CLEVELAND - Last Sunday, safety T.J. Ward did what few members of the Browns have been able to do for several years.
When Ward ended the season of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski with a tackle at the knees, he immediately became known to a multitude of fans throughout the country. The hit has been replayed on ESPN almost as much as the all-sports network plasters Kobe Bryant's face to the nation. Commentators haven't stopped analyzing the play to determine if it was legal or dirty or to turn it into the broader issue of player safety.
Unwittingly, Ward is part of a national story. That's something few men who have suited up for the Browns since 1999 can claim to have accomplished, unless you're counting players involved in arrests or other assorted off-the-field issues.
In some ways, it summarizes the last 15 years of Browns football. In essence, the Browns have lived a hermit-like existence. Their only national exposure comes once every two years when a coach is fired or, as was the case last April, when owner James Haslam's Pilot Flying J business headquarters was raided by FBI officials.
Ward would just as soon wish the play against the Patriots hadn't happened. When asked questions about the resulting fallout last Wednesday, he deferred politely by saying he's tired of talking about it.
In some ways Ward represents the identity crisis that exists in Cleveland. For a long time it's been a place where promising rookies go to see their careers begin fading away and where talented veterans toil in relative obscurity.
Ward, now in his fourth year, is having a solid season by most accounts. He's second to linebacker D'Qwell Jackson in tackles with 106. He's intercepted two passes and defensed seven.
Ward exhibited versatility against the Patriots in drawing the assignment of covering Gronkowski. He lined up in the box, in essence making him an extra linebacker.
What was lost in the wild way in which the game ended was that Gronkowski was held without a reception in the first half. He had two catches for 32 yards before being injured.
Ward has grown accustomed to having good performances go unnoticed. One reason is the lack of national exposure directed to the Browns. When he was drafted in 2010, Ward quickly became known as that other safety in the AFC North Division, which had Pro Bowl talent in Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Baltimore's Ed Reed (now with the New York Jets).
"The normal NFL fan only sees what they see on TV," Ward said. "The Monday night games; the Sunday nights; the primetime. It's hard to get that national exposure when you're playing at a high level that the Troy Polamalus get or the guys that are on TV every week.
"I think that happens here. I'm not saying I'm underappreciated in any way, but I'd just say that we don't get the exposure that some of the other players in this league get."
It's not certain that Ward is fully appreciated by the powers that run football operations for the Browns. His contract ends after this season, which means he'll likely become a free agent in March.
This is usually the time of the year when organizations try to lock up valued veterans to long-term contracts. In fact, it often happens before a player enters the final year of his contract.
It's been as quiet as a summer night surrounding Ward. You get the feeling that he knows he will play his final game in Cleveland as a Brown Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
In some ways Ward might be auditioning for potential offseason suitors.
"They're going to see my best, whether it's game one, game 16, whatever," Ward said. "Whenever I step on that field, it's always 110 percent. That's what you'll get from me."