The first thing that came to my mind was the jets overtime playoff game in January of '87. After throwing an interception in the fourth quarter, I was the target of many projectiles. Back then, it was snowballs laced with batteries and dog bones, the large ones, instead of beer bottles. Regardless of what is thrown, there is always the chance for serious injury. Orlando Brown was hit by a referee's flag from only 20 feet away and his eye was irreparably damaged. Imagine the damage a dog bone or battery thrown from the upper deck can do. Snowballs, batteries, dog bones, bottles, whatever, as a player, policeman or a fan in the danger zone, you just have to keep your head down and hope for the best.
Oh, how the fortunes of time change. I felt badly after having thrown the interception and the "pinging" of my helmet from the projectiles hitting it only added insult to injury. Luckily, I was able to dodge most of the bigger dog bones that day and we went on to win the game in double overtime.
Seeing Butch run into the tunnel two weeks ago under a rain of bottles really conjured up those memories. I am sure he felt the same way. Thank goodness he didn't get seriously hurt, although I heard he was limping afterward, because he has been our MVP this year.
As I sat back on my ride home after the Jacksonville game, I also remembered some other instances which mirrored these dangerous situations. We were playing Denver at home during the 1989 regular season. It got really bad during the fourth quarter after we downed a punt inside their 10 yard line in front of the Dawg Pound. Dog bones were flying and the officials decided the Broncos were in danger of being hurt by the flying debris.
Whether it was to protect themselves or the players, the officials decided it would be safer if the Broncos weren't backed up against the Dawg Pound and moved play to the other end of the field. So instead of defending the open end of the stadium, the Broncos defended the closed end of Municipal Stadium for the rest of the game. We won the game 16-13 on a Matt Bahr 48 yard field goal on the last play of the game. It cleared the crossbar by a few inches.
After the game, Denver coach Dan Reeves complained about the kick because Matt kicked it towards the closed end and not the more difficult open end of the stadium.
I cannot remember any other game where the officials made that type of judgment call in the storied history of professional football. Had the jaguars game had more time remaining the other day, I think we might have seen a move to the other end of the stadium. Then again, maybe not because the referee during the Denver game was an experienced official, unlike the inexperienced Terry McAulay who was the referee for the Jacksonville game.
Then there was the Oilers game in '88. It was a December game and a lot of snow had fallen that morning, leaving just enough snow in the aisles to make snowballs.
Snowballs by themselves are dangerous enough, but the Oilers were being bombarded with snowballs laced with frozen dog bones and batteries. It was also the game where Mike Gallagher from the ABC affiliate in Erie got hurt on the sideline near the Dawg Pound and then was pelted by snowballs as emergency crews tended to him.
So what does this all mean. Cleveland Browns fans are universally known for being the best fans in the NFL. I played for 12 years in the NFL, 9 of which was with the Browns, and I have been to just about every stadium in the NFL. Browns fans really are the best. No doubt about it. The "twelfth-man" advantage was not just a term, it was a real and tangible benefit to playing in Cleveland. Throw in the condition of Municipal Stadium and it was a very difficult, if not impossible place for opposing teams to play.
I was glad I wore the Browns uniform for many reasons. One of the obvious reasons was I grew up in Youngstown and worshipped the Browns for as long as I can remember. To play for my favorite team as a kid, as I was blessed to have done, was indescribable. Secondly, I recognized the home field advantage we enjoyed early on in my career. Even though I was the target that day against the lets, it paled in comparison to what opposing teams faced every game that year.
Yogi Berra once said "baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical." Although Yogi's numbers don't add up, the gist of what he said can also be applied to football. The difference in physical talent level from one team to another is minimal. Teams that are able to overcome the mental part of the game and play on instinct rather than thinking and reacting are the ones that have the most success. Playing in Cleveland really had a way of taking teams out of their mental comfort zone because they never knew what to expect when playing here. Hence, we felt like we were ahead of the game every time we took the field in Cleveland.
As I sit here today writing this article, I know football plays an important part in our society. It certainly has a way of rallying people of different backgrounds, nationalities and religions. Every Sunday, communities come together to cheer on their team in a way unrivaled by other events or sports. It is a great unifier, especially during complex times such as these. However, we all need to remember that it is not any bigger than the lives of the people who come to play or watch the game. After last week's bombardment we all need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves, why?
We cannot let the actions of a small minority represent who we are in Cleveland. Football is a game that elicits emotion. However, the bounds of emotion must be drawn such that we remember it is only one aspect of all our lives. We cannot let this emotion take over our lives and affect the quality of life of people who are counted on the other six days of the week. When we do forget, we need to remind ourselves that football is football, but life is everything.
Lew Merletti and the security team did a good job in an impossible situation. However, imagine if any children had been hurt. Not only do we have a responsibility as individuals to protect our children from physical harm, but we also need to remember children look to adults for moral boundaries. This means teaching children not to let emotion get the better of us. Otherwise, they are going to repeat our same mistakes.
All that being said, I feel compelled to get something off my chest. The officiating was atrocious. The miles are clear, once a play is run, all previous plays are unreviewable. Period. The tapes don't lie. The officials made no attempt to stop the play. Therefore, the Quincy Morgan catch should have stood, regardless of whether it was catch or not.
The cover up afterwards was insulting. It is unfortunate because it robbed the fans of an entertaining ending. Given the cost of taking a family to a game, the fans deserved better. Who wouldn't have enjoyed seeing if our struggling offense could have handled the pressure and pulled out the victory?
The Browns were a long shot to make the playoffs before the Jacksonville game. However, this should have been played out at Lambeau Field instead of Cleveland Stadium on December 16th. Unfortunately, professional football is a very big and complex business. It reaches beyond Sunday's and affects many people's lives. The Jacksonville game served as a cruel reminder of this.
This article originally appeared in Bernies Insiders Magazine on December 24, 2001.