Before Sunday night, when the Cavaliers won the NBA championship, fans of Cleveland’s professional teams could list the events that broke their sporting hearts: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, the Indians melting down in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series…it’s a long list.
The man who committed The Fumble, former Cleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot after he watched the Cavaliers complete their comeback from a 3-1 deficit to the Golden State Warriors, “I’m full of joy for the people of Cleveland, for the fans and a peace washed over me.”
Byner fumbled on the 1-yard line with just over a minute left in the game as he tried to get the Browns the game-tying touchdown against the Denver Broncos in that 1987 AFC title game; the Broncos recovered and went on to the Super Bowl.
A productive, reliable running back that could rush, block and catch the ball out of the backfield, Byner was a popular player in Cleveland. Paired with power runner Kevin Mack in the Brown backfield, the pair both gained over 1,000 yards in the 1985 season. Byner helped the Browns reach the AFC Championship game in both 1986 and 1987 seasons, meeting the Denver Broncos in both games.
In the 1987 AFC Championship game he was instrumental in a Browns comeback from a 21–3 deficit to place the Browns in position to win the game. With the score tied at 31 midway through the 4th quarter, the Broncos scored a go-ahead touchdown to make the score 38–31 with six minutes to play. In the ensuing Cleveland drive the Browns worked the ball down the field to reach the Denver 8 yard line with a little over a minute left in the game. On the next play Byner took the Kosar handoff to run off left tackle. Byner powered past the Bronco line and looked sure to score a game tying touchdown when Bronco defensive back Jeremiah Castille managed to strip him of the ball. The play, now known simply as The Fumble, became the play for which Byner is best remembered. The fumble ruined an otherwise impressive performance, as he finished the game with 67 rushing yards, seven receptions for 120 yards, and two touchdowns.
Earnest Byner came to Cleveland last month for a roundtable discussion for the premiere of the documentary “Believeland” and to catch up with his old buddy, Kevin Mack.
After connecting with coach Hue Jackson and executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and soaking up the city he called home for multiple stints during his 14-year playing career, Byner realized he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.
Byner, dressed in team gear from head to toe, has been in the Browns office in Berea working coaching hours since the beginning of OTAs. The former Browns running back not only carries 14 years of playing experience, but also logged 10 years with four different teams as a running backs coach. His last stint ended in 2013 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he’s stayed in tune with the game through a variety of endeavors.