WOODMERE, Ohio: When Lee Evans failed to hold on to a catch with 22 seconds remaining that would have sent the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl, the wide receiver knew where to go for solace.
The day after the January loss to the New England Patriots, Evans showed up at the office of Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Evans grew up in Bedford, Ohio, and knew that Newsome had experienced one of his most painful moments with the Browns, ‘‘Red Right 88,’’ about two months before he was born. Evans was a youngster when Newsome and the Browns lost three AFC Championship Games in four years to the Denver Broncos, games that need no description other than “The Drive” or “The Fumble.”
“He said, ‘I worked my whole life for that opportunity and I didn’t come away with the catch.’ He wanted to talk to me because he knew what I went through,” Newsome said of Evans. “He asked, ‘How do you deal with that?’ I told him, ‘As time moves on, it heals. You will heal.’ ”
The next day, Newsome arrived at the Senior Bowl and told former Browns teammate Earnest Byner what he had said to Evans. Byner, his life defined by the fumble, thought Newsome misled Evans.
“Earnest said, ‘Yeah. But you know what? You do heal, but it’s always there. Even though I got a chance to win a Super Bowl with the Redskins, it still eats at me what happened when we played against the Broncos.’ ”
Newsome opened the vault on his painful memories Monday night at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse as part of ESPN Cleveland’s “A Dinner With …” series. Two veteran Browns beat writers had never heard many of the stories Newsome told. They practically came pouring out, tales of his 13-year career as a Browns Hall of Fame tight end and as the director of pro personnel in 1995 when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore.
It almost seemed like a cathartic moment for Newsome.
The crowd of about 100 commiserated when Newsome spoke of ‘‘Red Right 88’’ and the 14-12 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders in 1980. Coach Sam Rutigliano distained a field-goal attempt into the open end of Cleveland Stadium with 41 seconds left, and quarterback Brian Sipe’s pass intended for Newsome was intercepted by safety Mike Davis.
“I remember lying down in the end zone near the Dawg Pound when Mike Davis intercepted that pass,” Newsome said. “I remember the silence.”
Newsome flashed back to “The Drive” and the disappointment after losing to John Elway and the Broncos in overtime in the 1986 AFC title game.
The Browns went ahead 20-13 with five minutes remaining on Brian Brennan’s 48-yard touchdown catch of a pass from Bernie Kosar. Then the Broncos took over at their 2 and marched 98 yards to tie the score.
“The mistake that we made, myself and the whole offense, was we watched that drive instead of getting ourselves ready to go back out and win the game in overtime,” Newsome said. “Watching the Broncos execute, I think it took our will away.
“I’ve learned when the defense is out on the field, you can’t control what they do, so get yourself ready. If we’d have been prepared to do what we had just done by scoring a touchdown, then we win that game.”
The Browns did bounce back the next season, going 10-5 and again meeting the Broncos, the title game’s outcome decided by Byner’s fumble.
“You think how hard it is to get back to that point and we did three out of four years. But we couldn’t close,” Newsome said. “You can let that eat at you or you can use it as motivation. We felt we were the better team and we did it again and we still couldn’t close.”
Newsome also discussed landmark decisions of the Browns franchise that hurt the fans more than him. One was coach Bill Belichick’s decision to cut the ultrapopular Kosar in 1993, when Newsome held the nebulous title of assistant to the head coach/offense/pro personnel.
“It was [against] Denver … it’s always Denver,” Newsome said of the 29-14 loss that precipitated the decision. “Bernie had audibled and we ended up scoring a touchdown, and it was one of those things where Bill felt he needed to have control of the team. We had Vinny [Testaverde], but Vinny was hurt. We didn’t know how hurt at that time.
“He felt he could make the change from Bernie, but he didn’t feel like if he did that Bernie should be on the team. If you’re going to make the decision, you have to make it wholeheartedly. Today Bill would admit he made a mistake.”
Asked if he agreed with Belichick at the time, Newsome said: “We had a staff meeting, which included Mr. Modell and [former executive vice president] Jim Bailey. When the decision was made, we had to be all in, whether you agree with it or not. Otherwise it would really fracture you.”
The decision that made Modell an outcast from the city he loved came in 1995, when he announced the team’s move to Baltimore. The Browns had finished 11-5 and reached the playoffs in 1994. They were 4-5 when Modell took to the podium in a Baltimore parking lot and confirmed the shocking news. They finished 5-11.
“I remember Bill called me in his office when we were on a downward spiral and said, ‘I don’t know how we can stop this bleeding. I’ve asked all around for any other time when a team went through this. I don’t know if this has ever happened before in the middle of a season,’ ” Newsome recalled. “When that announcement came, that took the air out of us.”
Newsome said he might not have made it through the painful evening after the Browns’ final game in Cleveland Stadium on Dec. 17, 1995, if not for vice president of public relations Kevin Byrne, who works for the Ravens, and player relations director Dino Lucarelli, still in alumni relations with the Browns.
“I saw people taking bleachers and seats out of the stadium,” Newsome said. “It was a somber mood. I remember walking out on the field and really, really, really being down. I looked to my right and there was Kevin Byrne and I looked to my left and there was Dino Lucarelli. They were feeling the same pain. I was able to embrace those two guys. Kevin grew up in Cleveland and Dino had been as big a part of the Cleveland Browns as anybody. To stand there with those two guys, it helped me.
“That was one of those moments you don’t ever want to endure again. To watch that happen, it’s almost like watching a movie. A movie that you see one time, but you don’t care to see it again.”
Newsome has risen above his painful past. He was named the NFL Executive of the Year in 2000, when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Receiving the general manager title in 2002, Newsome is now a member of three policy-making league committees, including the prestigious Competition Committee. When he checked his phone during a break Monday, he had a message from its chairman, Rich McKay.
But Newsome said he became a man in Cleveland and wasn’t sure he wanted to leave.
“I was 22 years old and all I could do was catch,” he said of 1978, when he was drafted in the first round along with linebacker Clay Matthews. “I cannot sit here and say it wasn’t some difficult times, for the fans, for us, to have the opportunity to move. I didn’t know I’d have the chance to move. Eventually Art called me and said, ‘I’m moving the team and I want you to go with me.’
“I’d been here for 18 years and I don’t think there’s a street in this city that I don’t know, that I could get lost on. I was so much a part of this city and the fabric of the fans. But that became a unique opportunity, an opportunity I was able to parlay to become the first African-American general manager. So out of something that was somber and disappointing, something good happened. I think that’s the way you have to look at everything in life.”
The point Byner made about what Newsome said to Evans might have stuck. Perhaps in reliving his painful past, Newsome found the right answer for the next player who asks him how to cope.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.