A few years ago I walked into a lobby of a Chicago hotel several hours before the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears played an exhibition game and ran across Bernie Kosar.
The former Browns quarterback was in town to do television commentary. He was in a noticeably good mood, not simply because he was working for the team he followed as a kid growing up in Boardman. The source of the enthusiasm was the megabucks deal he had signed to sell ownership of an Internet company that covered the National Football League.
I had seen Kosar countless times over the years, primarily during his eight-plus seasons as a player with the Browns, but I had never seen him so excited. A successful businessman long after his playing days ended in 1996, Kosar had just struck another deal to add to a net worth that made the five-year, $5.2 million contract he signed with the Browns in 1985 seem like chump change.
Kosar was on top of the world. He was (and may still be) the most beloved ex-Brown of them all. He was wealthy enough to travel on a private jet, yet he never lost the boyish enthusiasm he had for football and friends and associates dear to him.
How quickly things have changed in his storybook life. Kosar recently filed for federal bankruptcy protection in Miami, claiming debts of between $10 and $15 million. The fortune, according to a feature story written by Dan Le Batard of the "Miami Herald", was lost through bad business advice, failures brought on by a weakening economy and a failed marriage. He now lives with the oldest of his three daughters, struggling to deal with every-day realities of life that once were taken care of by others.
It was discouraging to read that he's had suicidal thoughts, but thankfully he said he could never quit on his family. He vowed to come out of bankruptcy like a confident fighter charging from his corner for the start of round one. There seems no doubt in his mind that he will again be successful, and, for his sake, wiser to the whims of the business world and more careful in trying to be Mr. Nice Guy all the time.
Many people struggling to make ends meet these days won't have much sympathy for a man who had it all and then lost it. Even Kosar admits he doesn't know how to manage money and that he foolishly gave away millions of dollars to almost every open hand, knowing he would never see a dime in return.
It's hard for me be overly critical. Maybe it's because I've spent more work time covering his career than I have of any athlete to come from the Mahoning Valley. I wasn't there during his two seasons at the University of Miami, but I saw him play basketball for the Boardman Spartans (a teachers' strike during his junior year cost me a chance to see him play football).
When Kosar signed with the Browns on July 2, 1985, in a restaurant at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I was among the media gathering there to chronicle the feel-good story of a local boy returning home to play for his beloved Browns. The Cuyahoga River could have caught on fire that day and no one would have noticed. The Boy Wonder was in town, so let the good times roll.
I was fortunate during most of his time with the Browns to have had a good relationship with Kosar. I was the only media representative from the area who was around him on a consistent basis, and he noticed. An offseason phone call to an assistant of his would usually result in a return call within a few days.
Kosar not only owned Cleveland, he owned most of northeast Ohio. He took fans on a great ride (three AFC Championship game appearances), and I was fortunate enough to have seen it all up close.
Maybe that's why I'm giving him a break at this difficult time in his life. If I had been more removed from the scene, I might be among those saying, "Bernie got what he deserved."
The moment I think of that sentiment, I remember the late Eddie Johnson, an undersized, overachieving linebacker during the Kosar years in Cleveland. As Johnson was fighting a cancer that would claim his life in 2003, he did so without health-care insurance. Kosar knew that and did everything within his power to help, including taking on some of the growing mountain of medical bills.
That's the caring side of Kosar that, when not restrained, can get him into financial trouble. But a friend and ex-teammate was in need, and Kosar, ever the quarterback, knew he had to take charge. It only seemed right.
Go ahead and kick him when he's down, if you want, but I 'm not jumping on the pile. My guess, based on the number of "19" Browns jerseys seen at every home game, is that most of you feel the same way.
Again, it only seems right.