 in the first quarter. It was the start of a dominating performance for 59 minutes. The score was tied at the half, but the Browns scored two third quarter TDs, including a 55-yard strike from Couch to KJ, which stretched the lead to 14. The way the Browns defense was playing, it looked like a win was at hand.
Any of this starting to sound all too familiar to you?
I was in the stands thoroughly enjoying every second of this. My buddy Ags and I were stunned at the domination. Was this team actually for real? It sure seemed like it. Not to mention this was year one of Butch Davis and were were chugging that Brown and Orange Kool-Aid. With the score 21-7 and three minutes and 25 seconds to go (I literally remember the exact time when we looked up at the scoreboard), I turned to Ags and said it was time to get out of there. Knowing the horrific traffic we would be in, he agreed.
Readers of my pieces know how special my father was to me and how we grew up going to Browns games with him as our Captain. He never liked staying to the end if the Browns had a lead and the opposing team had the ball. His view was “why do I want to watch someone drive down to beat us?” He came to that conclusion after “The Drive.” That has always stayed with me, right or wrong (yes – I did stay to see TJ Ward’s pick six against Buffalo in October).
As we were walking down the aisle, I could hear someone yelling me name. I turned around to see two more guys I grew up with who were also now living in Chicago. I will remember this quick conversation until the day I die. My friend Scott engaged me:
Scott: “Where are you going? Come on! You aren’t leaving are you?”
Me: “Its 21-7. There’s three minutes left. You know what my father always says: “You don’t want to be here when we blow it.””
Ags and I found our friends and began the long walk to the car. None of us had a radio at the time and there were no smart phones yet. So literally we left all jacked up about the Browns big win. The Bears were 5-1 and the Browns came into their house and knocked them off in a dominating performance. Or so we thought.
The farther we got from the Stadium, the louder the noise from behind sounded. It was odd. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Then someone ran by us screaming. “They got the onside kick!” We stopped the guy and he informed us that the Bears scored a TD with 28 seconds left and had recovered an onside kick.
We kept walking.
By the time we reached the car and turned the radio on. The game was about to start overtime.
We couldn’t believe it. Apparently after the onside kick had been recovered, the Bears ran three plays. They got to the Browns 34-yard line with eight ticks remaining. Journeyman QB Shane Matthews had one play to tie it. He faded back and let one fly to the right corner of the end zone. Two Browns, including Safety Percy Ellsworth, batted the ball towards the ground. However, Bears RB James Allen was playing the “trailer” on the Hail Mary and made a diving catch of the deflection. Click here and forward to the 49:35 mark.
This kind of stuff only seems to happen to us, doesn’t it?
You just knew what was coming next. But how it came was a classic case of the Clevelands.
The Bears won the toss and we all just figured they would come right down the field and score to end the game. Instead, they gave us the ultimate tease. The defense held the Matthews to a three and out and the Browns would get the ball back. Couch could lead the offense on a game-winning drive and it looked like he could be on his way after his first pass went for a 13 yard first down to Johnson. But then on his next play, Couch was sacked.
It was second-and-15. The Chicago fans were in full throat. I was in a car listening to Jeff Joniak and the Bears radio network, expecting the worse. Then we got it. (1:11 seconds in)
Couch’s pass was deflected straight up in the air and there was All-Pro Safety Mike Brown to catch it on the run and glide into the endzone for a Bears 27-21 win. The Browns stole defeat from the jaws of victory.
Again….any of this sound familiar?
Yesterday, you had to be proud of how your Browns played for 57-and-a-half minutes. I mean seriously, who had the Browns even making this a game, let alone leading essentially the entire way? Jason Campbell was very good. Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron were complete studs. Norv Turner called a brilliant game. The defense held down future Hall of Famer Tom Brady for most of the day. The Browns won every aspect of the game for almost the entire game.
Then the Cleveland came out.
Ole defense and a the first of two horrible calls on Browns defensive backs. An onside kick recovery that was botched. Another absolutely brutal call that set up the Pats at the Browns one yard line. And naturally, the Browns did their best to battle back with almost no time to do so and came up just two yards short on a 59-yard field goal attempt.
I sat and watched the game with my six-year-old son, who for the first time showed real emotion as the Browns were choking this one away. During Campbell’s final drive towards that long field goal attempt he was jumping up and down in front of the television. He was yelling at Campbell to spike the ball before the clock hit all zeroes. When Cundiff’s kick was short, he grabbed the pillows off my couch and started chucking them. “This isn’t fair!” he yelled. “The Browns always lose! Why can’t we just win!” he screamed. “It is just not fair!”
I saw my old self in him at that moment. I loved his passion. But it was an easy teaching moment for me as a parent.
“Nobody said life is fair. It is just a game.”
As I told that story to one of my friends after the game yesterday, he said to me “blame our fathers. They were the ones that did this to us, and now we are doing this to our kids.”
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
(photo via Joshua Gunter/ The Plain Dealer)