Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Kardiac Kids: The Story of the 1980 Cleveland Browns by Jonathan Knight

Red Right 88.  Those words continue to send chills down the spines of Cleveland Brown fans.  On a frigid January day at old Cleveland Stadium, the Browns were on the verge of victory in a divisional playoff game with the Oakland Raiders when quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception that ended their season.  Jonathan Knight's comprehensive account of that season recaptures one of the most exciting years in Cleveland sports.  For three seasons (1978-80), the "Kardiac Kids," consistently pulled off dramatic victories in the closing minutes of their games.  The book makes it clear that while 1980 Browns came up short in the end - they provided their fans with an unforgettable ride that continues to resonate to this day.

During the 1950s, the Cleveland Browns were the premiere franchise of the NFL.  They were a dynasty that won five world championships (this was the pre-Super Bowl era) with a legendary corps of Hall of Famers like head coach Paul Brown, Marion Motley, Otto Graham, and arguably the greatest football player ever - Jim Brown.  In 1964 the Browns trounced the Baltimore Colts 27-0 for yet another championship that few realized at the time - would be their last.  During the 1970s the Browns struggled after a series of bad trades, lackluster draft picks, and injuries.  Cleveland fans were forced to sit back and watch as their division rival the Pittsburgh Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls. 

In 1978, things began to turn around when Browns owner Art Modell hired Sam Rutigliano as head coach.  A longtime assistant coach, Rutigliano revitalized the Browns by building an explosive offense behind the accurate passing of veteran quarterback Brian Sipe.  After a promising 8-8 season in 1979, it appeared the Browns were heading in the right direction for 1980.  And they would not disappoint.  Cleveland, a tough blue collar town, faced high unemployment, racial and ethnic tensions, and a constant target of comedians who taunted their town as the "mistake by the lake," desperately needed something positive to happen for their city.  While it is a cliche that a winning football team will not revitalize a city overnight, it can do much to lift the spirits of people experiencing tough times.

Knight provides a detailed account of every game and some of the drama that went on behind the scenes.  Unlike other "insider" accounts of professional sports, they generally seemed like a good group of guys.  Rutigliano was true players' coach who was respected for his intelligence and willingness to roll the dice when the time called for it.  The 1980 Browns were a veteran team with many players in their prime of their careers.  Lyle Alzado, an acquisition from the Denver Broncos, had a reputation as a loose cannon, but his enthusiasm added a spark to the defense.  Newcomers like tight end Ozzie Newsome and linebacker Clay Matthews made great contributions and went on to become Hall of Famers. Brian Sipe, however, was the leader and rock of the Kardiac Kids who always gave his team a chance to win in the clutch.  He continues to hold most of the passing records for the Browns franchise.

The heartbreaking 14-12 loss to the Raiders ended an era.  In 1981, they fell to 5-11 and went on to suffer a succession of losing seasons.  By 1985, the year the Browns returned to the playoffs, only six players remained from the 1980 squad.  Although the Browns went deeper into the playoffs later in the decade (they lost three AFC championships to the Denver Broncos) the heroics of the Kardiac Kids remain etched in the memories of Browns fans.  Knight did a great job in recapturing the excitement of that year.  The Browns reminded their fans that hard work and a "never say die" attitude can make anything possible.