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Byner's fumble spoils Browns shot 1987 AFC Championship glory

(This story first appeared in SI in 1988.)

"Castille, a bundle of aspirations, was praying for an opportunity to make a difference."

They say the one thing you learn from history is that you do not learn at all. It must be true, because history keeps rising up to clobber the Cleveland Browns. Three times in this decade the Browns have come within a minute of winning playoff games and three times that minute has turned into an entire off-season. First, there was the interception Brian Sipe served up to the Raiders in their divisional playoff game in 1980. Then there was John Elway's Sunday Drive for the AFC title a year ago. But who could have seen this one coming? This time, again within a few ticks of a Super Bowl berth, the Browns stayed highlight reel for highlight reel with Elway. And they held up under a din that threatened to crack the foundation of Mile High Stadium.

What they didn't count on was an unknown cornerback with a hero complex.

What they didn't count on was Jeremiah Castille, cut adrift by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before this strange season began, sitting there on the Denver bench for much of the long afternoon and into the night. He had watched John Elway direct the Broncos to a 21-3 halftime lead, with poster-perfect passes and Fred Astaire feet. He had watched Bernie Kosar drag the Browns back to within a touchdown, 38-31, using shot-put heaves for passes and a running style that might suggest bunion problems. He had watched a parade of famous, rich men pass in front of him and didn't feel like he belonged with any of them.

"I was on the team, but I was starting to feel like I wasn't part of the team," Castille said. So this understudy, this 5'10", 175-pound bundle of aspirations, sat there, imploring the heavens for an opportunity to make a difference. "I just prayed for a chance to be a factor."

Suddenly, his chance came. Filling in for starting cornerback Steve Wilson, who had aggravated a leg injury, Castille found himself one of the 11 Broncos who were backpedaling down the field at Kosar's whim as the clock wound down. The Browns needed a touchdown to send the game into overtime, and the way Kosar was playing, that seemed inevitable. After all, the Browns had scored TDs on their first four possessions of the second half and had stomped from their own 25 to the Denver eight in less than three minutes on this little tour. What was going to stop them -- City of Denver snowplows?

And so, on second-and-five from the eight, Kosar handed the ball to his 215-pound running back, Earnest Byner, who, finding the middle clogged, broke left, picked up speed and encountered a nearly unobstructed view of the goal line. "I knew we needed a big play," Castille said afterward. "This was a money game." Sure, but did this game have room for another hero?

Didn't this show already belong to Elway and Kosar, the yin and yang of the NFL? Talk about strange casting, how did these two ever end up on the same stage -- the AFC title game -- two years in a row? If you stood them next to each other on a beach, Kosar would look like "Before" to Elway's "After." Elway is muscular. Kosar is built like a CPA whose health club membership has expired. Elway is beach-boy blond. Kosar looks like a mattress salesman. Elway's throwing motion would make Koufax envious. Kosar throws, as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote, "like a guy losing a bar of soap in the shower." Elway's passes arrive so angrily they leave marks on receivers' palms. You could catch Kosar's passes with a beer in each hand.

But that's the point. Two men as different as Barney Fife and Sheriff Andy Taylor, yet they are dominating the AFC in the late 1980s. "He throws side-arm, underhand, submarine, spitball, slider, knuckleball, and that's only in our first possession," Browns owner Art Modell says of Kosar. "But you know what? He gets it there."

After throwing an interception on, yes, the first possession, Kosar got it there Sunday with astonishing precision. "It was like 'ugly, ugly, ugly, great play,'" said Broncos linebacker Ricky Hunley. "He was hot."

So hot was Bernie that, as he watched Byner make the turn on that fateful run, he was only eight yards away from possibly erasing memories of the Drive -- the 98-yard minor miracle Elway pulled off in Cleveland last year to win a trip to the Super Bowl.

With that late-game letdown in mind, the Browns sought to acclimate themselves to altitude by moving their training camp to the thin air of Albuquerque, N.Mex., nearly as high as Denver. There they set up a paramilitary, paranoiac paradise, complete with a dozen guards patrolling the University of New Mexico stadium.

This was a week when sense took a holiday. In Denver, lust for the game bordered on the blue -- which is exactly the color a Denver woman painted her skin as she rode horseback and bare-front through Denver's 16th Street Mall in a what-would-you-do-for-two-tickets? contest sponsored by a local radio station, KOAQ-FM. Suffice it to say, she was a winner.

Then there was the question Cleveland radio station WWWE put to Janet Elway, wife of you know who, that may have broken all records for tactlessness by a disc jockey, which is really quite an achievement.

"Do athletes have sex before the game?" the questioner asked. Mrs. Elway hemmed politely, but the deejay persisted. Is he -- paraphrasing now -- relieved of tension at game time? Finally, she answered, "My attitude is, John has to win the game first, and then...." Now that's putting pressure on a guy.

It was not shaping up as the Broncos' week. For one thing, President Reagan had been photographed in Cleveland holding up a Browns sweatshirt. "I may turn in my GOP card," said Denver coach Dan Reeves. Not to worry. The man picked Bork and Ginsburg, too. For another, it was announced that Elway's corps of wide receivers, the Three Amigos, would be minus its head honcho, Vance Johnson, because of a severely hemorrhaging artery in his groin. Johnson had suffered the injury the week before on a late hit by Houston linebacker John Grimsley. At first, it seemed little more than an angry bruise, but when Johnson almost passed out from pain while taking a shower Thursday night, the Broncos checked him into the hospital and out of the championship game.

The question being asked in Denver was how much could Elway accomplish with the Two Remaining Amigos versus the Browns' contrast, all-galaxy cornerbacks Frank (the Louisville Lip) Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. "I don't know how we're going to stay with those guys," Dixon announced at the Albuquerque complex. "Frank and I are going to have to go on a diet or something."

Privately, Dixon revealed a different plan. "We don't give a damn about the Three Amigos or whatever they're called. We're gonna give 'em the Raider treatment, gouging eyes, driving 'em out of bounds. We're gonna abuse 'em."

It did not work out that way. In the first period, the Browns handed Denver two turnovers -- an interception and a fumble, both inside the 50 -- which became two touchdowns. Elway got one with a high fastball to Ricky Nattiel. The other came on a reverse handoff to running back Steve Sewell following a third-down holding penalty against Minnifield, which gave the Broncos first-and-goal on the one.

And when Elway answered a Matt Bahr field goal by taking his men 80 yards for a touchdown on their first possession of the second quarter, it was 21-3 Denver at the half and visions of San Diego danced in Bronco heads. "Not me," said Nattiel, who had 95 yards receiving and a TD for the day. "I knew that pretty soon, they'd start bringin' it."

The bringin'-it was brought by Kosar, who finally awoke in the second half. He hit Reggie Langhorne on a post pattern for an 18-yard touchdown, found Byner with a little wedding-bouquet toss over the heads of the Bronco line good for 32 yards and another touchdown, made it three-for-three with a four-yard Byner TD run and, after Denver's Rich Karlis had kicked a 38-yard field goal to close the third quarter, hit Webster Slaughter with a perfectly timed pass for four yards and still another six points. Four-for-four and Mom not calling anybody in for dinner quite yet.

All of that should have put Cleveland ahead except for a miraculous Elway and Co. play early in that chaotic third period. Stuck with a third-and-10 at his own 20, Elway took the shotgun snap, danced away from pursuers, survived a bump from his own guard, Stefan Humphries, and finally unloaded a little safety pass under duress to Amigo Mark Jackson. Jackson sidestepped out of the arms of one tackier, juked another, picked up a Sewell block and took off 80 yards down the sideline, where he just barely fell into the end zone after a desperation ankle slap by safety Ray Ellis. It was the second longest touchdown play from scrimmage in AFC Championship history. "I've got to watch more Walter Payton film," said Jackson. "Got to learn to high-step it those last few yards." That touchdown loomed large.

And so we had a tie, 31-31. "Kosar was putting points up there faster than we could look at them," said Elway. There was 5:14 left. But, just when the Browns thought it was safe to play nickel, came...Son of the Drive.

Enter Amigo No. 2, Nattiel, who grabbed two passes for 52 yards on the drive. "I just wanted to show them they didn't waste their first pick," said Nattiel, a rookie from Florida. Nor had they wasted their fifth pick in 1982, tailback Sammy Winder, who took an Elway screen and went 20 yards for a touchdown. Seventy-five yards, painlessly. 38-31.

Only one problem. Kosar had 3:53 left. "We're not quitters," said Kosar. "We're not going to quit, not ever." Seven plays later, Cleveland was at the eight, Bernie handing off to Byner, and all around Mile High Stadium folks searched for unchewed fingernails. Overtime was coming -- even Reeves believed it. "I was thinking about the coin flip," he admits.

Maybe the only man in the Mountain time zone who wasn't thinking overtime was Castille. Two plays before, Byner had gained six yards, but Castille had come back to the huddle to tell his teammates, "I almost got the ball loose." Now Byner was headed toward the end zone, an arm's length from Castille, who reached out his left arm, trying to strip Byner of the ball. "I just felt like he was in such a position that it wouldn't have done me any good to make the tackle. He was going to score. I had to try and strip it. That's all I had left."

Byner landed in the end zone. Unfortunately, the ball didn't make the trip with him. Castille, who had dislodged it, fell on it at the three, and, after a long pileup, emerged with his prize.

Denver took a deliberate safety with eight seconds left in order to kick out of harm's way, and won it 38-33, thus earning a third trip to the Super Bowl and becoming the first team since the 1978-79 Pittsburgh Steelers to repeat as AFC champions. "This was just another step to our ultimate goal," was the first thing Reeves said to his players in a surprisingly subdued locker room afterward. Earlier in the week, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had told the team, "I'd rather lose this game than lose the world championship again." Get the message, boys?

Nobody gets it, or wants it, more than Denver safety Dennis Smith, who not only has come back from a broken finger, a sprained knee and a broken arm this season, but, at halftime Sunday, pulled out one of two steel pins that were holding his finger together and played the second half. "Am I going to play the Bowl?" Smith said, icing an Elephant Man finger. "Are you kidding?"

Meanwhile, in Cleveland's locker room, Byner, who had helped keep his team in the game with 120 yards receiving, 67 rushing and two touchdowns, was holding up well. "I was going to score," he said. "What can I say? What do you want me to do? Stand up here and cry? I'm not going to. I played my ass off."

Said Kosar, 24 and aging fast in his third year as a pro, "Words can't really describe how bad our team feels right now. We could have and should have won that game. But Earnest Byner didn't lose it for us."

No, Jeremiah Castille did. Said he, "I feel like I belong again."

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