Kardiac Kids: The Story of the 1980 Cleveland Browns
Praise for Kardiac Kids
“The most comprehensive documentation of the Browns’ 1980 team…Jonathan Knight, who was 4 at the time, relives the season in delicious detail.”
-Tony Grossi, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“…thoroughly researched…taking the reader through the bone-chilling winter when Cleveland football fans fell in love with their team.”
-Akron Beacon Journal
Meanwhile, 1,300 miles away in Cleveland, thousands of Browns fans were mobilizing.
Following the conclusion of the game telecast, WKYC in Cleveland ran two notices across the bottom of the screen announcing the time and location of the Browns’ return to Cleveland. With the team set to arrive at Hopkins Airport around 11:10 p.m., fans started arriving to the airport at 9:00, waiting welcome home their heroes.
Within an hour, the airport was jammed with thousands of people and concourses were essentially shut down, forcing many passengers to miss their flights. Police rope set up to contain the masses was ineffective. With so many people packed together in such a small area, temperatures rose to nearly 100 degrees and dozens fainted. Airport bars ran out of glasses. Regular passengers exited their planes via special security hallways because the concourses were jammed wall-to-wall with people.
Outside traffic looked as though it was a Friday rush hour rather than a typical Sunday night. Cars throttled Interstate 71 for miles, and by 11:00 p.m., traffic was backed up from the airport to Brookpark Road. Cars lucky enough to reach the airport could find no parking spaces, so drivers simply abandoned their automobiles wherever they could find empty space, be it on the grass or mulch.
Longtime Browns trainer Leo Murphy later confessed the only thing he’d ever seen that even came close to this was in December 1964. Then the team had returned from a 52-20 win over the Giants in New York that clinched the Eastern Conference title and propelled the Browns into the NFL Championship against the Baltimore Colts. But Murphy said this airport display was bigger. Many agreed that the city of Cleveland hadn’t seen anything like this since the Indians won the 1948 World Series.
On the surface it may not have seemed like much. Yes, it was a big game, but it was still just a regular-season contest. The Browns had not played particularly well, had clinched nothing, and still had three games to go. They could still miss the playoffs and break their fans’ hearts once again. So why was Hopkins a Mecca for Browns fans that cold November night? “This is a suspicious old factory town, finding comfort in ‘knowing all along’ that things won’t turn out right,” explained Bob Sudyk the next day in the Cleveland Press. “Well, Our Browns are making us believe in something once again.”
When the team finally arrived shortly after midnight, they exited the plane knowing of the throng that awaited them. When the pilot made his dream-like announcement, Modell had jokingly told an advisor to quickly open the ticket office. The players were given the option of departing through one of the security hallways to avoid the chaos, but most of them turned it down. This was the stuff of dreams, the kind of thing that comes along once in a lifetime. They weren’t about to pass it up. After some hesitation Rutigliano led the team off the plane and into the terminal. Rutigliano wanted the players to go first, but after they urged him to take the lead and Modell good-naturedly informed him this was a designated duty in his contract, Rutigliano agreed. The flight attendants opened the boarding door.
“You could feel the heat from all the people rush down the gangway and into the plane,” Ron Bolton said. “It was unreal.”
When the team entered the terminal, the crowd went crazy. They screamed at, chanted for, and sang to the players, many of whom stopped for pictures and autographs on their way through. Appropriately, Brian Sipe marched into the chaos with several offensive linemen in front of him. “That was the best protection I got all day,” he joked.
“Even Earl (Campbell) could not have gotten through the crowd,” Rutigliano said. It took nearly two hours for the players to get from the terminal to their cars.
“We were thinking, ‘What are these people doing?’” Doug Dieken said. “It was amazing. It was an unbelievable scene to get off that plane and see all those people in the heat and the adulation they had.”
“I had never experienced anything like that and I’d played at Michigan and gone to the Rose Bowl,” Thom Darden said. “To see the enthusiasm and the way people responded was indescribable.” The players were escorted through a side exit by airport security and led to the baggage-claim area, where it would be easier to board the buses that would take them to their parking lot. But shortly after they made their “escape,” they heard someone yell, “Look! There they are!” and another swarm of fans came running down the concourse toward them. When the players finally piled into the buses, fans were jumping onto the roof and hanging onto the windows, not wanting to let their heroes get away.
Modell had tears in his eyes as it all unfolded. After nearly a decade of sheer ineptitude and disappointment, both on the athletic fields and in the court of public opinion, Cleveland had finally fallen in love with one of its teams. The Woodstock-esque feeling in the airport that night - “like being in the middle of a Fellini film,” as Dick Ambrose described it - was one the city hadn’t experienced in more than thirty years.
“It wasn’t earning a spot in the Super Bowl,” wrote Bob Sudyk. “It wasn’t clinching a pennant. It was merely that the Browns, for the first time in almost a decade, were leading the high-quality Central Division with three games to play.”
“I’ve been saying all along that the road to the big one is through Pittsburgh,” Rutigliano said. “Now, it’s through Cleveland! We’ve got a full tank of gas and we’re driving the car!”