Friday, June 3, 2011

Witnessing a Miracle

Cleveland wide receivers Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne celebrate after Slaughter caught a touchdown pass from Don Strock in the fourth quarter to defeat the Houston Oilers. The Browns' 28-23 victory earned them a playoff berth. December 18th, 1988. -- Plain Dealer photo
Witnessing a miracle
By Aaron M. Smith

The sharp frigid air cut at my face like a razor blade, but I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face. I had every reason to be uncomfortable in the bitter December air on the banks of Erie, but there was nowhere else on the planet where I'd rather be. I had seen this place on television many times and I had pictures of this cathedral on my bedroom wall. But there is something magical about walking into a stadium for the first time. The memories of my first time in Cleveland Municipal Stadium will never leave the recesses of my mind.

My brother Jeremy and I grew up watching football and we eventually clung to the Cleveland Browns even though my dad was a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. Maybe we wanted to be different or maybe it was that awkward, side-arm slinging quarterback Bernie Kosar that captured our hearts. Kosar was a Byzantine Catholic. I was a Byzantine Catholic and until I found out about Kosar, the only Byzantine Catholics I knew were priests, gray-haired ladies that smelled like pierogies, and, of course, my own family. 

NFL players were mythical beings. They were athletes and celebrities trying to sell me Pepsi or aftershave on television. They were behemoths, running in slow motion while a baritone-voiced narrator spoke of magical places like The Frozen Tundra and Soldier Field. To me, football players were Vikings and Giants and Raiders. 

Now, one of them was a Byzantine Catholic. Like me.

Jeremy and I got the gift of a lifetime in December of 1988. Some friends from church informed us that they had two extra tickets to the Browns’ final game of the regular season – an AFC Central battle between the Browns and the hated Houston Oilers, coached by Jerry Glanville. We hated the Oilers as much as we loved the Browns. To make it even better, the Browns needed to pull out a victory at home to qualify to the playoffs. If they lost, the season was over.

That morning – Dec. 18, 1988 – I couldn’t sit still. Jeremy couldn’t stop talking about Kosar, upstart receiver Reggie Langhorn, legendary tight end Ozzie Newsome and the list went on. Unfortunately, Kosar had been injured the week before in a Monday-night loss to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins.

Kosar’s replacement was none other than Don Strock.

Don Strock?!

Who the hell was Don Strock, and why was he going to ruin our first Browns game together by starting in place of Kosar, our hero?  No worry though, we could still watch the relentless linebacker Clay Matthews, flashy receiver Webster Slaughter and reliable sure-handed Earnest Byner. It would certainly be a day to remember.

The late December afternoon in Cleveland was gray and cold. The game-time temperature was 22 degrees but the wind-chill factor was three below. The snow from the night before was plowed off of the green mud, and it formed mini white-capped mountains on the sidelines and in the stairwells of the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

In other words, it was perfect for football.

We had seats near the 30 yard-line in the lower level. They couldn’t have been better. We were in perfect position to chuck icy snowballs at Warren Moon, Alonzo Highsmith and Curtis Duncan.

The game began with the Oilers taking early control. Don Strock annoyed us and the 80,000-plus fans by throwing an interception on the Browns’ first drive of the game. In fact, Strock threw three first-quarter interceptions as the Browns quickly found themselves down 16-7.

To make matters worse, the one touchdown the Browns scored in the first half, I missed because I had to use the bathroom. Jeremy has yet to let me live that down. I heard it was  great play and, upon seeing the replay, it certainly was.

Warren Moon dropped back to pass and was immediately pummeled by Browns linebacker David Grayson. The ball squirted loose and Michael Dean Perry scooped up the pigskin and rumbled into the end zone 15 yards away. The thrilling play occurred at the end of the field where we were sitting, and Jeremy got a great view of the celebration. I had a great view of a Municipal Stadium urinal.

At the end of the first half, Strock was showing signs of life, leading the Browns on a drive deep into Houston territory. However, Strock fumbled and an Oiler recovered the ball. Cleveland stumbled into halftime.

Nowadays, Jeremy isn’t what you would call an extreme optimist. But in 1988, he had no worries. 

“They’re coming back,” he said, mostly trying to convince himself that he would have fun at this game.

I was upset because the Browns looked horrible and their only touchdown happened without me to watch and enjoy. The game was awful. I was cold. I was hungry. But Jeremy somehow thought the game would take a turn for the better.

He was wrong.

On their first drive of the third quarter, the Oilers scored a touchdown that capped a convincing march down the frozen gridiron. The score was 23-7 and the Browns’ season seemed to be doomed.

Then it began to snow.

And snow, and snow and snow.

It was beautiful. The crowd, which had been taken out of the game, somehow drew strength from each tiny snowflake. The brownish-gray green mess the teams had been playing on quickly turned to a wonderful brownish-white. And then simply to white.

As the fans were resuscitated, so were the Browns.

Something had gotten into Don Strock, and he began completing pass after pass. Earnest Byner and Herman Fontenot got the ground-game working and things started to click for Cleveland.

The Browns drove the length of the field on their first possession of the second half, answering Houston’s score. Strock dropped back to pass from the 5 yard-line and found Byner wide open for Cleveland’s first offensive touchdown of the game. And I actually got to see it! Jeremy and I were high-fiving each other. We were hugging shirtless men who were smoking cigars and holding cups of frozen beer. Suddenly the Browns were back into the ballgame – 23-14. The stadium known as Pandemonium Palace began to live up to its billing.

Cleveland’s defense was inspired and thwarted the Oilers as the snow kept falling. The crowd began to sing “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” celebrating what they deemed the inevitable: a Cleveland comeback.

Strock again was nearly perfect. How could someone who was so out of sync in the first half look so flawless in the second? It was unbelievable. It was wonderful.

Again Cleveland methodically marched through the snow and Byner plowed in from 4 yards out to bring the Browns to within 23-21 early in the fourth quarter. The stadium was rocking. I was nearly in tears with a new level of excitement I never knew existed. It was incredible. Jeremy and I were in heaven and Don Strock unfathomably was God.

The Browns defense halted the Oilers again, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. We knew that when the Browns got the ball again, they would score the go-ahead touchdown. You could forget about a field-goal attempt in that snow. It would be nearly impossible.

Strock, waving his arms to silence the raucous crowd, picked apart the same Houston defense that made a fool of him in the first half. A pass to Slaughter. A dump-off to Fontenot. A slant to Langhorn. Strock was rolling.

On a critical fourth-down play inside Houston territory, Strock found a streaking Langhorn who somehow hung onto the ball after taking a forceful blow to the head. He limped off the field, but his stunning catch kept the Browns’ season alive.

From the Houston 22 yard-line with six minutes on the clock, Strock dropped back to pass, he looked to his right to pull the safety away from the middle of the field and then fired a strike to Slaughter, who ran a post on the left side. He caught the ball under a driving snowstorm and spiked the ball near the Dawg Pound.

Jeremy and I hugged. We slapped hands. We talked about how amazing that was. I was choked up. I didn’t know what to think. Was I really in heaven?

The Browns held on for the improbable win and earned a berth in the playoffs. But I wasn't thinking about that then. I wasn't thinking about much of anything. The incredible atmosphere swallowed me whole. The glow of the flakes in the lights of the old stadium lit up the dark December sky. The roar of the crowd filled my body and warmed my heart. 

In complete contrast to the raucous party taking place in the bleachers and in the streets of Cleveland, the star of the game limped quietly out of the stadium with only his daughter to keep him company. "Good game, Daddy," she said as they walked alone.

No, Mr. Strock. It was the most scintillating, emotional, gritty game you've ever played. And I am proud to have been a witness to the miracle at Municipal Stadium.


  1. True story, I was there with family and friends. Brian

  2. True story, I was there with family and friends. Brian