Elway went into Drive, Browns into reverse

You want to know about Cleveland Browns history? I can tell you about Cleveland Browns history.

I was on the field at Municipal Stadium for the most infamous moment in the franchise's history -- the sequence known as The Drive, a heartbreak that helped deny the Browns a place in the Super Bowl in 1987.


It happened against the Denver Broncos in the American Football Conference championship game on Jan. 11, 1987. A game that anyone who was there will never forget.

The Browns had never been to the Super Bowl and hadn't won a championship in 23 years, but, with Bernie Kosar as their quarterback and the support of the "Dawg Pound" working for them, they were expecting to beat the Broncos and deliver themselves from their misery. They had survived a double-overtime scare against the New York Jets in a divisional playoff game the previous week, only adding to their belief that this, finally, was their year.


I flew in to Cleveland the night before the game and awoke to a blanket of snow on the ground. The sky was the color of dirty linen and the temperature in the 20s. More snow was forecast. I hitched a ride to the game with a writer from another paper. The whole city was dressed up in orange and brown. Long streamers trailed cars on the highway. The tallest building downtown was bathed in a ring of orange lights that said, "Go Browns."

Arriving early, we parked in a lot near the dilapidated old stadium by Lake Erie and trudged through a freezing wind to the gate where the press was allowed in. My seat was in the auxiliary press box, the baseball press box, located in the end zone. The window in front of me was as dirty as a factory window, smudged to the point that I could barely see through it. The elbow of my winter jacket turned black when I rubbed it against the glass. A crack in the window and a draft coming up from the floor rendered irrelevant a modest attempt that was made at heating the room.

Before kickoff, a Browns official came through with woolen caps for the press. You had your pick: Browns or Broncos. I grabbed a Broncos cap and pulled it low over my ears.

The stadium was filled by kickoff with a crowd of 79,915 fans who stomped and roared for the Browns for three straight hours. This was the heyday of the "Dawg Pound," which had come into existence in support of the Browns' "Junkyard Dog" defense. The fans wore rubber dog masks, threw dog biscuits on the field and howled at the sky in unison. It was the closest thing to a legal riot you'll ever see.

The atmosphere for the game was, simply, the best for a football game I have ever witnessed. It was football as it was meant to be, on grass and mud, in the cold, with a huge crowd roaring for blood in a wind-chill of 5 degrees. No sky boxes, no hole in the roof, nothing fancy at all. It was a shame John Madden was broadcasting the National Football Conference championship game that day. The Browns-Broncos game was a prototype of the dirty, physical football Madden so favors.

Feeding off the crowd, the Browns drove to a touchdown on their first possession, got the ball back and started driving again. It appeared the game might be a blowout. The Dawg Pound was in a barking, biscuit-throwing frenzy. But the game's momentum changed when Kosar threw two interceptions and Browns fullback Kevin Mack lost a fumble. Broncos quarterback John Elway turned the mistakes into a touchdown, a field goal and a 10-7 lead. The Browns tied it up with a field goal just before halftime.

The Broncos regained the lead with a field goal late in the third quarter, which the Browns matched early in the fourth quarter. After an exchange of punts, the Browns struck dramatically for a touchdown on a 48-yard pass from Kosar to receiver Brian Brennan with 5:43 to play. The Dawg Pound exploded with joy and began chanting "Sup-er Bowl" after sitting nervously throughout much of the second half.

The fans' frenzy only increased when the Broncos misplayed the ensuing kickoff and returner Gene Lang had to fall on the ball at the Denver 2-yard line. The fans -- and the Browns -- thought they had the Broncos right where they wanted them.


But then came The Drive.

As it started, the auxiliary press box emptied as I and the other fTC reporters made our way to the field before the game ended. It is customary for reporters to watch the last few minutes of an NFL game on the field; that way, they don't have to fight the crowd to get to the locker room for interviews after the game.

I made my way through the back corridors of the stadium and came up through a baseball dugout onto the field, which was a sea of mud into which I immediately sank. So much for the shoes. But there was no time to worry about that. I made my way to the Broncos' sideline because it was closer. When I looked up, I found myself standing next to Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who was wearing a full-length, silver mink coat and looking as dashing as a movie star. He was pumping his fist at Elway.

A fourth-year pro at the time, Elway began moving the Broncos downfield, passing into the teeth of the chilling wind. He rushed for 11 yards, passed to Steve Sewell for 22 yards and to Steve Watson for 12 yards, each time quieting a crescendo of barking fans imploring their defense to make one last, decisive stand. On second down at the Cleveland 40, the defense answered by sacking Elway for an 8-yard loss. But Elway escaped with a 20-yard completion to Mike Jackson. Then he threw to Sewell for 14 yards and a first down at the Browns' 14-yard line with 57 seconds left.

The Dawg Pound tried to keep up the noise, but it wasn't the same; the fans clearly were beginning to fear the worst.

On second down, Elway scrambled for 9 yards to the 5. On the next play, he dropped back and split a seam in the defense with a touchdown pass to Jackson, who cradled the ball in an end zone that was covered with dog biscuits.


Elway had completed The Drive -- 98 yards into the wind, tying the score.

In overtime, the Browns went three and out and had to punt, and Elway again drove the Broncos into scoring range. A 33-yard field goal by kicker Rich Karlis sent the huge crowd into the streets in the foulest of moods. Their Browns had lost.

I typed my story wearing gloves, quite a trick. And for years after that day, whenever the discussion got around to the cities and stadiums where the atmosphere for football was the best, I never hesitated when it was my turn to talk. Cleveland, I said. No doubt about it.