The heat and humidity were stifling. Who could believe that just five months ago these same Lake Erie breezes, now vainly attempting to spread some relief from the eye-stinging sweat, callously dumped mountains of snow on these very grounds?
It was training camp for the 1984 Cleveland Browns. My fourth year in the NFL already.
We had just missed the playoffs the year before. We slugged out a victory over the goddamn Pittsburgh Steelers in the final game of the 1983 season, featuring a Jack Lambert ejection as he clobbered Brian Sipe on the sideline right in front of our bench. Maybe he was trying to even the score for Joe “Turkey” Jones’s backflip pile-driving of Terry Bradshaw in 1976. While a victory over the Steelers is always sweet, we then got the bad news that we had missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Brian had been lured away by a pile of Donald Trump cash to the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Southern Cal golden boy Paul McDonald, who had patiently caddied for Brian for four years, put down his clipboard, untangled his headset from his Paul McCartney hairdo and took the helm. Terry Nugent and Tom Flick competed for the backup spots. They had some fine wide receivers to throw to as well.
The Browns’ defense over the previous few years had had some issues with pressuring the quarterback. And as we scrimmaged that day, McDonald and company were rifling the ball through the thick August air with ease. I called out to our defensive linemen to get some pressure on them. Of course, we didn’t hit quarterbacks during practice—too many dollars and blow-dried hairstyles were at stake. But we needed to get on those guys. We needed to get into their heads. In the NFL, an ordinary quarterback can look pretty good if he gets enough time to throw. And a good quarterback can become very ordinary if someone like a snarling Mark Gastineau is in his face sucking the air out of the quarterback’s nose.
I quickly flashed back to my boyhood days in Theodore, Alabama. I remembered seeing a dog chase a cat down Simpson Lane, the dirt road that led to my house. “Look, guys,” I told the defensive linemen between plays, “if you can’t get at these guys, then what the hell are Bradshit and Fouts going to do to us? (Never mind that Bradshaw had just retired.) Think of the QB like he’s a cat, and you’re a dog. The dog needs to catch the cat.”
We lined up for another play.
“He’s the cat, you’re the dog. Don’t let him get away,” I shouted as I retreated to my right cornerback position. Then to help them remember, I let out a few barks. We ran the play, and then before the next play, I let out a few more barks. Pretty soon, it was a matter of routine. It was to let the linemen know they were like dogs, and they were to catch the cat.
Fans regularly attend preseason practice there at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, about a half-hour’s drive east of Cleveland. One of the first things I noticed after my arrival in Cleveland in 1981 was how crazy and obsessive Cleveland Browns fans are. Yes, other teams have very strong and loyal fan bases across the country, but here in Cleveland the fans are just sheer nuts. The Browns dominated the local sports scene. They had dominated the NFL in the 1950s, and because of the many lean years by the Cleveland Indians and, later on, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland was a football city first and foremost.
It didn’t take long for the fans attending practice to start barking as well. We’d line up for a play, I’d let out a few barks and the fans, sometimes thousands in attendance, began barking too. This kept on going and going throughout the couple of weeks that practices were open to the public.
Frank Minnifield had come to us from the USFL’s Arizona Wranglers. He missed most of camp as legal entanglements from his transition from the Wranglers to the Browns were worked out. That probably was a good thing, too, since Frank had just played in the USFL title game a few weeks prior and was nursing an arch strain. At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Frank was not a big guy. He blew out his knee during his rookie year in the USFL. But he had guile. Gallons of it. And with his 4.4 speed, he was just a terrific one-on-one defender who could fly with the fleetest.
The barking at practice continued during training camp. The fans were really getting into it. A year passed, and just before the 1985 season, I got word that someone in the Browns’ front office wanted to see me. It’s not unusual to be called into the coach’s office here and there, especially for a smartass troublemaker like me, but rarely do the front office people call you in. I stopped by this administrator’s office, and, being the businessman that he was, he got right down to business.
“Hanford,” he told me, “all this stuff about dogs and barking and everything is a distraction. We’re not the Cleveland Dogs. We’re the Cleveland Browns. We don’t have a logo on our helmets, and we’re not about to. And we already have a mascot.”
Yeah. A sexually ambiguous, pointy-eared fairy in a stocking cap. Over the years, I’m sure it struck terror into the hearts of elf-phobics like Dick Butkus, Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik, and Mean Joe Greene. Even Browns owner Art Modell hated that emblem and actually purged it from official use in the late 1960s. But since there was nothing to replace it, it still was the closest thing the Browns had to a mascot.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s kind of taken off on its own. And hey, the fans like it.”
No one on the coaching staff seemed to have a problem with it. Just the pointy heads in the front office. Why would they consider it an on-field distraction if the coaches had no problem with it?
“I know,” the administrator said. “But we need you to just concentrate on football. That’s what we pay you for, not to lead some dog circus.”
I left the meeting a bit stunned. This barking thing was stirring our defense and giving the fans something to join in with us. I told Frank about the meeting, and he had one of his usual devious solutions.
“Get your ass over to my apartment, Hanford. We’ll take care of this.”
I headed over to Frank’s apartment after practice one day, just before our opening exhibition game of the 1985 season, against the goddamn Steelers. Frank rolled out a long blank banner and grabbed a paintbrush. We painted “Dog Pound.”
“What are we going to do with that?” I asked as Michelangelofield finished his masterpiece.
“We’re going to hang this in front of the bleachers before the Steelers game. We’re going to call it the Dog Pound.” Yes, we originally spelled it correctly, but the “Dawg” moniker evolved in the media. The first mention of the dog (still grammatically proper) phenomenon appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 25, 1984.
Cleveland Stadium was a cavernous, two-deck, 80,000-plus- seat stadium built on a landfill. Originally the stadium was going to hold 100,000 seats, but cost overruns quickly required some changes, and engineers cut out 20,000 seats. Still, it was big. It was built to accommodate almost any event, from football to baseball to track, boxing, you name it. It was once even modified for a motocross event. For baseball, the center-field wall was a steroidious 470 feet away, with lower-deck box seats descending to field level. That might be OK for baseball, but that created many sight obstructions for football. Posts and pillars supported a roof, but again those posts obstructed the view for many otherwise good seats in both decks. On the east end of the stadium was a separate section made up of benches—the bleachers. Even though the view was unobstructed, these were definitely the cheap seats. Well into the 1970s, you could watch a Cleveland Indians game from the bleachers for 50 cents. These seats were often the last to be sold, and in the ’60s and ’70s, you would often find it filled with Steelers fans when they were in town. Can you imagine that now? The Dawg Pound filled with Steelers fans? It was in the bleachers where the most vocal, crazy, and, yes, intoxicated fans could be found.
The locker rooms, especially for the visiting team, were cramped and crude. In the visitors’ locker room, players hung their clothes on rusty nails hammered in the concrete brick wall. The shower, which often featured no hot water, flooded the coaches’ office. Ernest Givins of the Houston Oilers called it a “rat hole.” Yes, but it was our rat hole.
Years later, when proposals were being considered to build a new stadium on the site, some suggested the new digs should have a dome. But that would have turned The Dawg Pound into The Poodle Parlor. That’s not the way we do things in Cleveland. Football wasn’t meant to be played in a sterile, climate-controlled environment on a cushy carpet with tofu and soybeans sold at the concession stand. It was meant to be played on sandy mud painted green, with blinding rain, snow, and razor-like winds whipping in off Lake Erie cutting into your icicle-dripped face.
Before each game, we were like gladiators marching to battle as we clip-clomped almost in unison over rotting floorboards and through the narrow, dank, 50-foot tunnel leading toward the field via the first base dugout used by the Indians during the summer. The same path trod by greats like Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dick Schafrath, Gene Hickerson, among other mighty towering men. If you were claustrophobic, you had a problem. But as you got closer to emerging on the other end, you heard that roar get louder and louder, until everything burst into color and an ear-splitting roar as we ascended the dugout steps. That scene repeated before every game, exhibition or conference championship, good season or bad.
Before that exhibition game against those goddamn Pittsburgh Steelers, Frank and I hung the banner in front of the bleachers. It didn’t take long for the fans in the bleachers to assume the role. They continued the barking, and even though the game was a bust, the Dawg Pound was born. It has outlasted other phenomena of the past, such as the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome or the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters or the Steelers’ Steel Curtain.
“We sic ‘The Dogs’ on the quarterbacks,” safety Al Gross told The Plain Dealer.
“A dog takes very little from anybody when he’s ferocious,” linebacker Eddie Johnson said. “That’s what we wanted to instill in our defensive line. In order for us to be successful, our defensive line has to play like dogs.” Eddie was known as “The Assassin,” but in the locker room, we called him “Bullethead.” His close-shaven head was shaped like a bullet, and he had no neck.
Years later, for some reason I just don’t know, Eddie claimed he was the originator of the Dawg phenomenon. Sadly, Eddie died in January 2003 of colon cancer at the age of 43. More on that later.
As the season progressed, the fans not only barked, they began to dress the part. Every week, there were new dog masks, dog noses, bone-shaped hats, and other crazy costumes. They usually brought in a doghouse, which took three or four guys to carry in but took only one to carry out. The phenomenon kept growing, and even though it was a difficult season for the Browns, the Dawg Pound was now a part, a big part, of this storied franchise.
Around the locker room, we called each other “Dawg.” When the Browns played the Eagles in an exhibition game in London, I remember getting quite an odd look from the doorman of the hotel when I asked him, “Whassup, Dawg?” It was Dawg this, Dawg that. To this day, it has worked its way into the American vernacular. Why do you think Randy Jackson says, “Yo, Dawg” on American Idol? Every night, America would flip on The Arsenio Hall Show to find the Cleveland native fist-pumping to the “Woof, woof, woof” of the audience. Whenever I would return to my parents’ home in Theodore, Alabama, everywhere I would go around town, I’d be greeted with, “Woof, woof, woof.”
Among other business ventures, I’m a real estate broker in the Cleveland area. I got myself into some trouble recently with my dog reference when a real estate agent from another company called me for information on one of the properties I had listed for sale.
Either he wasn’t a Browns fan or I wasn’t thinking or, most likely, both. His name was Muhammad, thus I assume (in hindsight) that he was Muslim.
“Meestor Deexon,” he said in his Apu-like accent. “I would like to show your property to one of my clients.”
“Great, Dawg!” I told him. “Sell it for me.”
An uncomfortable pause ensued.
“Why you call me a dog, Meestor Deexon?” Muhammad said. “I do nothing bad to you, so why you feel you must call me a dog?”
Suddenly realizing that this gentleman was not up to snuff on Cleveland Browns history, I fumbled for a save.
“Ah, oh, sorry, I just call everybody Dawg.”
“Well I appreciate if you not call me a dog,” he admonished me sternly. Apparently, he didn’t realize that in Cleveland, it’s supposed to be an honor to be addressed as “Dawg” by the Top Dawg himself.
The Dawg Pound fans quickly developed a reputation of making life difficult for opposing teams. It was bad enough for opponents to come in and deal with the shitty locker room and shittier weather, and playing on a surface exquisitely landscaped with green-painted mud. Now they also had to deal with the Dawg Pound. The worst of it would come when an opposing team had to huddle up in the end zone. The Dawg Pound was just a few feet behind them, up a small incline. Dog biscuits, batteries, beer cups, snow balls, you name it, would come whirling rapid fire out of the stands, accompanied by the loud, incessant barking.
Ultimately, the dog food and such had to be banned from the stadium, but much contraband would still find its way in. And at least one game was decided by those crazy dawgs.
In October 1989, we were playing the Denver Broncos. John Elway was Public Enemy Number One in Cleveland, having engineered “The Drive” in the 1986 season’s AFC title game, in which he led the Broncos 98 yards to a game-tying touchdown and Denver went on to beat us in overtime. In the fourth quarter of the 1989 game, the Broncos huddled in the end zone in front of the Dawg Pound, and the onslaught began. It got so bad that the referee ordered us to switch ends, resulting in us now getting the wind at our backs. Frank came up with a fumble recovery deep in our territory with two minutes left, and Bernie Kosar engineered a drive of his own to set up a 47-yard field goal by Matt Bahr as time expired. The ball barely cleared the crossbar, and the wind certainly made the winning difference.
In a 1987 Monday night game, the Dawg Pound fans were reveling in the 17-0 lead we had built on the then-Los Angeles Rams. Biscuits came flying out of the Pound, so much so that the officials asked the Browns to make an announcement on the public address system to knock it off. Talk about trying to put out a fire with gasoline! The Browns wisely declined to make such an announcement, fearing it would only egg things on. No shit, Sherlock. Two weeks later, just before a game with the Falcons, the front office people asked me to not rile up the Pound. Sure, yeah, no problem. I’ll get right on that. Did they think that I’d really be able to calm them down? Did they think I even wanted to calm them down?
Even before the bleachers were known as the Dawg Pound, they still got into the act. In a 1979 game against Houston, the officials had to move an extra point attempt to the other end of the field because of the various fodder pelting the Oilers.
Just for kicks, a couple of years ago, I attended a Browns game and sat in the Dawg Pound. It didn’t take more than a minute for the fans to recognize I was in their midst. One by one, they yelled and pointed. “Look, it’s Hanford Dixon! Woof, woof, woof!” They barked, and I barked back at them. They barked louder and became a bit more rowdy. Before the end of the first quarter, I realized that even though they were friendly dawgs, they outnumbered me about 2,000 to 1. Imagine standing in a pen with 2,000 overly friendly mad fans in various states of inebriation starting to swoop down on you. I casually ducked away.
Calvin Hill, the former Cowboys great, finished his career with the Browns. He was the offensive Rookie of the Year way back in 1969, and his final season was my rookie year. Calvin was the consummate businessman. He always wore the nicest suits and carried a briefcase, always looking like the Yale boy he was. After his retirement, he worked for the Browns’ front office. One day, he suggested something to me.
“This Dawg Pound thing has gotten pretty big,” he said. “Did you ever think about trademarking it?”
I figured if Calvin suggested it, it had to be a good idea. (Years later, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis trademarked “The Bus,” and New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Linn filed a trademark application for “Linsanity.”) I picked up the phone and called my agent and attorney, Bud Holmes. I told him about what Calvin had suggested, and Bud agreed it would be a good thing to do, and he would get right on it.
After some time had passed, Bud gave me a call. “I’ve got bad news for you, Hanford,” he said in his Mississippi drawl. “Dawg Pound and Top Dawg have already been trademarked.”
“What? By who?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“Those terms were trademarked by NFL Properties, at the request of the Cleveland Browns.”
WHAT? I couldn’t believe it. The Browns told me to knock off all this dawg pound nonsense, and then they go behind my back and trademark it? I was madder than a southern copperhead tangled in barbed wire. My immediate thought was to sue, but I didn’t have a case. Once it was trademarked, it was trademarked. The Browns didn’t do anything fraudulent, just sleazy.
As an avid hunter and fisherman, I have plenty of stories about how the big one got away. I habitually purchased lottery tickets at a beverage store after practice. There were the occasional two-dollar winners, but of course, most of the time, these lottery tickets would turn out to be worthless. My wife Hikia, a meticulous housekeeper, once tossed out a stack of lottery tickets she assumed were duds. That evening, I find out that a big-dollar lottery ticket had been sold at the beverage store where I bought those tickets. To this day, that prize has gone unclaimed. Another big one that got away.
Tens of millions of dollars have transacted in the name of The Dawgs or Top Dawg. Neither Frank nor I ever received one nickel in royalties. Hell, Paul Brown received royalties for every nearly useless single-bar facemask stamped out in the 1950s. Talk about another big one that got away. Not to mention the three AFC title games with the Broncos. The NFL took in licensing fees all around. Hallmark even put out a Christmas card depicting Santa lounging in a chair watching a Browns game with a dog in a “Browns Dawg Pound” sweatshirt.
When the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995, the Hawaii-Pacific Apparel Group in Honolulu successfully trademarked Top Dawg, the presumption being the Browns, who were now the Ravens, abandoned the trademark. When the expansion Browns set up shop in 1999, they tried to re-establish the trademark, but were turned down because Hawaii-Pacific now held the mark. A court battle lingered on for nearly a decade, with the Browns continuing to use the Top Dawg mark. It ended with a ruling by a U.S. District judge in New York in February 2008 that the Browns and NFL Properties were the rightful owners of the trademark. They might be the lawful owners of the trademark, but we all know who really brought everyone to the bank, only to be locked outside the front door.
In 1989, I put together a calendar featuring several of the Browns in very gentlemanly poses. I, of course, was in that calendar, but I had to refer myself as Dogg. Had I tried to refer to myself as the Top Dawg, I would have had to have paid the NFL $10,000 for the licensing fee.
Top Dawg had been outfoxed.
I put on my best white suit, with matching white shoes, and looked slick and sharp. I boarded a plane to Cleveland. Upon arrival at Hopkins Airport, the media were there with cameras and microphones at the ready. And there I was, in my all-white getup. I was the top dog in the house. We went over to the Middleburg Heights Holiday Inn, where the Cleveland Touchdown Club was hosting a reception. There I met Ozzie Newsome and Ricky Feacher, two other good ol’ southern boys like me. Ozzie had been called by Bear Bryant “the finest receiver in the history of Alabama.”
I walked into the room, and they began to point and laugh.
“What the hell is a southern country boy like you doing wearing that shit?” Ozzie laughed. Greg Pruitt and Ron Bolton also got in some jabs.
Their catcalls and mocking barbs didn’t register with me. I strolled around like the top dog I was. I was a first-round NFL Draft pick, and that entitled me to wear a white suit if I fucking felt like it. Besides, we were going to have some workouts over the next few days, and I’d prove myself there. I was going to play like a number-one pick. But still, I realized I was in the company of the best. While being cocky, yes, I still was grateful for the chance to play in the NFL. So at first, it was yes, Mr. Pruitt. Yes, Mr. Sipe. Yes, Mr. Newsome.
But minicamp showed me I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I was among nine draftees and 19 free agents who reported to camp May 3. Everyone reported on time except for Mike Robinson, who, ironically, lived in Cleveland.
We started with physical exams over at the Cleveland Clinic, where a couple of guys got rejected because of bad knees, and began two-a-day open workouts at George Finnie Stadium on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College, where the Browns’ headquarters were located. I was assigned number 40, a number chosen at random. I would have liked to have continued to wear 19, but league rules prohibited that number for a defensive back. Later, I got to choose my number, and that’s when I selected 29, figuring I’d keep the 9 and just change the first digit by one.
I was big shit for college ball, yes, but this was now the NFL. In college, each team had a few guys who were bigger and faster than the rest. But in the NFL, everyone was not just big and fast, but world class. I quickly realized that the transition from college to pro was exponentially more difficult than that from high school to college.
I’ve been asked if it’s harder nowadays for college players to make it into the NFL. It’s very hard, yes, but not necessarily harder. One has to prepare, prepare, prepare, both physically and mentally. That won’t ever change.
* * *
During minicamp, there had to be some drama and posturing for negotiating purposes. Two days into minicamp, both Mike Robinson and Ron Simmons walked out. I’m sure their agents told them to do so. And I can see their point. The free agents had to sign their contracts before participating. We draftees still were unsigned, participating in a non-required event. Had someone blown out a knee or suffered some freak injury, his value would tank. In fact, I bruised my knee during one of the sessions. Not a big deal, but I could see how it could have become one. But Ron and Mike came back later that day, clearly wanting to prove their worth.
I was among eight players who were asked to stay for the three-day veterans’ minicamp that followed ours. In that camp I had to cover Ricky Feacher, Reggie Rucker, Dave Logan, and Willis Adams. Damn, they were fast!
They all brought their special talents to the field. Logan was a big, tall dude who maybe wasn’t as fast as others but could always get open. He had the biggest hands I’d ever seen. He could have caught a watermelon catapulted 200 yards at him. Even though he was near the end of his career, Reggie still had great hands, ran great routes, and knew how to set you up, especially if you were a young guy. And Willis was just plain fast.
I took some lumps, getting beaten on some short and long routes. Just a couple of weeks prior, I had worked out for the New York Giants, and I pulled my hamstring pretty badly. It was better, but still I got turned around a few times and got beaten deep a couple of times in both the one-on-one and the seven-on-seven drills.
In this league, you have to have a short memory. You have to believe that you belong at this level or you’ll get run out in a hurry, especially in the position I played. If you make a mistake at defensive back, everybody sees it, and all too often, your opponent is prancing down the sideline with the ball. You have to be prepared mentally and physically seven days a week, as well as on every down. The guys on the other side of the ball are looking for your weaknesses. Opposing coaches pore over film for hours looking for your vulnerabilities and potential mismatches. If you have a weakness, they’ll find it. They all take it very seriously—as a business—because it is a business.
I made my fair share of errors in minicamp, but my speed allowed me to compensate and close whatever gaps the receivers could stretch out. Covering those guys allowed me to get a good feel for the different varieties, styles, and techniques receivers had at this level. It was a tough camp, but I thought that, all in all, I performed well, and that the coaches and staff saw I had the ability. Jed Hughes was the defensive backs coach, and he pointed out some of the things I had to learn.
Sheer athleticism goes a long way, but you have to have more than that, especially at defensive back. Technique takes you to the next level. Head position is a good example. If a receiver runs an out on me, I’m going to run the route with him, but I’m not going to look at the quarterback unless I’m close enough to touch the receiver. If all my attention is on him so that my head position focuses me on the receiver and I get close enough to touch him, then I look back at the quarterback. Often, I would be in perfect position to intercept the ball or at least knock it away. Now, if he tries to double-move me, I wouldn’t lose sight of him. Head position and hand position are critical. You always have to keep your body low. That allows you to move and shift without any false steps. When you’re going up against the fastest guys in the world and they know where they’re going and you don’t, you’ve got some serious problems if you don’t have top technique.
* * *
In early July I finally signed my first contract with the Browns. I got a series of three one-year deals, with an option for a fourth year. My first-year salary was $80,000. Nowadays, the rookie minimum is $390,000. I got a bonus check for $150,000—until Walter Payton got his damn hands on it (more about that later). My agent, Bud Holmes, who was also Walter’s agent, did a great job putting together the deal. It turned out to be better than I had expected. Bud got me a good mix of guarantees and incentives. I asked my mother if she needed anything, and she assured me, no, she was fine. I still bought her a new white Buick Park Avenue. I bought myself a white Jeep Cherokee and drove it with the top down from Hattiesburg to Cleveland. That was a rough ride.
My good friend Ozzie Newsome is now the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens. He told me that he just offered a rookie $4 million, and that rookie told Ozzie he was “insulted.” Hell, I wish I could have been insulted like that. Four million is an insult? Sheeit.
I rented an apartment in what was then known as Park Centre in downtown Cleveland. A year later, I bought a condo on the eighth floor of the Lake House on Edgewater Drive in Lakewood. I purchased the unit from a company called Professional Investments of America, whose president was Howard Ferguson, the coach who established wrestling dynasty at St. Edward High in Lakewood.
* * *
I was headed to the 36th training camp in Browns history. The original Browns, founded in 1946 by taxicab entrepreneur Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride, held their camp on the campus of Bowling Green State University. At that camp, history was quietly made when Bill Willis and Marion Motley were brought in for a tryout. These men not only made the team but went on to the Hall of Fame—while breaking the color barrier in football. Coach Paul Brown ran a tight ship—there was no smoking in the locker room or dining hall, ties and jackets to be worn in public, weekly tests, and an 11 p.m. curfew. And during the season, players were told not to have sex after Tuesdays. Now how that one could have been enforced, I have no idea.
In order to be a bit closer to Cleveland, camp was moved to Hiram, Ohio, on the hilly campus of Hiram College six years later. That brought more fan interest during the training season. Those were the golden years of training camp for the Browns, who had only two losing seasons during their 23-year stay there. The club was housed in a women’s dorm. Someone discovered a nudist camp nearby. Many players then skipped post-practice trips and headed to a bar in nearby Garrettsville to play some volleyball.
With the expansion of the roster, and because of the lack of air conditioning in the Hiram dorms and the need for more practice space, camp was moved to the campus of Kent State University in 1975. It was moved to Lakeland Community College in 1982 and eventually to the new Cleveland Browns’ year-round facility in Berea.
On July 17, 1981, I reported to training camp on the campus of Kent State University, about an hour’s drive southeast of Cleveland. We stayed at Beall Hall, where I roomed with Lawrence Johnson, the veteran cornerback whose starting position I openly coveted. I was one of 40 rookies and free agents, all of whom started camp a week before the veterans were to arrive. However, a handful of veterans showed up early because they had something to prove or they just wanted to make sure no rookies were getting any crazy ideas of taking their positions.
We ran through the standard 90-minute two-a-day practices in the often-scorching July sun. The first practice was at 8:45 a.m. The second one began at 3:30 p.m. One thing I noticed right away was the large turnout of fans for the workouts and practices, which were held at KSU’s Dix Stadium. During camp, the rookies were paid $300 per week; the veterans got $500 per week.
One of the things the rookies had to do was put on a show for the veterans. Some guys sang, danced, told jokes, or played an instrument. I gave singing a try but was booed off the stage.
The Browns started me out at left cornerback, which might have been more of a negotiating strategy with Ron Bolton. Ron was the starting left cornerback, and he got the Browns going in the Red Right 88 game by picking off a Jim Plunkett pass and speed skating 42 yards across the frozen stadium tundra for a touchdown for the game’s first score. But the Browns and Ron were in a rather intense negotiation on his contract, and by me working out at his position during rookie week, I’m sure the Browns were sending him a message, despite his admirable six interceptions in 1980 and 33 over his career.
In the rookie scrimmage against Buffalo the first weekend of camp I got some work in at left corner despite bruising my knee the day before. Nonetheless, Ron did report to camp, and I was switched over to the right corner position, where I was going to compete with Lawrence, a third-year pro out of Wisconsin, where he was a Big Ten sprint champion. The Browns picked him up in the second round of the 1979 draft. Lawrence and I were alike in many ways. We were both quick, aggressive, and had great closing speed. He was a little bit bigger than I was; I was a trifle faster than he was. Despite the fact that he was a veteran and I was a loud-mouthed, cocky rookie who wanted to take his job, Lawrence was very helpful and took the time to explain things to me. I learned a lot from him, not just from what he said but from watching his technique. He had an exceptional ability to turn tightly while running. I noticed how he never rounded off his turns while covering a receiver. He showed no ill effects from the fractured shoulder he had suffered in the season’s home opener the year before. Despite competing with each other, we got along exceptionally well, mainly because we both knew what we were there for—to win a Super Bowl. I made myself better pushing Lawrence for the starting spot, and he got better trying to keep me and my rookie ass in place.
In the scrimmage against Buffalo, played in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, in front of about 6,500 people, I played well. I made a couple of big hits and knocked down some passes. But, like I said earlier, you have to be ready on every down, and on one play, the Bills’ Larry Taylor got between me and Larry Friday to catch a 27-yard pass. Coach Sam gave passing grades to me and to Mike Robinson and Ron Simmons. Veteran cornerback Ron Bolton and safety Thom Darden gave me the nickname “Super Rook.”
* * *
The next week opened the exhibition season, which featured the Browns playing the Falcons in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. But in what would become a prophetic mishap, I pulled a groin muscle during practice that week and viewed the game from the sideline. But the following week was going to be the real test. The goddamn Steelers were coming to town. It may have only been an exhibition game, but I was determined to show those jokers just what a midget could do to them.
Nearly 80,000 people showed up at the old stadium for this game. While the Hall of Fame Game against the Falcons the week before was a de facto home game for us, only some 21,000 people filled Fawcett Stadium. They made a lot of noise, but shit, these 78,000 nutty fans were just crazy—and it was just a damn exhibition game. I noticed the difference inside the pre-Cambrian-era locker room, too. Even the veterans were snapping the chin straps a little tighter than you would expect for an exhibition game.
It was my baptism into one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports.
I blocked an extra point in the first quarter, but the goddamn Steelers got to kick it again because of a penalty. In the second quarter, I was given my chance. The goddamn Steelers still had their starting receivers in the game, so I got my first live game action against the likes of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (who was recovering from a foot injury).
For some reason, our pass rush was ineffective, and Cliff Stoudt, an Ohio boy (Oberlin High School and Youngstown State), made the most of it. But I hung with Swann and Stallworth fairly well—until I violated my own rule on technique. With about a minute and a half to go in the second quarter, Swann lined up on the right side, and I was opposite him at left corner. I had been instructed that if Swann lines up tight, he’s going to the outside. So when he took a step inside, I didn’t step inside with him. I looked at Stoudt before I could get a hand on Swann, so when I looked back for Swann, he was gone—with the football—for a 25-yard score. Damn, he was so fast. Then just as the first half ended, Stallworth beat me to the ball in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. Damn it again. In my first 93 seconds of professional football, I already had been beaten twice for touchdowns.
Then I remembered the very wise words of my mother: Put God first in your life, and everything else will come together. I reminded myself of that truth, and that I did indeed belong in this league at this place and time.
I got my head and act together in the third quarter, picking off Stoudt for my first interception. We lost, 35-31, but despite my getting beaten for those two scores, Coach Sam actually had some nice words for me in the morning paper.
“I was pleased with a lot of things Dixon did,” he told The Plain Dealer. A few days later, Sam hinted that I might actually challenge for a starting role. Even Ron Bolton, whom I replaced in the second quarter, said some nice things. He told The Plain Dealer, “He is a great athlete and has a lot of natural ability. I can see why he was a number-one pick. I also like Dixon’s style. He is aggressive and cocky, which all good defensive backs must be. He reminds me of myself.” Ron did wind up getting that new contract through 1984 that he had sought just before the regular season began.
We lost to Buffalo, 31-20, in an exhibition game. I did OK again but got beaten by Byron Franklin in a horrible fourth quarter.
* * *
Meanwhile, the main drama of camp didn’t involve me. It was the battle between Don Cockroft and Dave Jacobs for the kicking position. Drafted out of Adams State in Colorado in the third round in 1967, Don in 1968 replaced the legendary Lou Groza, who had been with the Browns since 1946. Don was one of the last straight-on place kickers in the league. Now 36, he wasn’t necessarily old for a kicker, but he was coming off knee surgery and a herniated disk, and had struggled in the past few years. He missed field goals of 47 and 30 yards and an extra point in the Red Right 88 debacle the previous January. Two days later, Don, whose field-goal percentage was tops in the NFL from 1968 to 1979, picked up the morning paper and found out that the Browns had signed Dave Jacobs.
Don’s kickoffs now rarely reached the goal line, often coming down around the 10 and being returned close to the 30. Coach Sam told reporters that Don needed “to get his act together.” But Don wasn’t ready to retire, and he was as determined as ever to retain his spot. He underwent surgery on his left knee January 22, correcting not only his knee but issues with his back and sciatic nerve. You have to admire his determination and character.
Don is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and a devout Christian. He even spoke at a Billy Graham crusade at the old stadium in 1972. You couldn’t help but root for him, but this is a business.
Neither Dave nor Don had impressive exhibition seasons, and in the last exhibition game against the Packers, the kickers missed three extra points between the two of them. Don missed two, and slowly walked off the field, and it was pretty obvious he was doing the slow walk to the gallows. You just knew those were his last steps. The next evening, Don was at the dinner table with his wife and kids. His wife offered up the dinner blessing and asked God to give Coach Sam great wisdom in making the difficult decision in front of him. Three minutes later, the phone rang, and Sam answered the prayer, but not in the way Don and his family had hoped.
Dave didn’t know he had won the job—becoming only the fourth kicker in Browns history—until reporters contacted him. But Dave turned out to be a flop. A huge flop. Although he was the all-time leading scorer for Syracuse University, had a black belt in tae kwon do, and had once kicked a 76-yard field goal in practice, he was cut by Denver, New England, and the Jets—twice. That should have provided some clues as to what was coming next. Don told Sam that Dave was a flaky kicker, and he turned out to be right. Against Houston at the Stadium in the second game of the regular season, Dave missed three field goals. Two of them were low-trajectory kicks that were blocked by 35-year-old Elvin Bethea, who said after the game, “Those were for Cockroft. Us old-timers have to stick together.”
Dave went on to go 4-for-12 before he and his ballerina-like size 7 shoe were given the boot. The Browns traded a ninth-round pick to San Francisco for Matt Bahr, who turned out to be a steal.
* * *
During cut-down, many guys were on edge. Nervous players would constantly review their mental depth charts, examining all possible scenarios. A couple of guys, sometimes assistant coaches, sometimes front office people, were know as “turks.” They delivered the bad news. You got a knock on the door, and one of the turks would say, “Coach wants to see you. And bring your playbook.”
Some guys just took it in stride, appreciative of having the opportunity to give pro football a try. Others just went freakin’ nuts. You could hear the yelling and screaming through the halls, with furniture crashing against the walls. Most of the guys who didn’t react well claimed they never got the chance to demonstrate what they had. They might have felt that way, but in this business, you need to produce big at the outset. No more time for development. This was the big show.
I never feared the turks. Even the sportswriters were saying that not only was I a shoo-in, but I would compete for the starting job.
I’m sure it must have been difficult for Sam to let the air out of so many men’s dreams. He did so frankly and honestly. Same thing for Marty when he was head coach. As a player, Marty himself got cut twice in his six-year career. I can’t imagine sitting across a desk and looking at someone like Curtis Weathers, Johnny Davis, Dick Ambrose, or Robert Jackson and telling them that they were through. But every few days, usually after breakfast, you’d find a group of long-faced, large men waiting silently among an array of suitcases at the entrance to Beall Hall for the van that must have looked more like a hearse, and that whisked them away to the airport. The club picked up the airfare.
Another grizzly veteran who got a visit from the turk was linebacker Charlie Hall. He had started 104 games at outside linebacker dating back to 1971. But with the 3-4 defense, we needed linebackers with speed, and Charlie had lost a bit, just as any 32-year-old would after 10 years in the league. Charlie was a tough as they come and a helluva great guy as well. Although I was just a rookie, I realized the value his character and leadership were to this team. It was sad to see him go. He was offered a deal by the Baltimore Colts but turned it down, returning to his ranch in Yoakum, Texas.
Meanwhile, Jerry Sherk was on the comeback trail. Jerry was a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle but was trying to overcome the effects of two knee operations.
In the early to mid-1970s Jerry teamed up with the great Walter Johnson, giving the Browns arguably the best defensive tackle tandem in the league. Both guys were big, strong, and quick as cats. One time, Jerry got knocked on his ass but bounced up and made the tackle 40 yards downfield.
Jerry was known for his contrasting performances in two Monday night games. The first one, against the Jets in 1970, the first Monday Night Football game ever, the Jets picked on Jerry. He took it on the chin from both Howard Cosell and the Jets—the former ranted about the slightest misstep and went so far as to blame Jerry for a play that ran the other way; the latter gave him eight stitches. But in 1979, in a Monday nighter against the Cowboys, Jerry had a helluva game, sacking Roger Staubach 3 times, and Cosell then recanted: “He’s one of the best in the league, and he has been for a decade.”
Jerry scraped open a boil on his elbow on the Astroturf in Philadelphia later that year, and a staph infection set in. It settled in his left knee. He could have lost his leg or even his life. He spent five weeks at the Cleveland Clinic battling the infection and the allergic reaction to the antibiotic he was given to treat it. But Jerry fought through it all. He lost 35 pounds through the ordeal but had put it back on and at age 33 was determined to play. And the Browns needed him. In the Kardiac Kids year of 1980, most of which Jerry missed, the Browns were last in the NFL in pass defense and 23rd overall.
Things didn’t look so good for Jerry a few months before camp, as his knee kept hurting and was swelling after workouts. But he then was treated for a sinus infection, and apparently the anti-inflammatory nature of the sinus medicine also relieved the inflammation and pain in his knee.
Jerry came to camp figuring he would give it nine days to see whether his knee could hold up. It did, and so did he. A week before minicamp back in May, Jerry was about to announce his retirement. He made the team but saw only limited action, mostly when we used four down linemen on passing situations. Jerry was quite the shutterbug—always taking pictures. Actually, he’s a pretty damn good photographer. And he’s also a damn good guy. After his retirement from football, he got an advanced degree in psychology and now works with at-risk kids.
Another preseason drama involved Thom Darden and Clinton Burrell. Thom unquestionably was the greatest safety the Browns ever had, collecting 45 interceptions over his career. He also was ranked fourth among the NFL’s hardest hitters by Sport magazine. He often was given license to freelance his coverages to wherever he saw the best chance to snare an errant pass. But at age 30, the former Sandusky High School and University of Michigan star was beginning to slow a bit, and this is a speed game.
The second week into camp, the coaching staff broke the news to Thom that they were going to give Clinton a shot at free safety. Clinton was fast and tough, and Sam figured he would be a better starter. That incensed Thom, who demanded that he either be the starter or be traded. The Browns did neither, but after the second week of the season, Clinton went down with a knee injury and Thom resumed his role as the leader of the secondary.
* * *
The regular season was now upon us. Two of The Plain Dealer’s three big writers, Russell Schneider and Hal Lebovitz, picked us to win the division. Chuck Heaton picked the Steelers. The Cleveland Press also picked us to win the division. A survey by the Pro Football Writers Association predicted the San Diego Chargers would win the AFC title, with the Browns second. And our first game of the year was against those Chargers, on Monday night.
The Chargers were led by quarterback Dan Fouts and their high-powered “Air Coryell” offense. Gib Shanley, the great radio play-by-play voice of the Browns from 1961 to 1984, summed it up by saying, “The last team with the ball will win.”
We were still sporting the “Kardiac Kids” moniker; however, we weren’t kids anymore. In fact, with an average age on our club at 26.7 years, only six teams in the league were older. By the end of the season, the “Kardiac Kids” name had pretty much faded away.
It was a beautiful September evening, and the whole hype and show of Monday Night Football was on display for my first regular-season game. Lawrence was the starter at right corner, but I looked forward to getting some licks in covering kickoffs. All the splendor and glory of the NFL and the extra splash that was Monday Night Football were now before me. Talk about a kid at Christmas!
The 79,000-plus fans roared with the opening kick, but by halftime, they were booing. Fouts had his way with our defense, in one stretch completing 15 consecutive passes, two short of the NFL record, and finished the night with 330 yards in the air. We were blasted, 44-14, as the Chargers racked up 535 yards. I watched Lawrence take on 13-year veteran Charlie Joiner throughout the game, and it was pretty tough to watch. Despite his speed and toughness, Lawrence got turned around and beaten several times.
Brian Sipe had a helluva game, but his 31 completions in 57 attempts—both club records—could muster only 14 points.
The next week, our defense improved considerably, holding Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell in check, but the offense took the day off as we lost to Houston, 9-3. Fans and media now worried openly about which direction the season was headed. Decisions and changes had to be made. It was now my time.
Lawrence’s knee was bothering him, so Marty Schottenheimer told me that I was going to get the start. It was pretty much kept quiet—the sportswriters didn’t know the decision had been made until I took the field as a starter for the first time on September 20, 1981, in Cincinnati. My moment had arrived. All that hard work was paying off. I was now going to be a starter in the NFL. I was determined that this was not a one-shot deal. I was going to be the permanent starter.
There was plenty of bad blood between us and the Bengals. They were coached by Forrest Gregg, who had quit the Browns in a very bitter separation in 1977 after realizing he was going to be fired. In December 1980, Thom absolutely laid out Bengals wide receiver/punter Pat McInally with a forearm shot to the neck, drawing a $1,000 fine. Tacked on the bulletin board in the Bengals’ locker room was a picture of Thom with a made-up quote penciled that read, “Give me another shot at the skinny, guitar-playing intellectual.” (McInally was a Harvard graduate). Also, linebacker Robert Jackson supposedly spat into Bengals running back Archie Griffin’s face several times. Word was that the Bengals had a contract out on Robert. We signed kick returner Cleotha Montgomery to replace the injured Dino Hall, and Cleotha wanted to break one against the team that had cut him three weeks earlier. He told us to be careful. Add to that the fact that several of our key guys were hurt, and the potential for a real donnybrook existed.
I couldn’t wait to get in there. I was going to take on McInally, Isaac Curtis, and rookie Cris Collinsworth. I was also going to have to chase the two great Ohio State backs—Griffin and Pete Johnson. Johnson was a big, tough, punishing runner. Secretly, I didn’t look forward to tangling with him. But as the game progressed and I got some good hits in, I realized I had nothing to fear.
It was a great first half for us as our offense maintained great ball control. We held the ball for half of the first quarter on our opening drive, and then another 13-play drive. Despite moving the ball well, we had to settle for two field goals. After Eddie Johnson made a touchdown-saving tackle on the kickoff after the second field goal, our O continued its dominance, going 80 yards in eight plays. Brian Sipe hit Reggie Rucker for a 49-yard pass and then found Ozzie Newsome for a 4-yard score.
Keeping the opposing offense off the field is indeed the best defense, and we just shut them down. The Bengals couldn’t pick up a single first down in the first quarter. They got it in gear a bit in the second quarter and were lined up for a field goal just before the half. But I swooped in and blocked it as the half expired.
Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson tried to pick on me in the second half, thinking that since I was a rookie I would be a weak link. We were up, 13-3, going into the fourth quarter. Collinsworth got loose for a 41-yard score on a play where I gambled and tried to jump the pattern but failed to come up with the ball. Then Mike Pruitt retaliated with a 12-yard TD run.
But the big play came late in the fourth as the Bengals were trying to make a comeback. Anderson let fly a deep throw for Isaac Curtis. I played him and the ball perfectly, and the pass fell incomplete. But sitting there on the carpet was a penalty flag. Interference? On me? It was a shitty call, but I guess that since my back was to the ball, the ref thought otherwise. I had to quickly get it out of my head and just play on. That gave the Bengals the ball at the 1, and three plays later, Johnson rammed it in to close it to 20-17.
With a bit over two minutes left and all three timeouts still unused, the Bengals decided to forego the onside kick. But our offense came through again and ran out the clock, with Brian hitting Reggie on a 13-yard pass and juggling catch that gave us a critical first down. Our offense controlled the ball that day for nearly 42 minutes. That made our job on defense quite a bit easier. We should have had two more touchdowns, too, as Ozzie committed a rare drop of a sure TD and Brian got called for an odd motion penalty.
It turns out that the anticipated retaliations against Robert and Thom never happened. In fact, before the game Thom and McInally met at midfield and shook hands. Robert did get in Griffin’s face a couple of times, but Griffin didn’t say anything much.
The next morning, Lebovitz wrote in his column that I “could be the defensive back the Browns long have been seeking.” No doubt, Hal. But not everyone was impressed. Schneider wrote in his column that “the killer instinct” was missing in the Browns.
But I was now the starter and would remain a starter for the rest of my career. The previous year’s number-one pick, Charles White, also secured his role as a starter, replacing Greg Pruitt, who would eventually be traded to Oakland.
* * *
The next week we cruised by the previously undefeated Falcons at home, and it appeared we were firing on all cylinders once again. Our defense was seventh in the AFC and our offense had climbed to third. But we went on to lose nine of our last 12, and finished in the basement of the AFC Central with a sucky 5-11 record. I finished the year with 47 tackles, 29 of them solo, and was fortunate to be named to the All-Rookie Team.
Although I was all of 170 pounds, I looked forward to taking shots at the big boys, like Pete Johnson and later Earl Campbell. By December of my rookie year, the Browns were mired in last place, but I looked forward to taking on Campbell when we went to Houston for a nationally televised Thursday night game on December 3.
“Damn. You haven’t seen Earl Campbell,” my teammates told me all week.
“Well, Earl Campbell hasn’t seen Hanford Dixon,” I responded with all due cockiness.
Early in the game, Campbell came around the left side on a sweep. I fixed my eyes on him and charged forward. He looked at me and took aim, and bam! I saw stars. It was just like running into that telephone pole while playing football with my friends back in Theodore. The first thing I thought to myself was, “Oh shit. I’m hurt.” But I wasn’t about to let Campbell, or any of the Oilers for that matter, see me hurt. It’s not just a pride thing. If the opposing coaches upstairs see that you’re hurt, they’ll run a go pattern past your sagging ass on the next play. So I jumped up, maintained my composure as best I could, jogged to the sideline, and sat my ass down. After a second or two, I realized something was wrong. I was sitting on the wrong bench, on the wrong sideline. I jumped up and trotted over to our sideline, much to the amusement of the veterans. We went on to lose that game, 17-13.
* * *
As a rookie I had my duties for the veterans. We rookies got them drinks, ran errands for them, carried bags, brought doughnuts, pretty much the same type of stuff pledges do at fraternities. We got our share of perks, too, one of which got me the wrath of Lyle Alzado.
Lyle was an unpredictable soul. Some days, he came to practice and was the nicest guy you’d ever met. Other times, he was just plain crazy nuts. You never knew which Lyle was going to show up each day. His use of steroids is well documented, and it may have been messing with his head.
Some of us were given tickets to a show at the Front Row Theater. I went to the show, and as I took my seat, I saw Lyle sitting a few rows back. I smiled and said hi, but instead of responding in kind, Lyle’s eyes began to bulge. He did a slow seethe, and at first I couldn’t figure out what I had said or done. I was getting worried because I knew that when Lyle exploded, there was nothing that could contain him. This was a guy who held his own in an exhibition boxing match with Muhammad Ali. Lyle’s eyes fixed on me. He slowly rose to his feet, and I heard him mutter, “How the hell . . . ?” Then I realized what was going on. Lyle was pissed to no end that I, a rookie, had a better seat than he did. I certainly knew better than to fuck with him, especially in a public theater. I just quietly turned around and sank my ass into my seat, which thankfully defused the situation.
But in November, I fell victim to the turkey trick. As a rookie, I had to run errands or pick things up for the veterans. So just before Thanksgiving, there was a notice on the bulletin board that anyone who wanted a free turnkey could sign up for one. Of course, most everyone’s name was on that list. So Mike Robinson and I were designated to go pick up all these turkeys at some turkey farm in central Ohio. Now remember, Mike was from Cleveland, and the old turkey trick made the news almost every year, but for some reason, Mike had never noticed it. So we jumped in my car and drove.
Now for those not familiar with the turkey trick, the thing is that it’s all just a gag. There are no turkeys to be picked up. The directions we were given were completely bogus, leading to some obscure place over nonexistent roads looking for a nonexistent turkey farm. After driving around like idiots for a couple of hours, we figured out that we had been had. But we decided we weren’t coming back empty-handed. We were going to have the last laugh. As we continued to drive around, we actually found a turkey farm. There were real live turkeys there. So we went up to the farmhouse and knocked.
“Hi,” I said. “We’re supposed to be out hunting turkeys today and have had no luck. But we don’t want to come back home without a turkey. Could we buy one of those turkeys out there?”
The gentleman looked at us like we were screwballs. First off, in rural central Ohio, which is Amish country, you don’t find very many black guys, especially those who claim to be turkey hunters while dressed in Adidas sweat suits and driving a white Jeep Cherokee. But hey, this was business, so the farmer agreed to sell us a live turkey.
We tossed that gobbling motherfucker in the back of my Cherokee and headed back to Berea. It took a couple hours to get back to Berea, and that damn turkey gobbled, clucked, and shit all over the back seat of my car. He wasn’t too happy to be making the trip. Feathers stuck to the back seat for weeks.
Upon returning to our facility at Baldwin-Wallace College, I grabbed that squawking bird and took him into the locker room, tossing that feathery fucker on the floor. He got up and began running around, certainly bewildered as to where he was and what the hell he was doing here. He was turning into a pretty mean butterball bastard. But eventually Bobby Glenn, who managed our equipment room, caught him, took him home, and ate him.
This, by the way, is how Joe “Turkey” Jones got his name. He fell for the trick—twice! He drove all over, trying to find the place to get the turkeys, and kept calling the veterans for clarification of the directions. They of course just messed with him even more, but he kept trying. Eventually one of the veterans told him it was all bullshit and to just go home. But Turkey Jones didn’t believe him and kept on trying to find those damn turkeys. Thus, he earned his feathers.
Joe was a helluva player—strong, quick, and a great pass rusher and pass blocker. Joe did two tours of duty with the Browns, from 1970 to 1973 and then again from 1975 to 1978. I didn’t get there until 1981, but from the stories I heard, it sounds like he was awfully easy to mess with. (I don’t know if there’s a statistic for most offside penalties, but Joe would likely be right up there.) Once he went to Morrie Kono, the longtime equipment manager, to get a shoelace, and Morrie asked him if he needed the right one or left one. Joe went back to his locker to check.
The weather randomly morphed from snow to sleet to rain. It was a balmy 34 degrees on this mid-December day. Brown water pooled on the mucky field. A perfect day for Browns football. Especially a Browns-Steelers game, with playoff implications on the line. I liked it when the weather was sloppy. It slowed down wide receivers and made it more difficult for them to makes their cuts and breaks. I could cover them tighter.
It already had been a difficult year. During the off-season, the Browns had traded away Lyle Alzado, Greg Pruitt, Robert L. Jackson, and Don Goode. Henry Sheppard walked out and subsequently retired. We won the season opener in Seattle, 21-7, and lost in the last minute to the Eagles in Week 2, 24-23. Then came the strike. It was painful, acrimonious and lasted 57 difficult days. We got back to work November 21 and beat the Patriots, 10-7, at the Stadium as Matt Bahr booted the winning field goal as time expired. But then we lost three in a row, and trouble was brewing all around.
Ricky Feacher called a players-only meeting early in the week.
The morning sports page was all abuzz about Paul McDonald’s first NFL start. Despite his 71 straight starts, Brian Sipe had been inconsistent in the strike-shortened, nine-game 1982 season, and Sam Rutigliano felt it was time to go to the bullpen. Brian told reporters after the win over New England, “I think I stunk.” Our offense could muster only 47 points since the strike ended. We had no touchdowns in the first half. It must have been very difficult for Brian to watch this game from the sideline. But Sam had made a calculated business decision, and Paul had earned his chance. Also in the sports page, and on the lips of NBC analyst Merlin Olsen, was an ominous foreshadowing—Sam, sporting a .500 record with the Browns, now in his seventh season as coach and already fifth in seniority among NFL coaches—had better start producing a winner or he “could be in trouble.” Plain Dealer columnist Bob Dolgan said that Sam’s charm and humor “are the same factors that keep him from the coaching pinnacle.” In essence, Sam just didn’t get mad enough. “You have to be obsessed,” Dolgan wrote.
What a pile of horsecrap. Blanton Collier was probably the most phlegmatic personality in the history of coaching, yet his record was tremendous. He was the absolute antithesis of high-strung tough guys such as Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, George Halas, and Forrest Gregg. He’s the last coach ever to lead the Browns to a world title. So to say Sam didn’t win enough because he didn’t get mad enough was just total shit. When the lockerroom doors were closed and the media out of the room, Sam could get plenty mad. He made your business his business. He knew everything about you. You couldn’t get away with anything under Sam.
We were 2-4 at this point, coming off those three straight losses to Dallas, San Diego, and Cincinnati, but were still very much in the playoff hunt due to the reconstituted 16-team playoff format adopted that year. And of all things, we were playing those goddamn Steelers. They were 4-2 and needed a win to clinch a playoff spot. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in two years. They were coming off their second shutout loss of the abbreviated season, a 13-0 loss to Buffalo the previous week, which to date was Terry Bradshaw’s worst performance of his career. The perfect scenario had been set.
Well over 72,000 tickets had been sold for the game, but only 67,000 (many making the 2 -hour trek from Pittsburgh) braved the elements and showed up. Local television was blacked out. This was one of those rare times a Browns-Steelers game hadn’t sold out. As usual, the Stadium was rocking. It always rocked for any AFC Central game, but it really rocked when the goddamn Steelers were in town.
Although I had nearly two seasons under my belt, I had yet to grab an interception. I came close a few times but still hadn’t pulled one down. As I looked out at the gray, cold December day, I felt something special. Evidently, the Steelers did, too. In the NBC broadcast booth, Merlin Olsen said that the goddamn Steelers felt that I was “a man they feel they could take advantage of.” I remember all too well how those goddamn Steelers passed on me in the draft because they thought I was too short. Payback and punishment were in order.
The Steelers, celebrating the 50th year of their franchise, featured future Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, “Iron Mike” Webster—monsters, all of them. Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood had just retired. And while we had had our woes winning in Pittsburgh, they had had their troubles over the years in Cleveland. Much was made over our inability to win at Three Rivers Stadium, but the Steelers didn’t win a game in Cleveland from 1964 to 1974.
Much has been said over the years about Franco Harris’s running style. The rap on him was that he supposedly would hit the line and then run for the sideline. I didn’t see any evidence of that. He was more of a finesse runner than a power runner, yes, and he knew what he had to do to prolong his great career. He didn’t shy away from contact when the situation arose. He might not have sought out contact like Earl Campbell, but Campbell will pay a dear price for the rest of his life. The poor guy had three vertebrae removed from his spine. He can hardly walk.
I charged down the field covering the opening kickoff and rammed my head on the ball, popping it loose from Fred Bohannon. The Steelers recovered it, but that was a thrilling start. We held the Steelers in check, and after they punted, Matt Bahr connected on a 44-yarder in the muck. Kicking a field goal that long in those conditions should have been worth four points.
Nonetheless, we had to take care of business. Bradshaw, who had more touchdown passes against the Browns than anyone in history, had the Steelers on the march in the first quarter, and floated a pass right over me into the hands of Jim Smith. Just missed again. I had the inside position of the pattern covered perfectly but just couldn’t locate the ball in time.
Three plays later, Bradshaw tried to hit Stallworth on the left side. He and Larry “Bobo” Braziel, aptly nicknamed for the professional wrestler, leapt for it jump-ball style, and Braziel won the tip, knocking the ball as high as Bo Derek’s cheekbones. It seemed as though I could have read the Sunday paper and prepared my taxes before that damn ball came down into my hands as I dragged both feet just inside the north sideline at our 8. I jumped in the air and yelled. I had my first NFL interception. Clarence Scott jumped on me. As did Bob Golic. So did Eddie Johnson. All those laps. All those damn back-and-forth drills in the asphyxiating Mississippi August air. All those weights. All those film sessions. All those hits. Finally, that fucking prolate spheroid was in my hands. My first interception. I ran to the sideline and gave the ball to our equipment manager, Bobby Glenn, to put it away for me. Being only a second-year player, it was quite an honor to get the reaction I did among the veterans. Interception number one was now in the books, but it would take two more years for me to get my first fumble recovery.
That ball and the other 25 interceptions I snagged during my career are in cases in my sister’s house. I would send them to her and to my parents. After my mother died, Debra collected all of them. One day, someone offered her $10,000 for the whole lot, and Debra said no deal. In fact, she won’t even let me have them! She certainly has been one of my top fans all along.
Our offense continued to do very little. Numerous passes were dropped, including some very well-thrown long balls by Paul, a southpaw. Paul hit Dan Fulton for a 50-yard gain, but a holding penalty brought that back. Mike Pruitt, our best mudder, went out with a thigh bruise, and Cleo Miller filled in, teaming up with Heisman Trophy winner Charles White in the backfield. In the second quarter, Bradshaw had them on the march again, and on third-and-goal from our 6, he fired one for Stallworth in the front corner of the end zone. I was covering Jim Smith a few yards up but saw the ball coming, spun around and reached for it—but it sailed just over my outstretched hand and into Stallworth’s awaiting breadbasket as I splashed facedown in the muck. Just missed another one, and those goddamn Steelers had a touchdown. Shit.
We got the ball on the kickoff, and Paul tried to hit Dan again on a long ball down the left side. But Mel Blount, the oldest man on the goddamn Steelers, read the play perfectly and came up with the 53rd interception of his great career, setting the all-time Steelers record. That gave the ball back to Bradshaw with just over a minute left in the half.
Then the goddamn Steelers got two big, cheesy penalties against us. Clinton Burrell was called for interference, then Chip Banks was called for roughing the passer. I protested loudly to the refs on both of those calls, to no avail. So we decided we’d have a surprise for the goddamn Steelers on the next play.
In the defensive huddle, the call came for me to come in on a corner blitz, known as the Rover Blitz. I assessed the situation as the Steelers broke the huddle and lined up. Smith was over me, and if he released, I would have a clean shot into the backfield. I cheated a bit to the inside, leading with my left foot, but was still careful to disguise my intentions. Clarence also came up and covered his man tightly. On the snap, I released Smith downfield. Bradshaw took six steps back and looked to his right. That meant Bradshaw was looking away from me, and there was no one in the way to stop me even if Bradshaw had faded back to Ashtabula. Those back shoulders were open and square, and my eyes grew as wide as those of a tomcat seeing a female alley cat turn around and lift her tail. Unimpeded, I accelerated over eight steps and drilled my facemask right between his shoulder blades. Bradshaw crumpled to the ground in a bald-headed mud pile, and the ball fluttered away. Elvis Franks jumped on it and tried to get up for what probably would have been an easy score, but he couldn’t get any traction. Still, I got the sack (one of only two in my nine-year career) and forced the fumble, and the goddamn Steelers’ attempt to mount another scoring drive had been thwarted. What a great call by Marty.
That was certainly a great hit, but by today’s rules I would have been penalized. We used to be taught to explode through the ball carrier’s body with your headgear, but nowadays that’s considered spearing.
The turning point of the game came about two-thirds through the third quarter. A Steve Cox punt splattered dead in the mud at the goddamn Steelers’ 6, and we held them to a three-and-out. John Goodson, one of these screwy barefooted kickers (remember, it was raining and 34 degrees) then shanked a punt out of bounds for 16 yards. McDonald then hit Ozzie on a 22-yard play down the left sideline, beating Donnie Shell. Now it was time for Johnny “B-1 Bomber” Davis to do his thing. The Browns had signed him just two weeks before. Twice, he charged headfirst into what was left of the now rusty Steel Curtain, tightly clutching the ball with his powerful but sleek piano-playing hands (He was a great piano player, despite never having a lesson). The second time, he slipped through for a 1-yard touchdown.
We now led, 10-7, and it was going to be another Kardiac-style fourth quarter. Old pro Clarence Scott, whom I called “The Glue” because he always kept things together, got things started off right by pilfering Bradshaw on the first play. We failed to capitalize, and Bradshaw tried another pass across the middle. I saw the play develop, reacted to it, broke to the middle, and the ball hit me square in the hands. Interception number two. Or so I thought. The soggy ball slipped through my hands and feebly fell into the muck. Damn.
With just over five minutes remaining, the goddamn Steelers got the ball again. Big runs by Harris and Frank Pollard, along with a catch by Smith when I slipped in the mud, put the goddamn Steelers on our 39. But Smith barely missed a pass from Bradshaw, and the goddamn Steelers were looking at fourth-and-4 with just over a minute to go. That would have been a 56-yard field goal attempt for Gary Anderson, but with the field being an acre of mashed-up, green-and-brown pig slop, that would have been a herculean feat. So the goddamn Steelers went for it. Bradshaw gunned a pass on the right side for Swann, who had not caught a pass all day. I saw it coming, but Bradshaw didn’t see me. I dove in front of Swann and snagged the ball. Interception number two, and this time, I held on to it. I hit the ground and bounced up. Some of my teammates, and I for that matter, didn’t know if I had been touched down or if the play was still on. Chip Banks reached over to give me a congratulatory swat on the helmet, and I ran around in a circle before being knocked down by a very pissed off Mike Webster. I ran to the sideline and gave the ball to Bobby to stash it away with the other trophy.
We ran the clock down as far as we could but wound up with a fourth down on our 11 with 13 seconds to go. Cox took the punt snap and ran around as much as he could before stepping over the end line for an intentional safety. A fair catch on the ensuing free kick gave the goddamn Steelers one more shot. Everyone remembers the “Immaculate Reception” playoff game between these goddamn Steelers and the Raiders 10 years before, when Harris picked a batted pass off his shoe top and ran it in on a fourth-down desperation play. There’s even a fucking bronze statue in the Pittsburgh airport of Harris catching that ball. But history was not going to repeat itself today. Bradshaw tried to hit Smith over the right side, but I was there again. Unlike the great Jack Tatum, who knocked the ball away and into Harris’s hands on that infamous play, I grabbed interception number three to complete the hat trick, and the game was over.
Someone forgot to remind those goddamn Steelers that I was too goddamn short to play for them. Three interceptions, a sack and two forced fumbles. Put up a gold statue of that in your stupid airport, you motherfuckers.
Paul had outperformed the Hall of Fame-bound Bradshaw, hitting on 19 of 40 passes for 227 yards and just one interception. Not bad, considering the weather and field conditions. His numbers could have been substantially better had several soggy passes not been dropped. After the game, Sam affirmed Paul’s status as the starter for next week’s game against Houston. However, next season, Brian came to camp and won the starting job back. Rookies Dwight Walker (whose career was most unfortunately cut short by an auto wreck), and Mike Whitwell made some big plays at crucial points during the game. Bob Golic had replaced Henry Bradley at nose tackle two weeks earlier and came up with some big defensive stops for us as well. Game balls were given to the four defensive coaches.
Bradshaw told the media, “This was about my most frustrating loss ever.” We had contained the great Franco Harris, who already had established an NFL record for rushing attempts and was chasing Jim Brown’s NFL rushing record of 12,312 yards. Harris, whose two longest touchdown runs of his career (75 and 71 yards) came against the Browns, did have a tendency to hit the hole and angle to the sidelines, a technique that irritated Jim. Brown jokingly talked about coming out of retirement at age 47 to reset his record if Harris had broken it. Jim was never serious about it, but the media played it up as if he would really try it. Even Art said Jim would be welcome to come to camp and try to make the team legitimately. But it was all a ruse. Jim never intended to play another down. Harris retired after 13 seasons with 12,120 yards, 192 shy of Jim’s record, set in nine 14-game seasons.
As we sat around in the locker room and peeled off our mud-soaked uniforms, Sam walked behind me and gave me a whack on the back of the head.
“It’s about time you did something right,” he quipped.
We went to Houston the following week, knowing we’d have to face Earl Campbell and company the day after Christmas. Tackling Earl is like tackling a runaway truck. But we stuffed him like a Christmas goose with our special brand of holiday cheer, holding the “Tyler Rose” to 43 yards, and even caused him to fumble twice—once near our goal line and once by their goal line late in the game. Clinton Burrell recovered both fumbles and we beat the Oilers, 20-14. But the following week, we lost to those goddamn Steelers in Pittsburgh on the final weekend of the regular season. We finished with a 4-5 record, but thanks to a New England victory over Buffalo and the conference record tiebreaker, we, along with Detroit, became the first teams with losing records to make the playoffs.
Things didn’t work out well for us in the playoffs, as we had to go up against the top-seeded L.A. Raiders. On the plane ride to Los Angeles, there was a lot of commotion in the front of the plane, and someone was lying down in the aisle. I heard Sam say, “Oh no, it’s Art.” Art had had some sort of cardiac episode. When the plane landed about 30 minutes later, Art was taken by ambulance to a hospital. Sam went with him. Art pulled through, but he needed a cardiac catheterization, which he had kept putting off.
We lost the playoff game, 27-10. It was close in the first half, but the Raiders pulled away later. The Raiders then lost to the Dolphins, who then lost to the Redskins in the Super Bowl.
During my career we were 11-7 against the goddamn Steelers. There was just something about these games with the goddamn Steelers that brought out my best. In 1984 I would pick off two in a game at Three Rivers. Not bad for a midget.
Excerpted from the book Day of the Dawg, copyright © Hanford Dixon and Randy Nyerges. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Hanford Dixon and Randy Nyerges
Popular and outspoken NFL cornerback Hanford Dixon offers an inside look at the turbulent, exciting, and frustrating Cleveland Browns seasons of the 1980s. A three-time Pro Bowler and co-inventor of the Dawg Pound, Dixon recalls both the roller . . . [ Read More ]
Hanford Dixon played his entire NFL career (1981–1989) for the Cleveland Browns after being the 22nd pick in the first round of the 1981 NFL Draft. He was selected for the Pro Bowl three times, in 198 . . . [ Read More ]
Randy Nyerges is a freelance writer and musician. At age 22 he received his first of several appointments to the staff of the United States Senate, where he wrote speeches and other material for dozen . . . [ Read More ]