In “Believeland,” the most recent “30 for 30” documentary, former Browns running back Earnest Byner issued a tearful apology to the city of Cleveland for a fumble that occurred nearly three decades earlier.
It was the AFC Championship Game. January 17, 1988. Mile High Stadium in Denver. With just over a minute remaining, Byner took the hand-off from Bernie Kosar and was about to score the game-tying touchdown. Instead, he was stripped by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille on the 1-yard line.
Denver recovered. Cleveland lost, 38-33.
Byner, when interviewed about that moment – now infamously known as “The Fumble” – he cried. In the next frame, Marty Schottenheimer, his former coach, got choked up talking about it.
“I’ve never been around a player that got more out of his talent – and he was talented – than Earnest Byner,” said Schottenheimer, fighting back tears, “and he gave it to you every single play.”
“That’s my man,” an emotional Byner said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “I have looked at Marty as a father-figure, and Marty helped mold the way I approached the game during my early career. He was the one who really gave me my first real opportunity and showed some real belief in Earnest Byner the person, the player and the man. Seeing his (interview in the documentary), that was another one that got me. Seeing Marty get choked up and seeing him and hearing him, how he felt about me, was really mind-blowing to me.”
Byner, 53, had a wonderful NFL career. He was a two-time Pro Bowler, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, and won a Super Bowl with the Redskins in January 1992.
But none of that – not even the Super Bowl ring – could erase the pain that he has felt since that January night in Denver in 1988.
“Absolutely not,” Byner said. “I’ll tell you what was a little bit (helpful) was actually winning the NFC Championship Game (in 1992). Going to the game, I’m riding, my wife is sitting next to me, we’re quiet and I’m crying – because this is so important to me. It felt like it was so important for me to get past this hump. I’m actually crying while I’m running the ball. It was really quite remarkable to go through that process. Winning that game was really, to me, like winning the Super Bowl.”
The Redskins beat the Lions, 41-10, in the NFC Championship before beating the Bills, 37-24, in Super Bowl XXVI.
“When we won the Super Bowl, it was just another part of the experience,” Byner said. “It was another part of my story (and) the team’s story. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy. I was definitely happy. I’m glad we won the Super Bowl. I was happy, but it was still something within me that kept making me hungry.”
Over the years, Byner, the author of “Everybody Fumbles,” was constantly reminded of his blunder. Not everyone did so maliciously, but it was always there.
“That made the fumble become more of a heavy burden, as opposed to something I could use to learn and to teach and to grow from,” Byner said. “Everything before then – any mistake that I had made before then – I felt like I was able to atone for, but I wasn’t able to atone for the fumble. It was the end of the game, it was the end of the season, and all of the emotion that was coming at me – the letters that I had received, the constant reminders – it just weighed heavy on me. I just never could really get past that in that regard.”
Byner, it is worth noting, was a one-man wrecking crew in that game. He totaled nearly 200 yards and scored two touchdowns.
And yet, he remains haunted by one carry.
“It affected the way I played the game after that, but it affected the way I lived as well,” Byner said. “I was never as free. I was never as free. Anytime I would almost fumble the ball, anytime I would fumble the ball, I would almost go back to that particular instance. During that game, my quickness, my acceleration, my route-running, my yards after contact – everything was just flowing. The energy was there. . . . After the fumble, I was never as free. I played good ball, I played at a high level, I still enjoyed the game. But I was never as free again.”