The city of Cleveland was supposed to be the star of ESPN’s 30-for-30 “Believeland.” Earnest Byner was supposed to be one of the goats. By the end of the film, Byner had become the hero because he had given us a window almost no athlete ever does.
The Browns running back had a fantastic 14-year NFL career. He was one of the best receiving backs of his generation. He rushed for a thousand yards three times (and came up two yards short in ’92). He made the Pro Bowl twice and was one of the most important offensive pieces on three teams that made the conference title game.
But “The Fumble” was so glaring, so devastating, so nightmarish, it was reduced to a nickname, and so was Byner’s career. After decades of holding in the shame of coughing up the ball on the goal line of the ’87 AFC Championship Game he got teary-eyed talking about it in the film. He apologized to the city. And it resonated not only in Cleveland, but everywhere. His emotional apology was the most talked-about moment in the film. His scenes were spread across social media and the internet.
It’s not just that we are captivated by crying in sports. It was more. Byner showed us three dynamics that athletes almost always shield from public view. Ownership of mistakes, true vulnerability, and shared pain with fans. Byner’s humanity became a flashpoint for the city’s tortured bond, and fans have reached out to him to commiserate, to thank him, to embrace him.
He joined me Thursday on the show to discuss the recent response of fans, and the outpouring of emotion he’s received since the film debuted. It was one of the most honest, raw, and emotional interviews I’ve ever been a part of.
“After the fumble,” he says, “I was never as free. I played good ball, I played at a high level, I still enjoyed the game. But I was never as free again.”
Byner ended up winning a Super Bowl with Washington four years later, and I asked him if that exorcised some of his ghosts. Nope. It was actually redemption in the game before that. “Going to the (’91 NFC Championship) game, I’m riding, my wife is sitting next to me, we’re quiet and I’m crying – because this is so important to me. It felt like it was so important for me to get past this hump. I’m actually crying while I’m running the ball. It was really quite remarkable to go through that process.”
Byner is willing to go places other athletes haven’t. After losses, we hear athletes give us stock answers after obvious mistakes. “I need to be better than that,” “Unfortunately, I just didn’t make the play,” or “I have to be better next time.” But those are usually just easy ways to move onto the next question, to fill the requisite air space until the end of the media obligation. We demand athletes look like they’re taking responsibility or risk being skewered. But are they?
Byner truly owned it, in some ways too much. He carried the shame of letting everyone down with one mistake despite being the only reason the Browns were even at the goal line to tie the game to begin with. Without his nearly 200 combined yards on offense, two touchdowns, and heroic second-half performance when the Broncos simply could not cover him, Cleveland would’ve been blown out.
He also gave a window into the psyche of a damaged player we almost never see. There is a public face athletes give us in times of hardship. There’s the dour face, the frown, the furred brow. But there’s rarely tears in the eyes, choking up over a loss, because these are supposed to be our biggest and strongest and most macho men. Losses hurt, but only so much. And you deal with the pain with a steely-eyed resolve for the next battle. Byner gave us the most human of reactions to heartbreak: tears.
“Any mistake that I had made before then,” he told me, “I felt like I was able to atone for, but I wasn’t able to atone for the fumble. It was the end of the game, it was the end of the season, and all of the emotion that was coming at me – the letters that I had received, the constant reminders – it just weighed heavy on me. I just never could really get past that in that regard.”
And Byner delivered something which is damn near impossible to find in an age of vicious, overwhelming public criticism and social media. He felt as badly as the fans did. The din of the crowd is too loud now. An athlete can’t help but put up some type of fence around them. Fans are crawling into your personal space via Twitter and talk radio and Instagram comments. They yell at you at the arena, on the streets, take iPhone videos of you at the club. When you fail, you hear it more than ever. And athletes have built mechanisms to deal with that. But Byner opened up to let the fans in.
“It affected the way I played the game after that,” Byner told me. “But it affected the way I lived as well. I was never as free. I was never as free. Anytime I would almost fumble the ball, anytime I would fumble the ball, I would almost go back to that particular instance.”
Byner shared his pain, and felt it as deeply (probably deeper) than the fans he disappointed. We always gripe, “Why can’t the players care as much as we do!?” Byner actually cares more. And the way he has shown his humanity on it is remarkable. He says he’s been overwhelmed by the response from Browns fans who have flooded his inbox with positive and thankful thoughts. There is a release from the pain every day for Byner, with every one of these emails or hugs from strangers. He opened up, and the rest of the world did as well.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.