There was a time when as kids when we would meet outside for pickup basketball or football games. Sometimes games would run long and have to be continued the next day after school. During those epic battles for neighborhood superiority, we all envisioned being our heroes from the professional or college ranks. And typically those players would fall into one of several categories: They came from the team your family passed on to you or they played for the local city/university.
For me, being 10 or 11 years old on “the field” out behind our house in the Youngstown suburb of Struthers, I wanted to be Bernie Kosar. Not only did he play for my local-inherited team the Cleveland Browns but he was specifically local in that he went to high school at Boardman, the next town over. I still remember driving with my parents down Mathews Road by Zedakers Horse Farm and seeing the newly installed sign that read “Welcome to Boardman: A nice place to call home, Hometown of Bernie Kosar”. The legend grew.
As I got older I changed a little. No longer playing in the back yard, I went out on a real football field and wanted to be Korey Stringer, a Warren kid who went to Ohio State and dominated right before I got to high school and would be eligible to throw my name in the mix. I’ll never forget meeting him at a lineman summer camp for local kids put on by Struthers alum, Penn state grad and at the time Minnesota Viking John Gerak.
Through it all, the end result was always the same. “Jason, what do you want to be when you grow up, an astronaut or president? Do you want to be a scientist, a Ghostbuster?” No, my goal was simple and in focus: I wanted to be a Cleveland Brown.
For two other Northeast Ohio kids, that goal was on their minds as well. And unlike me, who severely lacked the athletic ability to even play division 1 college football let alone the NFL, Donte Whitner and Brian Hoyer are living their dream and their initial goal of wearing the Browns colors is achieved.
The Browns? Really?
I’m sure I can imagine what a lot of you are uttering to yourself: The Browns? Really? Well yes, the Browns. Really.
As abysmal as they have been since the expansion return in 1999 (1 playoff season and only 2 total winning seasons) in NE Ohio the franchise still carries an aura of bygone greatness that elders speak about and youngsters want to see firsthand. I grew up hearing about the glory days of the 50’s and early 60’s when the New York Yankees were referred to as “the Cleveland Browns of baseball”. I was just a bit too young to experience the “Kardiack Kids” and “Sam, Sipe and Company”. My earliest recollections are of the mid and late 80’s and early 90’s Browns teams that always seemed destined for greatness only to have Lucy pull the ball away at the last second sending Charlie Brown feet in the air flat on his back.
I have to imagine that Hoyer and Whitner grew up listening to those stories of Bernie Kosar, Kevin Mack, Ernest Byner, Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon the same way I grew up listening to the stories of Frank Ryan, Otto Graham, Brian Sipe and the Pruitt brothers. After hearing the stories you eventually get taken down by the lake and experience a Browns game day firsthand, imagining the stories you were told and standing in the place of those historical moments. Suddenly you’re hooked. I’ve been there and, no matter how poorly the organization squanders opportunities or self-inflicts gunshot wounds to the foot, it never goes away.
High School powers lead to the Big Ten
Whitner and Hoyer grew up in the shadows of downtown Cleveland and attended two of the state’s premier football powers: Hoyer from the winning-est program (11 state and 3 national championships) in the illustrious history of Ohio High School Football, the Cleveland St. Ignatius Wildcats and Whitner from an at the time relatively new Ohio football power that has since built a pipeline for Heisman Trophy winners and NFL stars to funnel through Ohio State and onto the big stage of the NFL in the Cleveland Glenville Academy Tarblooders.
Separated by only 10 miles, Glenville vs St. Ignatius has turned into North East Ohio’s most anticipated high school sports event. Often times the two would meet in the playoffs, although the rematch is no longer a possibility as Glenville was moved from Division 1 to Division 2 at the start of the 2013 school year. The game is often looked at as “inner city speed and athletic ability” against “old school parochial fundamental football”. Sure, the two schools carry prestige around the state, but they are considered among the high school immortals in the Cleveland area.
Hoyer and Whitner never faced each other in high school. That possibility preceded the start of the “Iggy-Gville” rivalry by one year as Whitner graduated in 2002. Hoyer got a taste, as in 2003 he led the Wildcats to a 24-21 win over the Tarblooders that is looked at as the game that really kicked off the rivalry. The game included players Anthony Gonzalez and Mike Massey for Ignatius and Ted Ginn for Glenville, just to name a few.
After the 2003 season, Hoyer verbally committed to Michigan State to play for John L. Smith. Whitner was already at Ohio State and making an impact in the secondary for Jim Tressel. Despite both playing in the Big Ten, they never met as opponents due to Hoyer redshirting in 2004 and the old format of having two teams off your schedule for two years.
Needless to say there were plenty of big moments in both of their college careers and I could bore you with stats, but the bottom line is that Whitner came out of Ohio State as a top flight choice as a strong safety headed to the NFL and was picked as such by the Buffalo Bills with the 8th pick of the 2006 draft. Hoyer, despite as statistically very good career at MSU, went undrafted in the 2008 draft.
Browns radio play-by-play and WKYC channel 3 sports director Jim Donovan loves to tell the story of how every time the Browns played the Bills, Whitner would make it a point to seek him out in the pregame to make him aware that he wanted to come home to wear orange and brown and live out his childhood dream. When Hoyer was signed prior to the 2013 season he unabashedly professed his childhood love for the Browns.
As we enter the beginning stages of the 2014 football season, an interesting situation is taking place on Lake Erie within the Cleveland Browns. It is a time of change as the general manager and CEO were replaced in January. Even more change is abundant on the roster as a few longtime veteran players have been shown their walking papers. But what I am excited about and the city is buzzing about is that the leaders of the Browns on the field, the captains of the offense and the defense, are hometown boys who have spent their careers wishing, hoping and maneuvering for this moment. Even Bernie Kosar (As I mentioned earlier, Boardman is a Youngstown suburb) wasn’t a hometown guy in the way Whitner and Hoyer are. The formative years of their youth were spent in and around downtown Cleveland, soaking in the fabric of the city and having it leave a lasting impression on them that is evident in everything they do.
As Browns fans will tell you, there hasn’t been much to get overly excited about since the teams return in 1999. The record stands on its own as one of the worst in the league in that time period. This organization has been a collection of follies from free agent signing errors to draft pick blunders to poor coaching hires to… you get the point.
Even with that all being said, there’s a different optimism among fans this offseason and it is directly related to Hoyer and Whitner. It’s an optimism that comes from familiarity and feeling like the guy taking the shots on the field knows how you feel because he used to be and still is one of you.
I can’t tell you what’s going to happen this fall in First Energy Stadium when the Browns take field. I can’t with any certainty say they’ll be any better than they have been, though their free agency moves and the upcoming draft prospects make them a much improved squad on paper. I can say this: A couple of Cleveland kids who dreamed of being Cleveland Browns are going to get their shot to live it. I’m excited to see the results and actually feel like maybe things are going to finally take a turn in the favor of the Browns. All because they brought a few guys back home.
Metallica track of the week
Back in 2006, Metallica was asked by Black Sabbath to their performer/presenters when the metal icons were (finally) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Naturally, the request was accepted and looked at as an honor. I’ve seen grainy footage of Metallica’s performance that night, but nothing “official” or anything like that until late last week when they released video of their Iron Man cover from the evening’s performance on their YouTube page. So, with any further ado, here is Metallica at the 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony performing Black Sabbath’s immortal Iron Man!