A Cleveland story worth remembering

The drive to Columbus on Christmas Eve to visit relatives was made shorter with a steady diet of Christmas carols.

The older the better for me. Silent Night, Joy to the World and other classics kept me good company. As always, the sounds and words struck a warm spot inside of me of Christmases past and enduring memories.

The carols also evoked thoughts of a magical time in my more than 30 years of covering the Cleveland Browns. Yes, there was a time when the Browns were relevant, and it was actually a joy to be on the edge of the excitement as a reporter.

The year of 1980 is as vivid to me as it was during what became a magical season of which the Kardiac Kids were born. Comeback wins became the norm, turning dreary Cleveland Stadium into the place to go for thrill-seekers. They were rarely disappointed.

I joined the ride midway through the season when the late Jim Swearingen, a Tribune Chronicle reporter at the time, took a leave from the Browns’ beat because of an illness. In the matter of a day, I went from being a fan who watched games at home to standing in the locker room interviewing Brian Sipe, Greg Pruitt and Doug Dieken, to mention a few of the players.

It was a bit overwhelming for a 27-year-old reporter who had previously only interviewed high school coaches. There was a hesitation in approaching Lyle Alzado, wondering if the bearded defensive end would be receptive to me or sweep me aside with one piercing stare.

As a fan, I knew each player without hesitation. As a reporter who was admittedly somewhat intimidated, I wasn’t sure how to approach the players. I remember the late Chuck Heaton, an iconic reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, telling me that if I needed help he would be glad to assist.

I often remember that kind act from a man whose work I read frequently as a kid. You probably won’t get that hand-on-the-shoulder treatment from veteran reporters in today’s cut-throat journalistic society where it’s all about the scoop.

It was a simpler, less confrontational time. There wasn’t nearly the amount of media surrounding the team as there is today. A handful of newspaper beat guys and a few television and radio stations were about it.

It was almost a family-like atmosphere between the team and media. What stood out to me as a reporter from an outlying, suburban newspaper was that I was treated with the same respect as reporters from both Cleveland papers and the Akron Beacon Journal. The front office genuinely appreciated having a representative from a paper located 60 miles from Cleveland on the scene regularly.

What made it even better was the relationship the media had with coach Sam Rutigliano, who was as relaxed around reporters as he was with family members. There was never that invisible wall between Sam and the media that often goes up nowadays.

Post-practice press conferences were conducted in Sam’s office overlooking the practice field at Baldwin-Wallace College. It was more an informal conversation than a Q&A session, and it wasn’t unusual for owner Art Modell to attend the gatherings.

On one occasion, Modell began to nod off. Sam looked at us, held a finger to his lips and said, “Shhh, the owner is sleeping.”

The open locker room after practice was much easier to work than it is today. It’s rare when half the players stop at their lockers to address reporters now. In 1980, almost every player was at his locker and usually willing to answer questions.

The highlight of that season for me was covering the biggest victory of Sam’s coaching career – a 27-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on Dec. 21. Don Cockroft’s game-winning field goal clinched the AFC Central Division title for the Browns, propelling them into an ill-fated playoff game against the Oakland Raiders and a play called Red Right 88.

Back then reporters flew on the team charter. When the busses arrived at the airport in northern Kentucky, we were soon told that the flight had been delayed. That gave time for many of the players and media personnel to imbibe of Christmas spirits.

Needless to say, many of the passengers wouldn’t have been fit to fly the plane home. Modell didn’t help matters when he had bottles of champagne on board. Players drained the bubbly during the flight, turning the short ride home into a Christmas party at 35,000 feet.

I’ll never forget seeing players standing in the aisles and signing Christmas carols. I wasn’t sure at the time if life could get much better than this.

When the plane arrived at Hopkins airport, a gathering of thousands of fans required the pilot to taxi the plane to an area that had a fence in place to separate the masses from the players. It was like being on a plane with The Beatles, and all those people on the other side of the fence were teenage girls.

What happened next will forever make me a fan of Rutigliano. If I remember correctly, Sam and me were the only two left on the plane as I was about to disembark from a rear exit. Before leaving, Sam told me to stop by his office before his Monday press conference. He wanted to give me a game football for Swearingen, who had dealt with some difficult times.

You remember moments like that when you’re alone in your car on a long drive and Christmas carols are playing.