The last quarterback to guide the Browns to a championship on Monday night in Akron met the quarterback who could lead the Browns to their championship.
For Charlie Frye, The Akron Browns Backers Awards Banquet was an opportunity to shake hands with history. For Frank Ryan, it was a chance to share his wisdom with a young man who was born in the summer of 1981, nearly 17 years after Ryan guided the Browns to the stunning 27-0 victory over the Colts in the NFL title game.
For fans, seeing Ryan was a chance to remember why the Browns legacy is so meaningful, why we yearn for another Return to Glory.
First, some history that was a joy to research for this column.
Frank Ryan was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams by Paul Brown in a trade in 1962 because Brown wanted a backup for Jim Ninowski. The Browns also got halfback Tom Wilson in the deal for tackle Larry Stephens plus a third and a sixth-round draft choice in 1963.
Ryan asked the Rams to trade him because for the first four years of his career he had been a backup behind Billy Wade and Zeke Bratkowski. He groaned when he was told he'd been traded to the Browns. He did not want to move across the country to be a backup again where rain and snow were common in November and December.
Ryan got his break when Ninowski's collarbone was broken in the seventh game of the 1962 season. Ryan started against the Eagles the next week. The game ended in a 14-14 tie. The Browns went 3-3 in the final six games.
Ryan, finally a starter with no fear of being yanked for one mistake, completed 112 of 194 passes for 1,541 yards and 10 touchdowns. He threw seven interceptions.
Though Brown no longer coached the Browns when Ryan threw three touchdown passes to beat the Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game, he predicted at the end of the 1962 season Ryan's best days were ahead of him.
"If Ryan continues to improve, the deal with Los Angeles could dwarf all the others," Brown told reporters covering the Browns at the time. "I don't want to build this out of proportion, but the more I see of him, the more I like. He doesn't lack for courage. He's no schoolboy."
Ryan was the fulltime starter in 1963 under Blanton Collier. The Browns were 10-4, and Ryan played brilliantly. He completed 135 of 256 passes for 2,038 yards and 25 touchdowns " one touchdown for every ten passes thrown. The next year, the championship year, he threw 334 passes and again hit 25 for touchdowns.
Throwing 334 passes in a 14-game season on a team that had Jim Brown - 280 carries, 1,446 yards, seven touchdowns - reflects how powerful the Browns offense was. Ryan had Gary Collins and Paul Warfield as targets, and few teams, with the possible exception of the Colts and Johnny Unitas throwing to Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr, could match the Browns in the air.
Still, the Browns were seven-point underdogs to the Colts, champions of the NFL Western Division with a 12-2 record. The Browns were 10-3-1 and champions of the Eastern Division.
Ryan, recalling the championship, said the Colts were so focused on Brown they let the flanker, Collins, go. He threw all three touchdown passes to Collins in the second half.
"We knew their defense would try to stop Jim Brown," Ryan recalled in between signing autographs for loyal fans. "As soon as they overloaded to stop Jimmy, they would ease up on covering our various receivers and make it easier for us to pass."
Brown carried 27 times for 114 yards against the Colts, so it is not like he was invisible. Yet without Ryan's fearlessness, not only in the championship game but throughout the 1964 season, the Browns never would have won the championship, his teammates say.
"Frank Ryan was the gutsiest quarterback I ever saw," said Bernie Parrish, a cornerback on the 1964 team. "He'd stand in that pocket and let those linemen practically kill him before he threw the ball. He held on to the ball until the last possible second waiting for Gary Collins to finish his post pattern."
The only quarterback other than Otto Graham to deliver a championship to Cleveland recalled vividly the first touchdown pass to Collins with 8:34 left in the third quarter, making the score 10-0. The play began on the Colts 18.
"It was supposed to be a hook to Gary," Ryan said. "Gary broke it off because (Colts cornerback) Bobby Boyd was in the hook area. Collins headed toward the end zone. Boyd stayed on him tight. I had to throw the ball hard. I almost hit the goal post."
Forty-two years ago, the goal post was on the goal line. Now it is on the end line.
The defense stopped the Colts without a first down on Baltimore's following possession. Ryan and Collins connected for a 42-yard touchdown pass on the Browns next possession and for 51 yards in the fourth quarter to make the score 27-0.
Ryan's dark hair was flecked with gray in 1964. Now it is silver-white, but still full. He looks a little bit like Jimmy Stewart and a little bit like Vincent Price.
Ryan stayed with the Browns through 1968. He played the next two years with the Redskins backing up Sonny Jurgensen and then retired. Five months before leading the Browns to the NFL championship, Ryan received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Rice.
"After I left football I went to the U.S. House of Representatives and was in charge of their computer services for seven years and then I went to Yale as athletic director," he said.
He also taught at Rice, his alma mater, from 1991-96. Players in his time needed offseason jobs. Ryan taught at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland while with the Browns.
Frye has a lot to live up to. Ryan gave him a lot to think about.