Diamonds in the rough in the National Football League are as difficult to find as gold. But the Browns panned a good one in the lucky seventh round of the 1979 college football draft.
A collective "who's he?" emanated from Browns Nation when the club selected offensive tackle Cody Risien, a tall, soft-spoken Aggie from Texas A&M midway through that year's draft.
Why Risien when the Browns had picked two other offensive tackles – Sam Claphan in the second round and Matt Miller in the fourth round? Didn't make sense. But Risien knew better and proved it.
Claphan never made the team and Miller was a backup for four seasons. Risien, meanwhile, became a starter halfway through his rookie season – he was voted to the NFL's All-Rookie team – and played in nearly every game for 10 seasons (he missed the 1984 campaign with a knee injury) and was a vital part of two of the most exciting eras in Browns history.
He became a staple at right tackle in the Kardiac Kids era and Bernie Kosar era. In his 10 seasons, Risien went to the playoffs seven times and played in three AFC championship games in the Kosar era before retiring in 1990.
Now 52, Risien is a project manager for Austin Commercial, a general contractor in Austin, Texas. The father of four daughters has been with the company for the past seven years following his move back to the area in 1998.
The two-time Pro Bowler, who owns a degree in construction management, began his post-football career with Schirmer Construction in Cleveland before returning to his native state.
The Orange & Brown Report recently caught up with the big Texan.
What went through your mind when the Browns drafted you and there were two tackles picked ahead of you?
I knew I had my work cut out for me. Teams pretty much want to keep a second-rounder. It's pretty glaring if you're picking guys in the first, second and third rounds and they're not panning out. That's not a good thing. I also pretty much understood there was some opportunity in the offensive line or they wouldn't have drafted that many folks.
What was that first training camp like?
It was an eye opener. Very exciting. Everything was so new. Being in an NFL training camp, meeting guys like Greg Pruitt and Calvin Hill, who was a rookie with the Cowboys way back when I was in the seventh grade. I introduced myself to him and called him "yes, sir" and "no, sir." Guys I had watched over the years playing. Reggie Rucker was there, Tom DeLeone and Doug Dieken, of course. That was really exciting and certainly a challenge. I guess the most challenging part of my rookie-year training camp (at Kent State University) was the first day of practice. The first two-a-day, we were up there for the rookie camp that started a week earlier than the veteran camp. The first day of that camp, after the first morning practice, my brother called from Houston and told me I needed to get back home. I had left my father dying with cancer. I immediately told (coach) Sam Rutigiliano and he wasn't aware of the situation. But the whole Browns family was so accommodating and encouraging. They got me to the airport and I went back to Houston to join my family at my dad's bedside. He passed away that night. It was tough. Going through training camp with the things on the field, mentally and physically, that's a challenge anyway, but that really added to it.
Halfway through your rookie season, you become a starter. What did you do to elevate your game to get into the good graces of the coaching staff?
You asked a little while ago what it was like to know two offensive linemen were drafted ahead of me. It took a lot of pressure off me. There's a lot of pressure of first- and second-round draft picks. I was a seventh-round pick. Anything I did well was just a bonus. When I got back from my father's funeral, they moved me to guard. I was like "wow, that might be the writing on the wall." At the time, I was the NFL's tallest guard (at 6-7). George Buehler (who started at left guard to open the 1979 season) was in his last season in the NFL and there was an opening there. He was having some physical problems. So guard was the best place to be. We were stacked at tackle. Things just work out sometimes. I really excelled at pass blocking. The Browns, with Sam Rutigliano and Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids and the receivers we had, we really liked to throw the ball and pass blocking is definitely a premium in the NFL.
You used your height to that end?
I had long arms. Rod Humenuik was our line coach and he was a good teacher. We had an experienced line and just watching those guys work and operate was an education. I just got it, you know. I started pass blocking the likes of Jerry Sherk in practice and caught the coach's eye. I think it was the second pre-season game against the Baltimore Colts I even started. I had the opportunity to play a good bit as the season unfolded and they threw me in against the Steelers in the sixth game of the (regular) season and the rest is history.
At what point did you know you belong in the National Football League?
I felt pretty good after that pre-season game. I felt pretty much like I would make the team, like I belonged there.
Just a comfort thing?
It clicked. I just got it. With my long reach and I've got good feet, I just seemed to be able to play at that next level.
You were there for probably two of the most romantic, for lack of a better word, eras in Cleveland pro football – the Kardiac Kids and the Bernie Kosar era. What was all that like?
I feel very fortunate to have played with the Browns in a decade where we were very competitive and playing great and knocking on the Super Bowl door. They were obviously a different cast of characters. But it was a similar run. Bernie was an awful lot like Brian Sipe. They brought a real mental approach to the game. Both were fierce competitors. We had good offensive lines on both teams. It was great fun with a lot of fond memories. The city of Cleveland – there's not a better city to play professional sports in. They love their Browns.
Did you enjoy one era more than the other?
It was pretty much equal. The Kardiac Kids was my first experience and I was young and everything was new and exciting. Then with Bernie, I was one of the veterans and that was also fun. We were really good . . . playing in three AFC championship games and getting into the playoffs pretty much every year in the late 1980s.
You were there for Red Right 88, The Fumble, The Drive. You've just about seen it all from an emotional standpoint. Ten playoff games, three title games. Any regrets?
Oh, no. I certainly wish I was sporting an AFC championship ring or a Super Bowl championship ring. So many teams and so many players labor for years in the NFL and don't get to play in games of that magnitude. It was just great fun. I have plenty to talk about. Everyone who is a football fan who I come across, they see the NFL classics and ask a lot of questions and I have plenty to talk about.
Of those tough losses, which was the most frustrating?
I would say probably The Fumble. To have been in that position two years in a row, playing in the AFC championship and that late in my career, I just realized nobody is guaranteed those opportunities. And it takes a lot of work, a lot of good fortune, a healthy club to get to that point. It was just hard to lose that game two years in a row.
So if you could change the outcome of any one game, that would be the one?
Absolutely . . . 1986 or 1987. In 1989, we played in Denver for the AFC championship and weren't as good that year as we had been in '86 and '87. Although we beat Denver during the regular season, we didn't show up and play very well in the championship game. And I didn't think anyone was going to beat the 49ers that year. They were pretty good. But I think we would have had a legitimate chance at beating the Giants and Redskins those years in '86 and '87.
You missed one whole season (1984). Was it a knee injury?
Yes. I got hurt in the last pre-season game of the season (in Philadelphia).
Refresh the memory. Was there a staph infection involved with that injury?
No, that was Jerry Sherk. We both were injured in Philadelphia, but that was Jerry who got a staph infection in his knee years before. And Dick Ambrose had a staph infection in his ankle that kind of hastened the end of his career.
Can I assume you know that Frank Gifford's son, Cody, was named after you by his wife, Kathie Lee, after watching you play in a Monday Night game?
He just recently turned 18.
Have you ever met Cody?
No, but when all that happened, that's when I got to know Frank. We got together when he came through town and had breakfast or lunch. I sent Cody Gifford a jersey and a picture and I got a picture from Frank and Kathie Lee. That was a lot of fun.
You were 32 when you retired. You were still a young man even though you had 10 years in the NFL. Why so young, why so early in your career did you retire?
The NFL calls it 10 because I wasn't on an active roster (for one), but it was 11 seasons. It was 11 seasons and 12 surgeries and my body was just . . . I had enough. I would like to have gotten 12, but it became that my opponent was my own body, not the guy across from me week in and week out. It just takes a toll on you.
You had 12 surgeries?
I had 12 in 11 years in the NFL.
I didn't realize you had that many. Were some of them so-called minor surgeries, not enough to keep you out of the lineup?
In 1985, I had a meniscus tear that kept me out of three games. Most of my surgeries were in the offseason – elbows, ankles, repairing wear and tear, trying to clean out the joints. Nevertheless, it's taxing.
Any residual effects?
Yeah, I had knee surgery last summer. I've had a cervical fusion in my neck. I try to stay active, stay in shape and keep my weight down. I try to keep as much pressure and stress off my body now as possible.
Your thoughts of Cleveland and what it was like to play in front of those fans.
Like I said earlier, I can't believe there's any better city in the country. Cleveland fans are outstanding and they love their Browns. I went to Texas A&M and we have the 12th man, an outstanding crowd and a lot of loyal support at Aggies games I go to. But every year, I come up to the Cleveland game (chuckling), I'm amazed at the devotion and the noise and the way they support their Browns. They really go all out for Cleveland and the Browns. It's great that they're winning again.
How do you want to be remembered by Browns fans?
Someone who just worked hard on and off the field and was a good citizen in the community.