Earnest Byner's emotional apology brings 'Believeland' to life

CLEVELAND -- Earnest Byner didn't plan to tear up, didn't plan to look into the camera and say what he said to Cleveland Browns fans.

It just happened.

"I messed it up for everybody," Byner said with tear-filled eyes as he stared directly into the camera while he was interviewed for "Believeland," an ode to the city of Cleveland's suffering with its sports teams.

In the interview for the documentary, Byner, a former running back for the Browns, talks about the play in the 1987 AFC Championship Game that has come to be known in Cleveland as "The Fumble." He makes no secret that he considers what he said an apology.

"I felt like I did let a lot of people down," Byner said Friday from Bristol, Connecticut, as he took part in a daylong series of interviews in advance of the film's debut at 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN. "As a matter of fact, I know I did. I accept that responsibility."

The difficult acceptance of what happened seems all the more remarkable some 28 years after the play. Byner went on to win a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins. He returned to Cleveland and played for the Browns in 1994 and '95. After retiring from football, he became a motivational speaker talking to people about how to deal with difficult situations. He eventually came to realize his life and career were not summed up by one play, and he wrote a book. The title: "Everybody Fumbles."

"It was a big issue," Byner said. "It was something that really grew within me."

"Believeland" is directed by Andy Billman, who lived a lot of the pain growing up in Elyria, a blue-collar town west of Cleveland. It is part of the ESPN "30 for 30" series, and it goes over all the excruciating moments in recent Cleveland sports history, from the Indians blowing a ninth-inning lead to lose in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series to the Browns losing consecutive AFC Championship Games (1986 and 1987 seasons) to Michael Jordan's last-second shot in the 1989 playoffs that beat one of the best teams in Cavs history.

The movie lets ex-Indians manager Mike Hargrove and ex-Cavs forward Craig Ehlo speak, but it also talks about what makes Cleveland so dedicated to its sports teams despite difficult losses.

Byner's moment is one of the more powerful in the film. It was unexpected and unrehearsed, but he said it was not a catharsis.

"In reality, it just happened," Byner said "I believe more than anything it was more out of appreciation for what the fans in Cleveland have been to me and for the most part how they have embraced me on a continual basis.

"We were talking about different aspects of that game, also the interplay between coaches and players. Big Daddy Carl Hairston. K-Mack [Kevin Mack]. Bernie [Kosar]. And all of those emotions really built up until that moment. It just kind of got into the zone and happened."

His apology will tear at the heart of any Browns fan -- perhaps any fan anywhere.

"I just did it," Byner said, "and we continued to talk, continued the interview process ... dried my eyes ... "

"The Fumble" occurred with 1:05 left the 1987 AFC Championship Game in Denver. The Browns had fallen behind 28-10, but waged a furious comeback and were about to tie the game at 38 when Byner ran around left end.

Receiver Webster Slaughter did not run a corner route deep enough, though, which brought cornerback Jeremiah Castille into the play. Castille dove toward Byner as he approached the goal-line and the ball fell out of Byner's hand and into Castille's.

Castille played one more season. Byner learned to live with the pain of crushing disappointment. He cried with teammates. He received hate mail. He said the play changed how he played the game.

"After the fumble I was never as free of a football player," he said. "I was still playing good. I was still playing at a high level, but because of how I took that and how I allowed other people to influence how I took it, it was something that did really start to kind of take [over] me from inside out. I had to actually forgive myself after a while.

"It has been a process."

He believes every Cleveland fan should see "Believeland."

"One hundred percent," he said. "Even if you feel like you don't want to re-live some of 'The Fumble,' 'The Drive,' the 'Red Right 88'... The hope is still there. Real true Cleveland fans, they know that the hope is still there and it will always be there."