Growing up, my friends and I spent the bulk of every summer playing sandlot baseball. Of course, each of us would take a shot on the mound and see how accurately we could imitate the quirky wind-ups of our favorite major league pitchers. You know the old drill: “Hey, I’m Kent Tekulve!” “Look at me, I’m Fernando Valenzuela!”
Once the weather got colder we’d trade the bats and gloves for a football. But it was never as easy to imitate our favorite quarterbacks. They pretty much all looked the same when they released the ball, especially in the eyes of an eleven-year-old kid. Unless, of course, that favorite quarterback was a Cleveland legend.
“Look, I’m Bernie,” I’d say. Then I’d whip a sidearm bullet to an open receiver for a TD (ok, so the sidearm part is accurate even if the “bullet” remark is debatable). What was never debatable was Bernie Kosar’s impact on the city of Cleveland during his sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-embroiled tenure as the Browns’ starting quarterback.
Kosar was a Brown in the making since his first day on Earth. He was a fan of the team as a young boy growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. His love for the team grew as he played football at Boardman High School and began solidifying his legacy as a brilliant quarterback.
He earned Parade All-America honors his senior year at Boardman and then moved on to the University of Miami, where he took over as starting quarterback in 1983 after a red shirt season. His impact on the Hurricanes offense was immediate. He threw 15 TD passes on his way to an 11-1 season and a berth in the Orange Bowl. Then he followed the brilliant regular season performance with a 300 yard, 2 TD shocker against top-ranked Nebraska. He did the unthinkable in leading Miami to its first national championship in a stunning 31-30 victory over the Huskers. The following season Kosar threw 25 more TDs and finished fourth in Heisman voting. It seemed he was ready to join the NFL ranks.
Rumors began to surface that Bernie would forego his remaining collegiate eligibility and enter the draft. Kosar denied the reports, and then rebuked his denial. A messy draft scenario ensued. The Cleveland Browns jockeyed for position. The Minnesota Vikings made accusations. Kosar stood fast by his claim that he wanted to come home to Ohio. Cleveland fans held their breaths and crossed their fingers….Long story short, the commish at the time, Pete Rozelle, allowed Kosar to enter the 1985 supplemental draft and the Browns scooped him up with the first pick. And, just like that, Cleveland’s love affair with an unlikely hero began.
Kosar never possessed the athletic gifts of John Elway or Dan Marino, but he did have two things going for him: accuracy and heart.
In 1986, Kosar’s first full season as the Browns’ starter, the sidearm slinger connected on 310 completions for nearly 4,000 yards in leading the team to the AFC Championship Game. Who could forget Bernie’s 489 yard performance in a comeback win against the Jets to get them there? It took the mighty John Elway and a certain 98-yard drive to stamp out Cleveland’s Super Bowl hopes.
Kosar dialed up 22 TD passes in 1987. He led the AFC in QB rating, and his Browns once again rumbled into the AFC Championship Game. But Bernie’s 356 yards and three touchdowns still could not top Elway’s Broncos.
Kosar made one more trip to the AFC Championship in 1989. He was once again unable to slay the dragon that was John Elway. But through all the heart-breaking defeats, Kosar embodied the never-say-die attitude that defined the Cleveland fans and complimented the hard-nose atmosphere of the vaunted Dawg Pound.
Perhaps the most telling sign of how deeply Kosar had touched the Cleveland fan base with his gritty play came in 1991. That was when Bill Belichick took over as Browns head coach. Belichick’s first order of business was to bench Bernie in favor of Vinny Testaverde. Later in the season, after a bad round of backup work, Belichick ordered Kosar’s outright release. The Cleveland fans were outraged. Angry Dawg Pounders showed the new head coach what they thought of him by wearing Bernie Kosar masks instead of Dawg masks at the next game (by the way, I’d love to get my hands on one of those masks before Halloween). Think Cleveland fans still hold a grudge? Let’s just say Billy boy shouldn’t throw on an old, sleeveless hoodie and take a moonlit stroll down West Third Street any time soon.
But Bernie, in classic Bernie style, kept his chin up and moved on. All he did in 1991 was sign a million dollar contract with the Cowboys and win that elusive Super Bowl ring as Troy Aikman’s backup. Bernie completed the final three years of a brilliant career back in Miami, playing second-fiddle to Dan Marino. Then he faded away from the spotlight and took his rightful place as a Cleveland legend.