And why, indeed, is Earnest Byner in the Ravens Ring of Honor?
"There are always challenges," John Harbaugh said to the media throng after Wednesday's practice.
He was asked for about the 20th time in the last few weeks about overcoming all the injuries suffered to Ravens defensive backs. (There are six defensive backs among the 17 current players on our injured reserve list, and we've signed 12 cornerbacks since the beginning of the season. Plus, we've added another four corners to our practice squad. We have literally "cornered" the market. Sorry.)
Yes, we're depleted somewhat in the secondary. Yes, we've had an unusual number of injuries to players at the cornerback spot. Yes, no team in the NFL cares about these Ravens injuries, nor do most of you. Suck it up and play – and that's what we're doing.
Many times when I think of football hardships, Earnest Byner's famed fumble in the 1987 AFC championship comes to mind. Ozzie Newsome and I were there for that mistake – Oz as a Pro Bowl tight end for the Browns and me as the team's vice president of public relations. Talk about challenges.
Let me set the scene:
Following the 1986 season, the Browns hosted the Broncos in the AFC championship. That game became famous for the "The Drive." It was January of '87 at Cleveland Stadium. The Browns led the Broncos 20-13 with four minutes left in the game. Denver, with John Elway at quarterback, had first down at its own 2-yard line, 98 yards from a game-tying touchdown.
The rest is history. Elway engineered "The Drive." The Broncos tied the game at 20 and then won 23-20 in overtime.
That's the preface for the 1987 AFC championship. Same two teams a year later, this time the game was at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The Broncos and Elway dominated the first half, taking a 21-3 lead. But, the Browns battled back behind the play of quarterback Bernie Kosar and Byner. Earnest finished the contest with two touchdowns, 120 yards receiving and another 67 on the ground.
With less than a minute to play, the Browns, trailing 38-31, moved to the Broncos' 8-yard line, facing third down. Kosar handed the ball to the reliable Byner. From my angle in the press box, I thought Earnest scored, and I didn't understand the scrum near the goal line that featured Broncos leaping for joy. Cornerback Jeremiah Castille, from the side, had pulled the ball out of Byner's hands, and Denver recovered at the 1.
Imagine our devastation. Two years in a row … basically one play away from the Super Bowl each time. Hurts even now to think back on it.
And how do you think Byner felt? This warrior who had basically put the Browns on his back in the great second half he played was being singled out as the guy who kept the Browns from the Super Bowl.
That's a heavy load.
For Cleveland, that post game was quiet and sad. I approached Earnest and told him that we would have to take him to the interview room. He could have begged off, and no one would have blamed him. Instead he said, "Just give me a few minutes to collect myself."
Our Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer and standup guys like Kosar and Newsome went out of their way to explain that "Earnest didn't lose the game for us. He was the reason we were close in the end. We should have played better in the first half."
That game was the second-most watched TV program for all of 1988, just below the Super Bowl matchup between the Giants and Broncos. Basically, half the people in the United States saw Earnest fumble. He now had to answer questions about the play.
Showing strength, character and patience, Byner answered every question – three times. The interview room couldn't fit all the reporters. They came in waves. Earnest had to handle three different sets of reporters, all asking the same things: "What was the play? How do you feel? Do you think you let your teammates and the Browns' fans down? Can you recover from this?"
I cut off the third set of reporters after Steve Serby of The New York Post asked Byner, "Will it bother you that you will become known as the Bill Buckner of football?" Puzzled, Earnest looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I offered nothing. Earnest then faced Serby and said: "I guess not. I don't know who Bill Buckner is."
Since then, Earnest has always been classy when asked about that play, known in football circles as "The Fumble." His replies have centered on "moving forward when life gives you challenges," and how that play "made me a better player and person."
Byner recently completed his book "Everybody Fumbles." It's a good read about the lessons he has learned and how to handle blows that come in life. It's a great reminder that people and teams – as Harbs has said – all have challenges we have to overcome. Here's a link to order Earnest's book – and he promised he'll personally sign each one.
Byner And The Ring Of Honor
So, here's the truth of how Byner became the first inductee (2001) into the Ravens' Ring of Honor. First, we decided (David Modell, our then-team president, Ozzie and a few others) that it was time to start honoring our history. The decision about who should be first was easy: Art Modell.
Art wanted no part of it. "You're not honoring me, and I certainly don't want to be the guy who looks like he's honoring himself." We tried changing his mind, but Art wouldn't budge.
We couldn't induct current players like Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. Art loved Earnest Byner, so did David. Heck, we all did.
We studied Byner's history. He helped us bridge the gap between the Browns and the Ravens, having played for both teams. He was a good family man who worked hard to make the Baltimore community better. He was well known in the area even before the Ravens arrived because he had been a Pro Bowl running back for the Super Bowl (XXVI)-winning Redskins in 1992. And, his football legacy was strong. He played 14 NFL seasons, earned two Pro Bowls, rushed for 8,261 yards and added 512 receptions for another 4,105 yards.
Impressively, he scored 72 career touchdowns, finishing his career as the 16th-leading rusher of all time, just 117 yards behind Hall of Famer Joe Perry. We thought if we had stayed in Cleveland, he would have earned a similar "Ring" distinction there. (It wasn't his fault we moved.)
So, we decided to honor this honorable, decent and humble man.
Yes, Coach Harbaugh is right: "We all face challenges." You do. NFL teams do. Certainly, Byner did in a very visible way. The Ravens' next challenge is to go to Houston and win. And, if we do that and can repeat victory at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 28 against the Browns, we'll be in the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. It will not be easy. We all know that, right?
By the way, we've heard what you have heard. If the Ravens do earn the playoffs, they'll be "one and done." OK. I remember hearing the same thing in 2008, when Harbs and Joe Flacco were "rookies" in Baltimore. We advanced to the AFC championship that season and were on our way to winning that game with a last-second field goal – that's what I thought was going to happen – when that long-haired safety at Heinz Field intercepted the ball and scored a touchdown that broke our hearts at the time.
Those 2008 Ravens, like the 2014 Ravens, had challenges. Here are a few of the names who couldn't help in our playoff run because they were on injured reserve: defensive tackles Kelly Gregg and Dwan Edwards, Pro Bowlers guard Marshal Yanda and cornerback Chris McAlister and starting safety Dawan Landry.
This 2014 edition of the Ravens, we ain't done. We're ready for the next challenge. Let's beat the Texans.
Talk with you next week,