They were teammates in 1985, the cusp of the Browns’ glory days of three AFC Championship Game appearances in four years.
But Bernie Kosar doesn’t remember Scott Bolzan, a backup offensive tackle. Neither does Earnest Byner, Felix Wright or Dan Fike.
Bolzan doesn’t remember them, either, but they shouldn’t be offended. When Bolzan slipped on an oily substance in the bathroom of his Tempe, Ariz., office on Dec. 17, 2008, his entire life before that moment was wiped out.
When the owner of a private jet company awoke in the hospital, he didn’t know what a wife was, much less recognize Joan, his spouse of 24 years, or their two children, daughter Taylor and son Grant. He was like a toddler, suffering from retrograde amnesia. When the Bolzans carved a pumpkin for their first Halloween after the accident, shown on an April 19, 2010, episode of ABC’s Nightline, he had no idea what he would find inside.
Nearly three years later, the only improvement Bolzan has seen is the ability to remember what he dreamed the night before.
None of the doctors whom he has consulted have an answer as to why the fall that slit open the back of Bolzan’s head to his skull obliterated his memory. Joan Bolzan said some suspect football played a part.
“We have had a few that felt while Scott does not have any recorded concussions, this could have been ‘the last blow’ to cause such a condition,” Joan said last week in an e-mail. “Their thinking was that offensive linemen concuss on every play, maybe not enough to lose consciousness, but to cause some degree of concussion. Only an autopsy can be sure. There was no conclusive evidence that football caused this, just some speculation from some doctors.”
Fitting pieces together
As Bolzan, 49, sets out to reconstruct his life, he seems to harbor no bitterness about football, even though it might have started him on this terrifying road. Instead, the game is an important part of his rebuilding project.
“I’m trying to fit together this billion-piece jigsaw puzzle of my life, and I don’t even have the corners filled out yet,” Bolzan said. “Playing in college and in the NFL, I want those pieces back. Those are important pieces that formed who I was.”
At this point, he doesn’t have many of them. A team photo of the 1985 Browns hangs on his wall. The New England Patriots, who drafted him in the ninth round in 1984, sent some photos. NFL Films no longer has footage of the 1985 or ’86 preseasons, the only games he played for the Browns.
The only former Brown he has spoken to since his accident was safety Al Gross, who lives in the Phoenix area, where the Bolzans live in the East Valley. Bolzan and Gross met at a golf tournament, and Bolzan picked his brain, eager for information about the team. A friend told him a story about Bolzan running into Kosar at an airport in Dallas, when Kosar was putting together an ownership group to buy the Browns.
“I’m sure football has taught me to persevere and to overcome these obstacles,” Bolzan said in a telephone interview two weeks ago. “The memories aren’t gone, I just can’t connect to them. Once we can find a way to make that connection, that’s what we have to work on.”
Bolzan said he spent two years on the board of directors of Arizona’s NFL alumni chapter “to see what football players were like.”
“About eight months after my accident, it was important for me to get acquainted with guys who shared the same things I must have gone through,” Bolzan said. “That was a way for me to see how they acted, what they did, what kind of clothes they wore, the cars they drove. To see what life meant to them now and what the game meant to them when they played. To get those experiences my wife couldn’t share with me. Even though she was with me since the start of my college career, she wasn’t with me on the field or in the locker room.”
Time in Cleveland
Joan Bolzan can tell him what she remembers of Cleveland, which isn’t much. A junior in nursing school when he was drafted by the Patriots, she gave up her studies while he went to training camp with New England before being cut. Then they headed to Memphis, Tenn., where Bolzan played in the United States Football League.
Signed by the Browns in May 1985, Bolzan was released Sept. 2, but re-signed three weeks later when right tackle Cody Risien suffered a knee injury. Bolzan stayed less than a month, cut in October when receiver Brian Brennan was activated from injured reserve. Bolzan participated in training camp in 1986, but an injury ended his career.
During the ’85 season, Joan Bolzan said they looked at an apartment in Parma but were turned away because of an ordinance against renters with dogs. So she went back to Northern Illinois to finish her degree. Scott shared a room with a teammate she can’t remember at a cheap hotel named Murphy’s, and Joan made the six-hour trip about every two weeks. She remembers players’ postgame dinners at the Brown Derby and Kosar’s house getting burglarized frequently when the team was on the road. The Browns finished 8-8, losing to the Miami Dolphins 24-21 in the playoffs.
“That was when they were redoing the Flats; it was becoming more of a destination place,” Joan Bolzan said two weeks ago by phone. “I remember Scott calling me and saying, ‘This is so cool down here,’ and I said, ‘You’re in Cleveland.’ He had some good times down there with the team.
“I remember that season very well, cheering and hoping we were going to go to the Super Bowl. It was an exciting time.”
Reliving the game
To help Bolzan rebuild his puzzle, last month the Bolzans went back to Northern Illinois, where they met. She was a gymnast. He was a four-year starter who made first-team All-Mid-American Conference, honorable mention All-America, was voted captain in 1983 and selected as a 1995 inductee into the Huskies’ athletic hall of fame. Now traveling the country as public speakers, the Bolzans addressed a group of students and stood on the sideline at a football game.
“To actually be there and to almost feel those impacts and to smell the game and hear the sounds of the game, you don’t get that opportunity sitting in the stands or watching on television,” Scott Bolzan said. “It’s a big part of my life that I’m missing.”
That opportunity moved Joan Bolzan to tears.
“He was like a little kid,” she said. “He’d gone onto high school fields because our daughter was a cheerleader, he got to re-experience that, but it’s nothing like college. Then you take it to the next level, he hasn’t been on the field for the pros yet. He was so excited and he turns around and I’m bawling.
“He’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘This is just so hard that you don’t remember this. This was so much of your life. So much love for the game and commitment. And you were a captain, the only one drafted.’ ”
Although the arrangements haven’t been made, Joan Bolzan hopes Scott can have a similar experience Dec. 18, when the Browns visit the Arizona Cardinals. She knows the uniforms won’t trigger any memories, but seeing his joy will probably bring her more tears.
“That’s just one part of his life, his identity, why he strove to make those great accomplishments and what drove him after,” she said. “So many players struggle with, ‘What am I going to do now?’ He’s had great successes building businesses on his own. It’s been such a remarkable journey and then to lose all that … It’s sometimes overwhelming to think of one aspect, let alone all the other things he’s lost.”
Joan Bolzan agonizes over the fact that her husband doesn’t recall their wedding day, their children’s births, the family’s big events and their little moments to cherish. For Bolzan’s teammates and Cleveland fans, the lament might be different. A member of one of the best Browns teams of our lifetime can’t remember a single snap.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.