Buffalo Bills Quarterback Jim Kelly hosts a charity golf outing each June in upstate New York, and the night before the golf game he throws an elaborate barbecue for a few special guests. The high rollers, naturally, demand entertainment, and tonight, for their viewing and betting enjoyment, there's the Celebrity Football Toss.
In a Buffalo millionaire's backyard, Kelly and some NFL buddies stand 20 yards from a whitewashed car tire that's suspended in front of a canvas tarp. One after the other the players attempt to throw a football through the center of the tire.
Kelly, nursing a sore elbow, misses by a mile. Boomer Esiason misses. So do Don Strock, Dan Marino, Frank Reich and Jay Schroeder, NFL quarterbacks all. Tommy Kramer of the Vikings misses badly.
"Bernie," somebody calls, tossing the ball to the gangly, curly-haired young man who has been gabbing away, not even following the football toss. The kid turns and whistles the ball through the rubber circle, touching nothing.
August 28, 1988
Somebody else misses, then the Colts' Jack Trudeau rattles the ball through the target. There will be a sudden-death playoff. Spectators have time to lay down bets on the two finalists. Trudeau steps up for his throw. He smacks the ball off the side of the tire.
Bernie Kosar, the Cleveland Browns' 24-year-old gawk of a quarterback, the kid with the accountant's body and altar boy's face, takes the football. He's wearing street clothes like the other contestants; unlike them, he didn't warm up. But his eyes have a look to them. He has already won the earlier contest from 15 yards. Touched nothing. The crowd grows silent.
Kosar half smiles. A football is about seven inches in diameter; the center of this tire about 16 inches. Plenty of room. Kosar doesn't lob the ball. He doesn't aim it. He brings it. Sidearm.
The next day at the golf course Marino laughs. "It's unbelievable," he says. "Three in a row, and the ball was never above his shoulder. It's sickening."
To the Browns' opponents it is more than sickening. It is maddening, disgusting and, well, just plain wrong. That this callow youth, already a three-year NFL veteran, could have led his team to three straight AFC Central titles and earned the highest quarterback rating in the entire AFC last season (95.4 rating, 62% completion rate, 7.8 yards per passing attempt) while looking and throwing like a damned astronomer or something, it's just not fair.
"I have practiced trying to throw over the top," says the 6'5", 215-pound Kosar almost apologetically. "But when it gets down to it, I always go back to what I'm comfortable with. I've probably thrown as many passes underhand in this league as I have straight overhand."
Underhand? Yes, he has thrown underhand passes. In fact he has thrown from almost every arm position there is—always with remarkable accuracy—as if his right arm were a minute hand on a precision Swiss clock that has every number on its face but high noon. "We worked and worked on it when he was a pitcher in Little League, trying to stretch that long body over the top," says Kosar's dad, Bernie Sr. "But he was so effective throwing the way he did, usually from three-quarters, that you just hated to tamper with anything."
"I'll pick out a part of the receiver's body to throw to," says Kosar, explaining why it wasn't hard for him to pierce the tire the way he did. "Very rarely will I aim for the chest. For two reasons. One, if the ball is high, it can be deflected. And two, you don't see guys extremely wide open in this league."
Seen from the perspective of a teammate or a fan, Kosar seems positively inspirational. He is the oldest of three children in a tightly knit, devoutly Catholic, middle-class family from Boardman, Ohio, 25 miles from Youngstown, 90 miles from Cleveland. He graduated from the University of Miami in just three years, then told anyone who would listen that he wanted to play for his beloved Browns, thereby insuring that Cleveland would make the trade it needed to get him in the 1985 supplemental draft. The astounding thing about the early move to the pro ranks was that, although Kosar appeared to be a fragile boy quarterback, he was actually a cunning, sturdy, mature leader who, at 21, had grown bored with the college game.
"College football was not challenging," he says. "With our passing system at Miami, which was head and shoulders above any other college's, after a while it was just too easy. I don't want that to sound wrong, but in games I'd see only one, maybe two coverages. It was so unsophisticated. For me to grow at so slow a pace—what was the point?" Indeed, in only his 12th collegiate game Kosar led the Hurricanes to the national championship with a stunning 31-30 win over No. 1-ranked Nebraska in the 1983 Orange Bowl. Before the game, people were worried that Kosar might have his spindly body ripped apart by the horrible Cornhuskers. After Kosar completed 19 of 35 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, most folks didn't know what to think. His father wasn't surprised. "I remember when he was in a championship Little League game when he was nine years old and all the other kids were 10, 11 or 12," says Bernie Sr. "They brought him in from second base to pitch the last inning, and he struck out the side and his team won. That same look of determination you see now, he had it way back then."
Kosar came out of college in 1985, having achieved a 3.27 grade point average and a degree in finance, and then became the youngest quarterback in Browns history. Though he has already thrown for 8,465 yards and 47 touchdowns and owns five team passing records, including lowest interception rate for a career and a season, he is still the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL. Incredibly, he is 12 days younger than Vinnie Testaverde, the player who succeeded him at the University of Miami.
"Time has just flown by," says Kosar. "Sometimes I feel I'm older than I am. It seems like just yesterday I was a fourth-string quarterback at Miami, thinking I might not play for my entire four years in college."
If he had stayed at Miami—he left with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining—Kosar figures he would have just about finished work on his Ph.D. in the extra time. Working hard and fast on education is a family trait. Sister Beth, 23, graduated from Hiram College one term early, and brother Brian, 20, a senior at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, is set to get his degree early as well. "If you have 10 seconds to run 100 yards, why not run 110 if you can?" says Bernie Sr., who has an engineering degree and sells Ingersoll-Rand compressors to heavy industry.
The accelerated Kosar clock was confusing, and apparently a bit vexing, to Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson. He retired Testaverde's jersey during the 1986 season, and when asked why he didn't also retire Kosar's, the coach reportedly said, "Bernie didn't finish the program here." Kosar was wounded by the statement, particularly because Testaverde, no great scholar, left Miami well short of a degree. But since then he and Johnson have worked things out. "To be honest, whether my jersey is retired there or not—big deal," says Kosar. "You go to college to graduate. I graduated. That's the point."
The point for an NFL quarterback is to be accurate, and Kosar is the Einstein of accuracy. He throws an interception only once in every 45 passing attempts. During one stretch in 1986 he threw 171 passes without getting one picked off. And he doesn't just throw dinks and drop-offs to backs. "My philosophy is to let the coverage dictate what I'll do, rather than have to look here, then here, then here," he says. "I like to stretch the field vertically, not across its width. Go upfield. Somebody will be open. I know that. My height gives me an advantage."
Yes, but it also makes him look awkward. And that is what is so refreshing about Kosar. Here is a slow, humble, neighborhood kind of guy, with a bad body ("He makes me look in shape," says 36-year-old backup quarterback Gary Danielson), throwing incorrectly like some kid down the block. "That's what he is," says Browns offensive tackle and Kosar's close friend Paul Farren, "a normal kid from anybody's neighborhood."
Except that Kosar is very good. So good that in the AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos last season he completed 16 of 22 passes for 246 yards, three TDs and no interceptions, all in the second half. So good that his career quarterback rating of 84.6 makes him the fifth-highest-rated NFL quarterback of all time. So good that Browns owner Art Modell is ready to extend Kosar's current five-year $5.2 million contract in order to "keep him in Cleveland for life." How much money will that mean? "If they double my contract or cut it in half, it won't change my life-style," says Kosar with a shrug.
What Kosar likes most is being one of the guys, not the star who gets mobbed by hordes of screaming fans, who is supposed to take limos and be a cut above his teammates. "I'd rather blend in," he says. "It's impossible because I'm the quarterback, I know. But I'd like to."
"We go to Detroit to see hockey games and he says, 'I love going to Detroit, where I'm just another Joe Bag-a-dough-nuts,' " says Danielson. "I don't know what that means, the 'Bag-a-doughnuts.' But he loves it."
What it means is that Kosar is not particularly taken with himself. "He has a great, easygoing attitude," says Farren. Kosar has a girlfriend of four years, 24-year-old Babette Ferre, who recently graduated from Florida International University in Miami. But she lives in Florida, and who knows where the romance will lead? For now, Kosar is happy grabbing a beer with his teammates, visiting sick children in the hospital and then heading back to the family home in Boardman, where his parents treat him like no big deal at all.
"We always wanted our kids to do whatever they enjoyed," says Geri Kosar, a warm, thoughtful mother whose dark eyes were passed on to all three of her children. "If it was sports, fine. We wanted them tired and out of trouble. We always knew where they were at 10 o'clock at night—in bed, asleep."
The Kosars are so democratic in their distribution of affection that Brian's college baseball games get the same attention as Bernie's NFL games. Last fall the two boys played on the same day. Dad went to Bernie's game. Mom attended Brian's, listened to the Browns on the radio and videotaped the baseball game so Dad could see it when he returned.
Kosar rents a skybox at Cleveland Stadium year-round so that his parents can watch Browns games in comfort and he can watch the Indians in tranquillity. He loves baseball. He was an outstanding third baseman at Boardman High School, as well as a very good basketball player. Now he sits in his box in left centerfield, some 450 feet from home plate, studying the Indians as they mount a drive against the Oakland Athletics.
Kosar will go to as many games as he can, coming late and leaving early to avoid the crowds, sometimes sitting alone, hardly moving, concentrating fiercely, losing himself for precious hours in the minutiae of the sport. For he dearly loves to observe, and to learn.
Tonight he is with his parents and Brian. When Brian asks who is up, Kosar says quickly, "Terry Francona."
Francona has just been called up from the minors. How can Kosar be sure that speck way out there is Francona?
"I can tell by his stance," says Kosar, still staring at the plate. Bernie Sr. looks at his son and smiles. "I'm impressed," he says after a time.
He should be, for it is Kosar's composure, awareness and concentration—his vision, if you will—that make him the great helmsman he is. Last season he completed passes to six or more receivers in 13 of 14 games because he knew where everybody was.
"He's got this ability to accept all surrounding stimuli and utilize it," says Danielson of Kosar and his computerlike mind. "I don't understand it, but he can focus on everything and not overload. I'm not just talking about blocking schemes and coverages. I mean things like how many people are in the stands, how many timeouts are left, where the stadium speakers are, why we have Gatorade and not Coke. He won't just know who the refs are, he'll know where they're from. He'll take all this stuff, feed it in and use it to find an angle, something to help him win."
Kosar, who acknowledges his debt to Danielson, offers this self-analysis: "I remember watching Marino playing with the Dolphins when I was in college. I learned from watching him on the field, but I learned more things from him and from other quarterbacks by watching them off the field—how they conducted themselves, how they dealt with fame, the press, people's attitudes. I like to be the third-person observer, to have that vantage point. That's how I learn.
"Like during last year's players' strike. I went to meetings and very quickly I realized this was a bad situation, useless, horrible. So I started just watching people, not saying anything, seeing what I could learn about unions and front offices and how groups of people are controlled, how people get others to do what they want. It was very interesting."
Kosar stayed out with most of his teammates for the three-game strike, even though he felt no allegiance to the union or its polemics. He realized he should bear no malice toward any Browns players, regardless of their points of view, when the strike ended. In fact many observers speculated that he and Danielson had a well-conceived strategy in mind when Danielson crossed the picket line and led Cleveland to a critical victory in its final "replacement" game. The win helped ensure the Browns of a playoff spot. Neither quarterback will talk about any agreement that may have been made, but as Kosar says, "I think our team held together real well after the strike."
Kosar's analytical skill is the kind that doesn't always get a fellow noticed. Ohio State, Penn State and Pitt all ignored Kosar in high school, though he would have liked to have stayed close to home. Despite his tenuous status as a freshman backup at Miami, his tenacity and field skills ultimately won out, and he put future Heisman Trophy winner Testaverde on the bench for two years. "Hey, Rod Carew wasn't pretty either," notes Browns wide receiver Brian Brennan.
Unfortunately Kosar has had some of his best work wiped out by opposing quarterbacks. Twice his Browns have lost heartbreaking playoff games to Denver and quarterback-magician John Elway. Back in college in 1984 Kosar was bushwhacked by Boston College's Doug Flutie and his 64-yard Heisman-winning "Hail Mary" pass on the last play, which beat Miami, 47-45. It matters little that until that point Kosar had passed for a school-record 447 yards.
"He hates to lose," says Brennan. "Even at golf. He's a 16 handicap, but I remember a real competitive game in Shaker Heights when he shot a 77. How? Pressure. Ever seen his golf swing? It's the ugliest thing in the world. But it's accurate."
Kosar is aware of how he looks on the golf course and on the football field. He likes to tell the story about how, during a golf outing, a woman came up to him and tried to correct his hideous form. "I can help you," she said. "But you have to follow through just like you do on your overhand pass."
"Ma'am," Kosar replied politely, "you must not follow football very closely."
If she did, she would have known some broken things don't need fixing.