Sunday, August 21, 2011

Weekend With Bernie

As we grow older we tend to become less awestruck with the heroes of our youth. This may be due to a number of reasons – missteps in their lives that get publicized or maybe we just lose the youthful exuberance of meeting a famous person. Who knows. But it happens.

This last Saturday night I had the pleasure, and I do mean that, of meeting my favorite Cleveland Browns player of all time – Bernie Kosar. To set the table, Bernie is certainly a fan favorite, as his playing days showed a combination of guts and smarts. He wasn’t the fastest guy or had the strongest arm. A contemporary of his named Elway had those traits. Bernie was not graceful on the football field. In fact, he looked amazingly awkward – he was all legs and gangly arms as he dropped back to pass, and his throwing motion was this sidearm, look one way throw another…thing. I can’t even describe it. When he ran he resembled a Giraffe on Ecstasy. But he got the job done. Very well. Pro-Bowl level well. And nobody outsmarted Bernie.

When his playing days ended his personal life fell apart. Bankruptcies, a broken down body, divorce. Which just endeared himself more to his fans. Just as we could identify with his grit as a player, we identified with his struggles in real life, because many of us have gone through the same things. But Bernie went through these events with grace and courage…just like he did when facing a safety blitz. He would get up, dust himself off, and think about the next thing to do.

He does color commentary for the Browns preseason games, which has been a real treat. To hear him talk, he has a sort of a speech impediment – he tends to slur his words, which would almost make you think he’s drunk or under the influence of something. Hey, given the amount of injuries he had and the concussions, a steady diet of painkillers would certainly be understandable.

But when you listen to what he is saying, it is amazingly detailed and usually pinpoint accurate, so you realize that the brain is sharp. For example, when the offense breaks the huddle, Bernie is already analyzing the defense with comments like “They’re in Cover-two with the Strong Safety cheating the line. Look for the slot receiver to be covered by the linebacker, so he should be open on the slant...”

And he was almost always right. I can honestly say I am educated every time I hear him call a play.

So anyway. Back to Saturday night. It was the 25th anniversary of the Palm Beach Browns Backers club, and they got Bernie to do a meet ‘n greet. I arrive, and there he was – taller than I thought he would be until I remembered that he is 6-foot 5. But that’s the thing with Bernie – I guess it’s that everyman quality about him. He was so approachable, very friendly, patient…genuine. Within five seconds of being with him (or whenever the awe wore off), you were just chatting with an old buddy. He made you feel very comfortable. While we talked, he reached over to his right hand and took off his Super Bowl ring he won with Dallas in 1993, hands it to me and says ‘Check this out.”

And then he walked away.

You read that right – he handed his Super Bowl ring to a total stranger then went over to talk to someone else. He was about 30 feet away and I yelled over to him, ‘Hey Bernie, I got your ring…’ His reply?

“I trust you.”

Those that know Bernie’s story since he retired know that many of his personal problems stemmed from this very trait. He trusts people. Sometimes too much so. He has lent money that was never returned, he lent his name (and money) to businesses that went belly-up, and he married a woman that ended up taking him to the cleaners in the divorce. A few years back he was broke and lost as a result of this trusting nature. So you would think, as a result of all that, that he wouldn’t hand a Super Bowl ring to a total stranger, wouldn’t you?

But that’s not Bernie.

The other totally lovable trait about this guy is the respect he gives to any and everyone. When he shakes your hand he looks you straight in the eye, and not with a ‘Ain’t I a big shot and you should be honored’ glare, but with a warm smile and a genuine ‘Nice to meet you’ attitude. When you ask him a question, he looks at you, ponders the answer, and then gives you an honest reply that gives total respect to the effort of the person that framed the question. In other words, he doesn’t blow you off. He is also amazingly earthy. Meaning, he swears. Which seems like a bit of a shock when you first hear it, but almost immediately you realize yep, he’s one of us. He was sharing the story of his first practice with the University of Miami football team. In his words, “I was standing there with Jim Kelly on one side of me and Vinny Testaverde of the other, and I realized that I was fucked.”

It bears noting that Bernie, like many famous athletes, arrived with an entourage. However, unlike those other famous athletes, Bernie’s entourage consisted of his three kids. And that was it. Now, to be fair, there was a representative of the Cleveland Browns with him too, but given she was the 25-year old Coordinator of Browns Backers Worldwide, she could hardly be categorized as part of his posse. His peeps are his kids.

Like I said, he’s everyman. And I am even more in awe of him than I was when he was sidearming passes and leading the Browns to playoff victories in the 1980’s. I may have gotten older, but my respect and admiration of him has not waned one iota.

He’s still my hero.


Anonymous said...

Well said Jerry. Exactly my thoughts!


Softie said...

Just now reading this. Great story Jerry.