Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
The healing continues: In the dramatic scene of “Believeland,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that debuts on the network Saturday night at 9:30, Earnest Byner turns tearful eyes to the camera and apologizes for the Fumble.
“I messed it up for everybody,” Byner says.
The film directed by Elyria native Andy Billman depicts the piercing heartbreaks of the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers and the resiliency of their die-hard fans to soldier on and keep hoping.
Central figures in the film besides the Browns’ running back are Indians Manager Mike Hargrove and Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo. Cleveland native and noted author Scott Raab serves as unofficial narrator as he passes on tales of these Cleveland sports woes to his son over lunch at a deli counter.
Byner’s interview with Billman is the movie’s scene-stealer and gives remarkable insight into a man still coping today with his role in Cleveland’s endless sports misery.
He has received countless letters from fans since that 1987 season AFC Championship Game foible in Denver, many filled with vitriol and hate, and has relived it many times in his third career (after coaching 10 years with four NFL teams) as a motivational speaker and in authoring an inspirational book titled “Everybody Fumbles.”
But never did he feel the need to apologize before the interview with Billman, which was filmed two years ago.
“It was the emotions of reliving the disappointment, but also reliving all of the things that went into being a player for the Browns and the fans and the type of love I had for the city and the players and the disappointment that surrounded that,” Byner said to me. “Talking about it, it really just got to me.
“And the apology … I don’t know what made me look in the camera. I don’t know. You know how you hear about getting in a zone in a game? That was very similar, me talking to the camera and apologizing to the fans. It just happened. I don’t know why. I have no idea.
“I think the healing process is continual. I don’t know how much more (there is to come).”
Play like a Brown: Byner was the heart and soul of the Browns teams that came closest to reaching the Super Bowl in the 1980s. His performance prior to the Fumble was typically inspirational for him. He ignited the Browns’ comeback from a 28-10 deficit with two touchdowns and finished with 187 yards rushing and receiving.
His fumble at the 3-yard line occurred with 1:05 to play and the Broncos ahead, 38-31. They conceded a safety later to account for the 38-33 final score.
While it has often been said that receiver Webster Slaughter was complicit for failing to run his route and take cornerback Jeremiah Castille out of Byner’s running lane, Byner has never blamed anyone but himself.
“Web’s supposed to do his job, yes. Eleven people should be doing their job. But sometimes runners have the ability to make others better. When they don’t do their job, you still make them look good. That’s the way I looked at my job. Whether Web blocked that guy or not, it’s still my responsibility to carry the ball. It’s on me. I pulled the ball in. When he grabbed my arm, I was trying to get him to drop off my arm. The ball doesn’t move, it just drops.”
Byner carried the Fumble into the 1988 season and was an angry man throughout. That season culminated in a wild-card loss by one point to the Houston Oilers, in which Byner committed back-to-back personal fouls.
Shortly afterwards, he was traded to the Washington Redskins for a tiny, non-descript back named Mike Oliphant. Former GM Ernie Accorsi has said the trade was the biggest regret of his Browns career.
“I probably was saved by the trade,” Byner said. “I mean, my football life and how it affected it me in totality. Because I took my game very personal. I loved it and it was so much a part of me. I took it home. I took it to the mall. Everywhere I went, I took my game. I’ll tell you this, I was nuts.”
While the Fumble continued to haunt Byner, it did not destroy him. With Washington, he had back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and helped the Redskins to a Super Bowl title, contributing a touchdown and 73 total yards in the championship.
“The Super Bowl was just one of the stories of my career,” Byner said. “The Fumble is a part of a story. No way, shape or form could I feel vindicated of anything because I got to the Super Bowl.”
True Cleveland: While Browns fans occasionally continued to hate on Byner – he recalls going out in public and hearing people shout “Fum-ble!” – he didn’t hesitate in returning to the Browns when Ozzie Newsome, then an assistant to coach Bill Belichick, called him as a free agent in 1994.
“When I came back to Cleveland, I looked at it again like I was a rookie,” Byner said.
By then, Byner was 32 and Belichick used him as a role player and an exemplar of professionalism and work ethic. He made only three starts in two really weird seasons – the playoff year of 1994 and the ugly last year of the old Browns in 1995 while owner Art Modell pocketed the money to move the team to Baltimore.
The Browns lost six games in a row after Modell’s secret came out. On the eve of the last home game, Belichick announced to his team that Byner would start at running back against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Amid an angry audience firing off firecrackers and tearing out wooden stadium chairs for souvenirs, Byner rushed for 121 yards on 31 carries and had seven receptions to lead the Browns to a 26-10 win.
“It was a blessing to be able to play that way and then after the game, to feel the admiration of the fans and see in their eyes almost some fear, some anger … a lot of people were crying. I had to pull myself away from the fans,” Byner said. “It could not have been scripted any better.”
There is not a player who better epitomizes what the Browns once were than Earnest Byner. For that matter, he epitomizes the Cleveland sports fan – knocked down, but always persevering. And we know how it turned out for him – a Super Bowl championship.
He is the city’s eternal inspiration, the perfect lead in a movie titled “Believeland.”