"At times he heard within him a soft, gentle voice, which reminded him quietly, complained quietly, so that he could hardly hear it. Then he suddenly saw that he was leading a strange life, that he was doing many things that were only a game, that he was quite cheerful and sometimes experienced pleasure, but that real life was flowing past him and did not touch him."
-- Herman Hesse in Siddhartha
Most professional football players wonder, as their careers come to a close, whether there is life after football. For Brian Sipe, the question always seemed to be: Is there life during football?
The handsome, articulate Southern Californian was somewhat self-conscious about having a job that he thought did little to advance society. And he was absolutely appalled by the amount of public attention he received while playing the most visible position in Northeast Ohio sports -- that, of course, being quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.
Because he wasn't very big and he didn't throw the ball much harder than your uncle, it was easy to relate. As he blossomed into a superstar at the turn of the decade, all of Northeast Ohio was vicariously calling the signals. Sipe was an oasis in a cliche-ridden, hard-headed world. Here was a pro quarterback who read existential literature and shunned lucrative personal appearances. Here was a fellow who talked not about statistics or his obsession with winning but about the satisfaction he got from mastering the nuances of the game, the same type of satisfaction one might derive from learning to play the violin.
But the more the fans embraced him, the more uncomfortable Sipe became. He felt as if the spotlight were baking his soul from his body. Each year, he could hardly wait to retreat to the anonymity of his beloved San Diego, where he was just another guy who liked to surf.
Today, he finally is doing what he has always wanted to do: design buildings. And he is doing it with every bit as much imagination and daring as he displayed as an overachieving little quarterback.
He also is doing it in a way that most architects can only fantasize about -- with the luxury of $2 million-per-house budgets.
Although Brian Sipe insists he doesn't yet have it made, he clearly is as happy -- and as anonymous -- as he has been in many years.
Maybe that is why the reluctant hero has agreed -- five seasons after having thrown his last pass for the Browns, a couple of seasons into his real life -- to allow visitors from Akron to observe him in his natural habitat.
The early-morning haze has not yet burned off as Sipe perches on a metal railing in a park above Swami's Beach in Encinitas, just past Del Mar as you head up the coast from San Diego.
Encinitas is one of the few remaining Southern California beach communities that is not perpetually choked with traffic nor teeming with immigrants from other states scrambling to be the last ones in before the "No Vacancy'"sign goes up. The locals work hard to keep things the way they are.
Sipping a cup of coffee and looking down at the pounding water, Sipe volunteers an overview of the interworkings of swells and reefs and currents. He is a lifelong veteran of the magical zone where the Pacific breaks over the continent.
The park where Sipe sits, a landmark for serious surfers, is adjacent to the Paramahansa Yoganandia Self-Realization Fellowship, a complex founded in 1927 by an Indian swami. The locals like the swami's group because it owns a lot of vacant land and seems intent on keeping it vacant.
The location is an altogether appropriate place to catch up with Sipe, who as a youth plunged into not just the ocean but into Eastern thought. One of his early intellectual sparks was Siddhartha, the novel about Buddha and the search for life's ultimate answers.
"Siddhartha had a profound effect on me, an absolutely profound effect," Sipe says, gazing at the waves.
"I read Siddhartha while I was living in a lean-to on the island of Maui, back in the old days before they had (regular) airline flights there. I thought that was the most important thing I'd ever read in my life. And I think it had a lot to do with how I lived my life."
These days, Sipe, 39, is not searching nearly as hard for answers. The questions are still there, he says, but they've been crowded out somewhat by job and family.
During this summer of 1988, another of Sipe's favorite books, The Fountainhead, seems more appropriate. When Browns quarterback coach Jim Shofner turned Sipe on to the Ayn Rand classic in 1979, reading the novel about a strong-willed architect did nothing to dissuade Sipe from his childhood dream.
"Under your senior picture in the high-school yearbook, where it has your plans, mine said architecture," Sipe reports.
Although neither of his parents worked in the profession -- his late father was an executive in the accounting department of the TraveLodge motel chain, his mother is a painter who uses a Chinese brush technique -- both were "very design-oriented," says Sipe.
"When I was younger, my dad used to like to take drives to different areas of San Diego and look at neighborhoods and buildings. My dad was always remodeling our houses, and he would get me involved.
"When I had a mechanical-drawing class in high school, it all clicked. I said, 'Gee, I want to work at a board like this and create things.' And that never really got too far from my mind."
When Sipe enrolled at San Diego State -- a move he doesn't regret because of its pass-oriented football program -- it set back his architecture career, in that the university did not offer an architecture major. And, of course, in that he played football too well -- well enough, in fact, to lead the nation in passing in the fall of 1971, his senior year.
Because of his lack of size and arm strength, the Browns didn't draft Sipe until the 13th round, and then cut him twice before finally giving him a uniform in 1974. He kept it for 10 seasons.
Following his retirement in 1985 after a lucrative two-year stint in the rival United States Football League, Sipe took a year's worth of architecture classes at a San Diego junior college. But he still needs more schooling and more time as an apprentice to become a licensed architect. He says certification isn't crucial -- "three years ago, the architect of the year in San Diego was not licensed'" -- but it's on his long-term agenda.
For now, though, Sipe is too busy designing things.
The drawing table of Sipe's dreams is located in an unmarked, two-story structure that features a red tile roof and beige stucco walls. It sits less than a quarter-mile from the beach. Inside, it is open and airy but highly functional and sort of beachfront funky.
The building houses the design arm of Sipe's main company, Wavecrest. As director of operations, Sipe is one of four officers. He and his associates first teamed up two years ago on a pair of resort projects, with Sipe acting primarily as an investor. These days, however, they focus on houses, and Sipe is instrumental in drawing them.
Assuming you have a spare $2 million for a Wavecrest home, it will be an all-or-nothing proposition: The company handles every aspect of the project, from development to design to general contracting to interior decorating, all the way down to the "the wattage of the light bulbs," Sipe says.
The immediate chore on this now-sunny ThursDAY, morning is finalizing some drawings and picking up a set of blueprints. Later, Sipe is to meet with a realty agent and show her a Wavecrest house under construction so she can speak knowledgeably to a potential buyer.
"You'll love it," he tells his visitors, speaking of the neighborhood. "It's Southern California decadence at its best. Or worst, maybe."
Sipe drives slowly past Gene Klein's thoroughbred stables, where this year's Kentucky Derby winner was bred. The surrounding area is being developed with an equestrian theme, Sipe says, adding that the 2 1/2-acre lots are being offered for $1 million apiece.
Eventually Sipe turns his black Ford pickup toward a large security gate and aims a garage-door-type opener through the windshield. The gate swings back and he drives past a guardhouse into a closed-to-the-public neighborhood known as Fairbanks Ranch.
Named after movie actor Douglas Fairbanks, who once owned it, Fairbanks Ranch is an eight-year-old development where vacant lots go for $400,000 and almost no house sells for less than $1 million.
In contrast to Rancho Santa Fe, a secluded, old-money neighborhood right across the valley, Fairbanks Ranch attracts the nouveau riche, Sipe says. An architect, he continues, must keep in mind the buyer's profile when designing a house. In Rancho Santa Fe, most homes are understated and sheltered from the road; in Fairbanks Ranch, the folks want their houses to announce to the world that they've made it.
Sipe's project involves 7,000 square feet (a typical house in the Akron area is roughly 1,500) with dazzling angles, high ceilings, dramatic glass, a pool, a bathhouse, butler's facilities and more rooms than you can count.
But it's downright Spartan compared to others in the neighborhood.
Down the road a piece, on the other side of a seemingly endless pink wall, an army of people unaffiliated with Sipe is constructing a new home for Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald's restaurant tycoon. Plans call for a 25,000-square-foot house on 10 lots. The cost of landscaping alone, Sipe says, will be $3 million.
It's mid-afternoon and Brian Sipe is standing next to the swimming pool in the glorious rear courtyard of his company's first house. The house is finished but unoccupied. Three purchase offers have been close to the mark, but Sipe's gang is holding out for about $1.4 million.
It's an inviting, bright house in which one room flows gracefully into another. Although the structure rambles over a considerable distance, there are no hallways.
A visitor mentions the difficulty of looking at a blueprint and visualizing exactly what the finished product will look like. Sipe says he has never had such a problem.
"It's just this God-given spatial perceptiveness, I guess. It has nothing to do with intellect. You can develop it a little, but some people have it and some don't. I know that from talking to people.
"And, you know, I don't think it's coincidence for me, because football is three-dimensional. The passing game is very space-oriented. I was always striking into an area over the top of things. I had to have a very good sense of depth perception and relationships of things. The sense of spatial awareness that I need for this job was also real important to playing quarterback."
But that, Sipe says, is one of the few things his two careers have had in common.
When the creative juices are really flowing, drawing a house is "every bit as exciting as playing a football game," he insists. However, architecture lacks one significant element:
"I'll always miss playing football because there is an immediateness of having this physical peril around you that brings out a unique kind of adrenaline.
"Let's go back to Siddhartha a little bit -- it's really being in the 'here and now' when you're playing football. There are no telephones and no world events and no children, nothing except just what you're doing.
"Besides having an objective, there's also this physical danger, and I kind of miss that. ...
"I used to feel good whether we won or lost. I could never say that while we were playing. It was the feeling a warrior must feel after he survives the battle. It's not so much that you won or lost, but you survived it."
In architecture, on the other hand, it is your work that stays alive after the workday, is over.
"What you leave a neighborhood becomes a signature for that neighborhood. There's a responsibility involved in architecture. Achieving an improvement in somebody's life is an excitement I never had in football. I never did really figure out how football improved people's lives."
As Sipe drives along a winding, dusty road toward his house, he passes a large field of poinsettias. He says the field is part of the largest poinsettia farm in the world and is operated by the family of the man who first domesticated the Christmastime flower. The combination of sunshine and sea breezes wafting over the little valley "creates an absolutely perfect microclimate" for poinsettias, he says.
A little farther up the road is a bizarre structure belonging to "our eccentric-artist neighbor named Klimo." It's a ... well, let's see. ... It's a ... What the hell is it, Brian?
"It's a doughnut-shaped swimming pool with a dome over it. His intention was to live on the island in the middle of it. The city told him it didn't have the (required) insulation factor. So he's building the A-frame up there, and once that's finished they'll give him a permit to reside on the property, which he's been doing for 40 years anyway."
Sipe's own house, at the top of the lane, is more traditional. In fact, unlike many Southern California homes, which show heavy Spanish influences, the Sipe residence would not look at all out of place in a rural suburb of Akron.
The home where he lives with wife Jeri and their three kids -- Lani, 11, Morgan, 7, and Nolan, 3 -- was purchased by the Sipes in 1976 and extensively remodeled, mostly by Brian and Jeri themselves.
There's an in-ground pool in back, and the house sits on a hill with fine views all around. But it is considerably more modest than the ones Sipe designs. What it may offer above all else is that rarest of Southern California commodities -- isolation.
The house certainly is more impressive than the Sipes' first Ohio residence, a glorified shack in the southern Medina County village of Seville, where they settled in 1974. Although the Sipes were content, they realized they needed something a bit more substantial after the first child arrived.
"The kid's bedroom was a bathroom,' Sipe recalls with a laugh.
But they didn't stray from Medina County while Brian wore the Browns' No. 17. After four years in Seville, they moved to Granger Township, then up to Hinckley -- each winter, of course, returning to San Diego.
Brian wasn't the only Sipe blazing trails in Ohio during the `70s. Jeri, a spunky, trim woman, became the first person to export Jazzercise from its Southern California birthplace. She served as Ohio coordinator for the exercise program.
Jeri retired from Jazzercise only a couple of months ago in favor of full- time parenting, son Nolan being -- as Brian tactfully puts it -- "strong-headed."
The story of Brian and Jeri, who have been married for 15 years, is enough to turn a stomach.
"Oh, it's sicky sweet," Sipe had said earlier with a laugh. "I'm embarrassed to talk about it. I always imagined myself traveling around the world, meeting exotic people and always having sort of an interesting twist to things that are the most important to me, and somehow I never envisioned this." He laughs again and shakes his head.
"We met in French class. She was the cheerleader and I was the football player. It was really sicky sweet."
They dated others in college but kept coming back to each other.
"It works beautifully," Brian says. "Nothing but good things have come out of it. I'm still absolutely in love with her."
Jeri later agrees that they met in French class, but describes the initial attraction a bit differently.
"I didn't think he was particularly cute," she says. "I didn't know he played football or anything like that. But his hair kind of went over to the side in back. That's funny, but that's what I remember: That guy's hair is kind of neat."
Sipe misses his friends in the Akron area, people like former teammates Tom DeLeone and Robert Jackson. But he doesn't come back much. The last time was in December.
His reluctance to return stems not only from "that fatigue over being recognized," but from unhappy memories.
Visiting the area "brings back all the things that I tried to do as an athlete and was unable to do. I am reminded of failures."
You mean the first thing you think of when you think of the Cleveland Browns is failure?
Sipe pauses for a long, long time. This, mind you, is the man who in 1980 was named Most Valuable Player in the 28-team National Football League, the man who owns almost all of the Browns' career passing records, the guy who claims that playing the game to the best of your ability is all you can ask.
Yes, he says finally, "failure" is not overstating it.
"Every year I really expected our team to (go farther in) the playoffs, to at least have a shot at the Super Bowl.
"When I look back on it, I realize an awful lot of it was unachievable. I don't think I ever was as good a quarterback as a lot of people thought I was. I don't think the team was ever as talented as we wanted the public to believe.
"There were a lot of ingredients that prevented all those teams I was on from realistically thinking about winning a championship. As a matter of fact, I don't know that we were ever even close."
A lack of continuity on the coaching staff was among the problems, he says. "But I hope you will hear me out on this. That isn't sour grapes. I take pride, a lot of pride, in what we did accomplish.
"There aren't any rings to show for it. There aren't a lot of Pro Bowls and trophies and things like that. I think what makes me the most proud of the time I spent there was that we were a pretty damn exciting team to go watch play.
"There were a lot of instances when the Cleveland fans got a pretty good pull for their buck, more than most fans do."
When Sipe enters a deli for a sandwich and takes it to a busy courtyard outside a group of shops, no one seems to recognize him. Folks are friendly, typical Southern California friendly, but nobody stares. Nobody wants a piece of him.
Bernie Kosar's predecessor is aware that his rejection of fame only made him more intriguing to Northeast Ohioans. But he simply could not change his nature.
The public glare, Sipe says, "is stifling. It stifles your life; it stifles all aspects of it. It certainly stifles your creativity because so many people are analyzing what you do. You're not allowed to fail. ...
"My father grew up on an Indian reservation (Sipe's grandfather was an Indian agent) and I think I kind of adopted the philosophy the American Indian had about photographs, which is that the photograph robs you of your spirit.
"Whether it's a photograph or somebody observing you while you're trying to have a private moment, it's kind of all the same to me. I feel like I'm having something sucked out of me.
"I would never want to have that again."
So what was the deal with the Richmond Brothers commercial?
He smiles good-naturedly and replies quickly, with typical candor: "I have to admit that was a case where my ego got in the way of my better judgment. And, God, they offered me a lot of money."
Six figures, for what amounted to a few video mug-sessions in a sports coat. The money, coupled with his fascination for New York City (where the spots were filmed) and for the commercial-making process itself (he studied telecommunications in college), convinced him to try his one and only endorsement.
"But I tell you one thing: When I watched the first commercial on television it created such an anxiety in me that I never had the stomach to watch the rest of them. At that point I wished I could have gotten out of the contract."
Like most people, Brian Sipe is a complex bundle, full of apparently conflicting parts.
He loves his relative solitude in Encinitas but adores the "vitality" of New York City.
He is a Vietnam draft-dodger who wore down his draft board with paperwork and appeals, who would have gone to Canada if necessary, but who now often advocates military enlistment to young people as a way to learn self-discipline.
He loathes the fact that San Diego's population has skyrocketed, but knows his career and much of the area's economy depends on continued growth.
He is a man of remarkable concentration, mental toughness and self-control, but he jumped to the rival United States Football League not as much for the bigger money as to salve hurt feelings when the Browns, in the midst of the 1983 playoff hunt, acted more interested in signing his backup, Paul McDonald. He resents the intrusion of the media, but in its presence he is as charming and accommodating as a subject could be.
He is a man who thinks there is far too much emphasis on winning but gave as much of himself toward that end as anyone who has ever worn a Browns uniform.
Doug Dieken, a former teammate and now a TV sportscaster, recalls a WEWS (Channel 5) interview with Dr. John Bergfeld, the Browns' longtime team physician. Says Dieken: "We asked Doc Bergfeld, 'Who was the toughest Brown you've ever seen?' He said, 'I'd probably say Brian Sipe.' "
The toughest of the tough seems to be a man aware of his shortcomings yet completely at ease with himself.
"I still read a lot, although I don't think I'm searching as much as I did when I was younger," he had said that morning, in the park. "As a matter of fact, I think probably as a result of all the things I did and all the attention I got and raising a family that I'm trying to simplify my values a little bit.
"I guess you could say I'm -- God, I don't know how to put this -- I'm going to church. I'm probably a little more Christian than I was.
"I used to think I should have all the answers. Now I'm beginning to understand that I never will. ...
"I've learned as I've gotten older that everybody needs a teacher. I don't think you can teach yourself."
His new teacher, he says, is the Bible, which he only recently has included on his reading list. Although he still is wrestling with fundamental questions about Christianity, he said he has "made the decision to let the scriptures teach me for a while."
Brian Sipe is offered a parting shot, a summing up for the folks three time zones away, the folks who cheered him, adored him and -- come on, admit it -- occasionally booed him.
"I don't want people to go away thinking, 'Gosh, there's Brian Sipe again, this Southern California surfer guy who's had everything, comes to Cleveland and is a football player, makes a lot of money, now he's out in California and of course he's successful in real estate and everything."
He says making the transition hasn't been easy. He's says he's had to work hard.
"I'd like people to understand that nobody's anointed. I've been kicked in the ass a few times by life and right now is kind of a precarious time for me. I've committed a lot of my resources and energy into what I'm doing. I feel real confident about the direction we're going, but we are not a success yet.
"So I guess I'm telling people again that I'm the same as they are. I have the same anxieties and I lose sleep here and there. But I think I do that at a level that's healthy. It's just part of life.
"The people I admire most are the people who have struggled in their lives. I don't think life was intended to be all gravy. I'd get tired of life like that. I get bored with people who have it all. I don't want to have it all. I want to struggle a little bit. That makes me appreciate what I've got."
Now there's a bit of wisdom from a Western philosopher.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.