Stephen Crane wrote of a creature in the desert, “naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Similarly, tonight I am watching the January 4, 1981 Divisional playoff game between the Cleveland Browns and the Oakland Raiders.
In that first year of my discovery of sports as an escape from everything—humiliating bullies at school, D’s in math, an alcoholic mother at the dinner table, tension everywhere—the hometown Browns were the focal point of hope itself to my sixth-grade self.
In the very same year that I had miraculously discovered them, the Browns had miraculously won enough games to win their division and make the playoffs for the first time in eight years—so frequently in dramatic last-minute fashion that they were called “The Kardiac Kids.” Now, they had a real chance to play in a game so exciting it had a cartoon name: The Super Bowl!
The Browns were playing the Oakland Raiders, a motley crew of aging rejects, that hadn’t made the playoffs the year before. Their quarterback was a washed-up, slow-footed slug aptly named Jim Plunkett.
And the Browns were playing at home, on a frozen field in frigid, windy conditions that Clevelanders, not Californians, were used to. It looked like the grimness, grayness and desperation of this rust-belt town could be, for once, to our advantage. And the fans, equally juiced with adrenaline and Wild Turkey, would be roaring, 80,000 strong.
I’ve never seen the first half of this game, because our family happened to be driving home from a New Year’s visit to a relative in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We weren’t a sports family, we’d never arrange travel around a televised ball game, no matter how “important.”
So I listened to the first half, and much of the second, on the radio in the family van, and saw only the last quarter at home.
For almost 42 years, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch any part of this game again until tonight. And tonight, only with whiskey and beer. The word “trauma” comes to mind.
I’m watching the pregame and love listening to the names, which sound to me even now, like cartoon characters. Lyle Alzado! Reggie Rucker! Doug Dieken! Joe DeLamielleur! Dave Logan! Elvis Franks! Brian Sipe! Mike and Greg Pruitt, both running backs, not related! Dino Hall! Ozzy Newsome! Dick Ambrose!
And of course there’s Sam Rutigliano, the genial head coach who seemed more like my writer dad than like a football goon. (He sounded like a writer, too. He once said of Raiders’ owner Al Davis, “Al Davis is the kind of guy who would steal your eyes and then try to convince you that you looked better without them.”)
At game time, it is four below zero, with a 36-below-zero wind-chill factor. Announcers Bob Criqui and John Brodie call on sideline reporter Mike Adamle, who says from the frozen field, “Cleveland’s Kardiac Kids seemed to be this year’s destiny’s children …. The Raiders, on the other hand—it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Yes, they’re in the playoffs, but they’ve traded quality players for future draft choices.”
Criqui invokes “The Ice Bowl,” the legendary 1967 game between the Packers and the Cowboys, played on Green Bay’s “frozen tundra.” Wow, our little old orange-panted boys are playing on the shoulders of giants!
The Raiders get the ball first. The Browns get it, and punt it back. God, these teams might as well be playing on frozen Lake Erie itself. How is either team going to do anything at all on this icy tarmac, in this icy wind?
Plunkett throws a long interception. The Browns achieve one hard-fought first down, and punt again. The Raiders punt again. Sipe throws an interception to Raiders’ cornerback Lester Hayes, who’s captured on the sideline looking like his Black face is icing up, white. This is less a football game than the Shackleton expedition. And the Raiders punt again. And the Browns punt again. And the Raiders punt again.
Finally, the Browns make a first down, a 20-yard pass from Sipe to Reggie Rucker. A nine-yard pass to Ozzie Newsome, and a first down by Mike Pruitt. The first quarter’s over, and we go to a commercial for a K-car, one of which I would one day drive my first date to the Homecoming dance.
To open the second quarter, the old-fashioned straight-on kicker Don Cockroft misses a field goal badly. (That is foreshadowing.) After a commercial for the TV show “BJ and the Bear,” the Raiders take over again, and promptly achieve their first first down. But on the next play, the Browns recover a Plunkett fumble and take over on the Raiders’ 23 yard line! Sipe runs for a first down, to the 13. After a short run and two incomplete passes, Cockroft comes in again. And misses, from 28 yards. (More foreshadowing.)
Frank Sinatra, for Chrysler (and other American car makers then being dominated on quality and price by Japanese companies): “America’s not going to be pushed around anymore.” (The ad is for the not-quite swinging brand, “Omni Miser.”) Next, there’s a spot for aluminum. My dad was in advertising at the time, and wrote commercials for Firestone tires. The advertising during football games of that era was all directed at men, who were apparently desperate to save a few pennies on gas by using Pennzoil motor oil, trying get a decent shave … and most importantly, based on the relative preponderance and theme of beer commercials, make it through a difficult, dangerous, dull day’s work—to Miller Time. All that communicated something not too optimistic to a boy, about becoming a man.
The Raiders punt again. The Browns take over but nobody can catch even Sipe’s soft tosses. John Brodie seems annoyed that the game is being played at all in these conditions, sneering, “You can’t prepare yourself to catch a brick, okay?” And after a short drive, the Browns punt again. The Raiders take over, and on second down, Plunkett throws—and Browns’ cornerback Ron Bolton intercepts and scores a touchdown, calling to mind another commercial I’ve seen tonight: “Looks like a Stroh Light night, when good times come along!”
Alas, Cockroft misses the extra point, and the foreshadow lengthens.
“Thanks to you, it works for all of us. The United Way.” (And back then, I really thought it did.)
Now the Raiders are driving, and with about a minute left, they are down to the Browns’ two-yard line. On third down they score a touchdown, make the extra point and go to halftime leading the Browns 7-6.
The Browns come out after halftime and get in position for a short field goal, which Don Cockroft manages to guide through the uprights in this, the less windy closed end of the stadium. Not the end of the stadium where the Browns will finish the game. The foreshadow knows.
But for now, the Browns lead 9-7 and I can feel my inner child hoping this ends differently than he and I both remember. The Browns shut down the Raiders, who punt again. Sipe completes a long pass to Greg Pruitt and another to Dave Logan, and the Browns are down to the Raiders’ 25 yard line. But after a third botched field goal attempt, and the Raiders take over. They punt again—to Dino Hall, who makes a long return, into Raider territory.
Sipe hits Logan, down to the 23 yard line! Pass interference, Browns are down to the Raiders’ 10. “This is a big drive as far as Cleveland is concerned,” Brodie says. “They’ve had the best of it throughout the ballgame … if they don’t score [a touchdown] here, they’ve still kept Oakland within a touchdown, and momentum has a way of shifting throughout the afternoon. They’ve got the wind at their backs right now. They’ve got to capitalize.” That’s not foreshadowing, it’s prescience. And the Browns settle for a short field goal, to extend their lead to only 12-7.
The Raiders and Browns exchange punts. I reckon this is right about the time that I burst out of the van and into the house, sprinted upstairs and snapped on the only color TV in the house, in my parents’ yellow shag-carpeted bedroom.
Now it’s the fourth quarter. The Raiders have the ball, and the wind, and they’re driving. To their own 40. To the Browns’ 42. To the Browns’ 16. To the Browns’ three. And the Raiders score and kick the extra point, to take the lead, 14-12.
The Browns and Raiders exchange punts. Sipe fumbles in Browns’ territory and the Raiders are on the Browns’ 25 with a little over four minutes to play. The Browns make a heroic fourth-down stop and take over the ball at their own 14-yard line, with 2:22 left to play and only needing a field goal to win. Those italics are foreshadowing.
Sipe throws an incompletion on first down. On second down, he slips on the ice but flings a pass to Ozzy Newsome to the Browns’ 43-yard line. Two-minute warning. On first down, an incompletion. Then a broken play, and now it’s third down and nine. Another incompletion, but a penalty against the Raiders—first down Browns at their own 49 yard line. 1:19 left. Then Sipe hits Greg Pruitt at the Raiders’ 28!
Incomplete pass, 1:06 left. Brodie: “Two points down. Field goal is not a certainty … you can recall [they] missed an extra point, they missed two field goals from close range the exact same way they’re going now. If they have a chance, they’re going to try and get in the end zone.” That’s not prescience, it’s play-by-play, in advance.
Mike Pruitt gallops down to the 14. The Browns call timeout with 56 seconds left, and the announcers debate the merits of going for a touchdown versus trying a field goal. On the sideline, Don Cockroft is still in his orange cloak. Why wouldn’t he at least be warming up?
A short run up the middle. Another timeout.
Sipe drops back to pass. He throws into the end zone. For a moment it looks like Ozzy Newsome will catch it. But the Raiders intercept it. And that’s it. That’s it. It’s like watching Luke Skywalker die.
A child takes in every experience as a sign of his or her fate, because there’s no other information available. And the more profound the experience, the more heartfelt the sign. And this loss, at this moment of growing up awkwardly in a country on its ass, in a city on its ass, in a family on its ass—this was a pretty profound experience—and as I sat on the stairs crying on that last Sunday afternoon of Christmas break, I think I thought something almost exactly as directly as:
I must be a loser.
And it wouldn’t be a one-off, in sports or in life.
In sports: I would become a fan of the Chicago Cubs, who lost a 1984 playoff game just as bitterly. (When the ball rolled between the first-baseman’s legs, I tried to pull that shag carpeting up like grass, until my fingers bled.) The Browns lost two more playoff games over the next few years, just as bitterly. And I was at the game when the Cleveland Cavaliers lost a playoff game in 1989, just as bitterly.
I must be a loser.
In life: I continued to fail in school, I spent most of my junior high school year in drug treatment, my mother went into a mental health facility and my parents were divorced.
Luckily, life eventually provided some more information: I found I did have some talent, I was a much better worker than a student, I fell in love, and I was able to make friends in a life that did not turn out to be a struggle to save pennies on gasoline by using Pennzoil motor oil.
But hurts linger, and repeat. And so it wasn’t until 2016, in my adopted hometown of Chicago—where I moved after college, chiefly based on my stubborn loser-love for the lovable-loser Cubs—when I realized that a team I rooted for could really, actually possibly … win. Win! Which meant that maybe I could win in the end, too. Maybe! Even at 47, I felt that—for the very first time.
I don’t have a picture of myself at that moment—only a picture of my 12-year-old daughter looking at me as she and I stood out on Western Avenue waving at the honking cars—as I repeated over and over again, “We won!”
And laughed, in tears of disbelief.