The fateful 80 jersey: Browns history, Part 1

More than a dozen others have donned the doomed 80 with nary a counterexample. Since 1972, only busts, breakdowns, or bit players.

As the Browns' sensational speedster Travis Benjamin writhed in pain in Kansas City last October 27, his attempt to twist free on a punt return instead tearing up his knee, more than a few fans were dejected but not entirely surprised.

Benjamin, after all, is listed at just 175 pounds. His true weight is 170, he acknowledged at a Browns Backers club banquet on March 8. With a body type more greyhound than mastiff, he was hardly expected to withstand the full onslaught of pro tacklers, fall after fall.

After surgery and rehab for the torn ACL that ended his 2013 season, he expects to return for this spring's minicamp. In response to a certain obsessive Browns fan/writer, Benjamin also said he's seeking something that may prove crucial to his prognosis as a player: a different jersey number. He wants to switch from 80 to 10.

This isn't to make light of an orthopedic trauma. Trotting out numerology risks trivializing a very real injury. No, this is more serious than dallying with digits.

The truth is, over the past 42 years, if you suited up for Cleveland wearing the number 80, it became your career's kiss of death.

This isn't about an unfixable jinx or unprovable curse. It's about fully airing the facts of a persistent and perplexing pattern.

No matter your pedigree, your position, salary, size, or race, it was bound to take place. More than likely, you'd get hurt. Regardless of the reasons, without exception you wouldn't reach pronounced peak potential. Not while wearing number 80 for the Browns.

For starters, think Brian Robiskie, Kellen Winslow II, Andre Rison and Willis Adams. More than a dozen others have donned the doomed 80 with nary a counterexample. Since 1972, only busts, breakdowns, or bit players.

From Turkey to treachery

On September 3, 1972, 84,816 fans filed into Ohio Stadium in Columbus for a preseason exhibition with the Cincinnati Bengals, the team founded and coached by the Browns' legendary exiled namesake, Paul Brown. The first pro game held at the Horseshoe was a back-and-forth battle the Bengals won, 27-21. The Browns also lost an emerging pillar of their defense, third-year end "Turkey" Joe Jones, to a season-ending knee injury in the third quarter.

Jones missed the Browns' last playoff team of the decade. He returned in 1973 but was then traded to Philadelphia for washed-up wide receiver Ben Hawkins. Jones' signature moment -- the pile-driving sack of Terry Bradshaw -- came during his second stint in Cleveland, when he wore 64 rather than 80. He had a decent career, but it never matched the promise that made him the 36th overall pick in 1970, 11 slots ahead of teammate Jerry Sherk.

The next Brown to wear 80 was Willie Miller, a receiver/returner even smaller than Benjamin. He'd survived two tours in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and Silver Star, but the 28-year-old rookie would last just 20 games with the Cleveland squad. Upon recovering from injury, he resurfaced with Rams and caught 50 passes for 767 yards in 1978, remaining in Los Angeles though age 35.

A similarly slight skill player named Lawrence Williams returned kicks wearing 80 at the tail end of 1977, his second and last year in the league.

The number fell next to the Browns' top draftee in 1979, Houston wideout Willis Adams. The Browns had traded down from the 13th overall pick to 20, gaining a second rounder: offensive tackle Sam Claphan, who hurt his back and was released a year later. San Diego used the Browns' pick on Missouri's Kellen Winslow, who became a Hall of Fame tight end wearing, of course, number 80. As it turned out, Claphan recovered to play 87 NFL games, ironically, all with Winslow on Chargers' electric offense.

In contrast, Adams disappointed. It took until the fifth of his seven seasons for him to find the end zone, which he did just twice. His speed kept him on the roster, but he never emerged as a quality starter, even on some pretty thin receiving corps.

The next eight players to sport the brown and orange 80 jersey were all receivers or tight ends. Terry Greer, Chris Kelley, Chris Dressel, Vernon Joines, Lynn James, Danny Peebles, Shawn Collins and Tom McLemore averaged fewer than eight games and two receptions as Browns. Only Kelley ever scored, and it was only one point.

Then, in the fateful year of 1995, Browns owner Art Modell made Andre Rison the highest-paid wide receiver in history, luring the free agent with a five-year, $17.5 million deal including $5 million to sign. Intended as a bold move to push a playoff team over the top, the Rison contract headlined an off-season of roster resentment, upheaval and restructuring that hastened the franchise's plunge into financial peril.

The four-time Pro Bowler started slowly, gaining just 82 yards on nine catches through four games. By mid-season, a team tabbed for Super Bowl contention took a disastrous turn into the rocks. News broke that Modell was moving the 50-year-old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, and things got ugly. Only a heartfelt home finale kept them from losing their last eight games. Amid the skid and fan backlash, Rison was quoted as "ready to get the hell out of here... Baltimore, here we come."

But after posting seven-year career lows in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, the original Browns' last number 80 was released.

New era, more despair

Upon the Browns' rebirth in 1999, the symbolic futility continued with Ronnie Powell. An undrafted native of Hope, Arkansas, Powell -- unlike the town's more famous product -- would not get a second term. In Week 14 at Cincinnati, Powell gained 45 yards on his sole NFL reception, but then sprained his neck during a fumbled kickoff return, ending his rookie year. He was waived the next preseason.

Tight end Aaron Shea was a relative bright spot for the 2000 Browns. The fourth-rounder from Michigan took over number 80 and proved tough to tackle. But after a 30-catch, 302-yard rookie year, Shea's next three seasons all ended the same way: on injured reserve. In 2004, he sold the jersey number to rookie Kellen Winslow II and switched to 83, formerly worn by his ex-Michigan and Browns teammate, Mark Campbell.

Like Turkey Joe in the '70s, Shea's career caught second wind wearing another number. He broke a three-year drought with a career-high four touchdowns in 2004. He played six seasons and worked six more for the Browns in sales and player engagement.

Some of Shea's starts stemmed from Winslow's well-documented woes. The son of the aforementioned Hall of Fame 1979 trade target was as highly touted as any tight end prospect ever. Butch Davis, who recruited Winslow to the University of Miami before he left to take the Browns' reins, put all his chips on the table in 2004. He gave Detroit his high second-round pick to inch up one slot, drafting the brash 20-year-old playmaker sixth overall.

In Part 2 of this three-part feature, Winslow's promising career hits a few bumps, to say the least. The pre-1972 success of the Browns' various wearers of the number 80 is chronicled. The focus then turns to a particularly enigmatic figure at the heart of this number's striking history.

Ace Davis is a freelance Browns writer, historian, and fan who began the first Browns blog back in 2002.

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