Cleveland Browns: It is time for any holdout fans to re-embrace Earnest Byner

Jun 7, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns former player Earnest Byner during minicamp at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 7, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns former player Earnest Byner during minicamp at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

It is time for holdout Cleveland Browns fans to not only forgive Earnest Byner for his infamous fumble, but to also celebrate him.

To the rest of the sports world, Cleveland is still defined by Red Right 88, The Shot, The Drive and, of course, The Fumble.

What is often forgotten, however, is the context behind each of these tragic events, and the players who made even falling just short a possibility.

Of course, every Browns fan knows that it was Earnest Byner who fumbled inside the five-yard line at Mile High Stadium in the 1987 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos. Everyone knows that the Browns were just one win away from their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, and that they had come almost all the way back in the game.

Not everyone, however, realizes who was fueling the Browns’ remarkable comeback and, in a strange sort of way, made his own fumble possible. It was Byner, who was playing in his fourth season and was already carrying the team. Not to excuse the fumble itself, but the sequence of events that day were really no different from any other Cleveland sports heartbreak. The Browns got just close enough to crush the entire city.

After all, the Browns were very fortunate not to be blown out of the game. Or, as some like to put it, the Browns were unfortunate to not be blown out of the game. The infamous way it all went down made the heartbreak so much worse for fans, and certainly for Byner.

It is unreasonable to conclude that the second-and-eight play at the time was seen by the players as a play that would go down in history. None of the players, and especially not Byner, who was probably a bit dazed and physically taxed at the time, thought of the play in the moment from the standpoint of its longterm legacy. Byner saw the goal line and simply wanted to score. A touchdown would have presumably tied the game at 38 (pending a successful extra-point attempt), with just over a minute in regulation.

It is quite possible, considering that John Elway was the quarterback for the Broncos at the time, that the Browns would have lost the game anyway in heartbreaking fashion.

This isn’t to excuse the fumble, for without a doubt it was a poor football play by Byner. It was certainly a mistake that he regrets immensely, evident based on his reaction to the play. Even so, the blame really should be shared, according to then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

“The Browns’ wide receiver, Webster Slaughter, is supposed to take 10 steps then block Jeremiah Castille to the outside. Instead, he wanted to watch the play,” Schottenheimer remarked while viewing the play years after the game. Castille was the defensive back for the Broncos who ended up forcing the fumble.

“Earnest never saw Castille coming. Earnest was the reason we were still in the game at that point. He had several heroic runs and catches over the course of the second half that allowed us to have a chance to tie the game at 38. All of these heroics, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a single draw play from the eight-yard line.”

Maybe we should forgive Byner as everybody makes mistakes. But should we really welcome him back? Should we really consider him one of the greatest Browns of all time?

Not only should Byner be considered one of the greatest Browns of all time, he should be celebrated by Browns fans. Byner had seven excellent seasons with the Browns, including a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1985. He should be recognized for his effort to keep the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, even though his fumble was one of the more costly mistakes in team history.

Still, reconciliation should come from the rest of his career with the Browns, and his attitude toward the community.

It would have been very easy for Byner to abandon a Browns fan base who hated and ridiculed him for his fumble. In fact, it would have made a lot of sense considering how loved he was by Washington fans after winning a Super Bowl in the 1991 season with the Redskins. Granted, it sure is a tough pill to swallow for Cleveland fans to see a former player win a championship with another team. But by 1994, Byner was back in Cleveland, and had two productive seasons for the very fanbase that had a hard time forgiving him for one costly mistake.

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In addition to all of this, it is worth noting that Byner currently works closely with the Browns’ organization and in the Cleveland community. In fact, he was seen at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade, decked out in brown and orange. In his interview with ESPN, Byner was genuinely overjoyed to see a Cleveland professional sports team finally raise a trophy. He understands the opportunity the Browns missed when he was a player, and realizes that the great fans of Cleveland have long deserved a title.

Time heals a lot, and 28-and-a-half years (but who’s counting?) is a long time. It seems the vast majority of Browns fans have forgiven Byner for his fumble, and it’s about time. Even so, the time has come to take it a step further.

It’s not to say that Browns fans should wipe the infamous fumble out of their memories completely, for it is a significant moment in Cleveland sports history, something that all fans can identify with. There comes a time, however, when fans should begin moving away from associating Byner’s name with the single play, and realize the remarkable feats of Byner’s excellent career as a whole.

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The Fumble is still one of the most disappointing moments of Cleveland sports history. It will never be anything else, its significance will never diminish. Cleveland has changed though, and the 52-year title drought is over. Byner made one mistake that prevented the drought from ending sooner, and he certainly felt remorseful about it.

Still, embracing Byner isn’t about sympathy. It’s about what he’s done for the Browns organization as a whole. The good outweighs the bad, and the Browns are a better organization with Byner than they would be if he had never existed. That’s why, as a community, it’s time for Cleveland to come together and celebrate Byner, and everything he has meant to the Browns.

Forgiveness is no longer enough. All Browns fans would consider Bernie Kosar to be one of the best to ever play for the Browns, what makes Byner any different? It seems that if Kosar would have thrown an interception instead of the Byner fumble, Kosar would be the one to go down in history infamously.

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Just like Kosar, Byner should be regarded as one of the best to ever put on a Browns’ uniform. His career numbers speak for themselves. Even more so, however, Byner returned to Cleveland to help the next wave of young Browns players. This speaks to his incredible character, and to his love for the Browns.

Byner has embraced Cleveland. It’s time to embrace Byner in return.