Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kosar Starts Second Half

After losing love and money, ex-Browns QB Bernie Kosar is working on a comeback

August 14, 2010

By Terry Pluto

About a year ago, Bernie Kosar quietly made a call to Baltimore.

"I needed to see Art," the former Cleveland Browns quarterback said. He meant Art Modell, the former owner of the Browns who moved the franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

"We hadn't talked since I was cut [by the Browns in 1993]," Kosar said. "I heard that Art was in a wheelchair and not doing well. I know that Art thinks he can't come back [to Cleveland], so I went to Art."

All Kosar ever did was make Modell a lot of money from 1985 to '93, when Kosar quarterbacked the Browns. To this day, Browns fans are stunned then-coach Bill Belichick cut Kosar in the middle of the 1993 season. Belichick believed Vinny Testaverde was ready to be the Browns starter. But Testaverde was out with a shoulder separation when Belichick made the poorly timed, incredibly unpopular decision.

And Modell allowed it to happen.

So why visit Modell?

"Because it was something I should do," Kosar said. "Why not make up with him? Life is too short. We had a great visit."

Kosar is now 46. He sees the world not through the eyes of the confident quarterback, but from the perspective of a man who knows life can be hard. It's not always fair.

We also can make some dumb decisions.

"When I was playing, I never thought it would end," he said. "I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would, you know what I mean? I didn't think I'd get hurt. I didn't think I'd get divorced. I didn't think I'd go bankrupt. I thought the money would always be there. No athlete when he's young or in his prime ever thinks it will end."

But end it did.

The divorce was very public, very ugly.

The money disappeared because of some family issues and some poor investments. Kosar also forgot he was an honor student with a finance degree from the University of Miami. He allowed some people to handle his money, and he simply didn't pay attention to where it went.

"I know how to make money, and I know how to spend money," he said. "The saving part never worked for me. My dad was a steelworker. My brother's company closed. Things happen, people needed help."

He paused.

"I was into a lot of Florida real estate," he added. "Anyone who had a lot of Florida real estate and says they didn't get killed [financially] in the last few years is lying."

A new start

Kosar is starting over.

He's dating Tami Longaberger, the CEO of The Longaberger Co. of Newark, Ohio. It's nationally known for its handmade, quality baskets and enthusiastic, Avon-like sales force. Longaberger is publishing a business book called "Weaving Dreams" this month, and she has been on the board of trustees at Ohio State.

"The rumor is we're engaged," said Kosar. "I act like we're married. Just say that we're good friends. Her impact on me is phenomenal. She is an amazing person."

Bernie Kosar takes time out during a conversation with Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, right, to sign an autograph after a Browns practice in Berea on Aug. 1.

Longaberger is helping Kosar get organized. He is now represented by Neil Cornrich, one of the National Football League's most respected agents. Kosar is working through his bankruptcy issues and working with Longaberger on selling products with NFL licensing.

Kosar recently was in Columbus for The Bee, a sales convention for the Longaberger Co. attended by more than 6,000. He was not the star. It was Tami who delivered the keynote address. He gave a short speech about the company's product line aimed at pro and college football fans.

Yes, he was there to shake hands and sign autographs, but he was more like a blocking back and a safety-valve receiver with Tami quarterbacking the business. He also seemed very content in the role, as this was his second Longaberger convention.

"Bernie is a person who is honest and has the courage to express his opinions," Longaberger said. "He's not self-absorbed. He is generous and kind. He has a hard time being mad at those who haven't been nice to him. It's not in his heart to hold grudges."

Friends with Belichick

Which brings us to Belichick.

"Bill and I made up not long after he got the New England [Patriots coaching] job," Kosar said. "I was interviewed about it, and I told the writers that I thought Bill would make a good coach. I really meant it. He's a smart guy. Bill then called me to thank me, and we've been friends ever since. I have never been one to carry grudges for long."

For real?

"I got whacked by Bill, but stuff does happen," Kosar said. "You can't change history. You can't be negative or bitter about it. I didn't want to carry that around when it came to Bill. When reporters asked me about how Bill would do in New England, they figured I'd slam him. But I said what I really believed. Bill is fantastic when it comes to organization and discipline. His strength is defense. He really knows his X's and O's. He could learn offense, and he'd learn from what happened in Cleveland."

But there's more.

"People won't believe this, but when we were talking about coaches for the Browns in 1999, I mentioned hiring Bill to [owner Al] Lerner and [team President] Carmen Policy," Kosar said. "They about laughed me out of the office. They thought I was crazy. I thought Bill would be perfect for a team on a tight timeline because of his incredible organizational skills. We needed a special coach for an expansion team."

Kosar says he and Bill Belichick, right, have been friends for many years, even though Belichick infamously released the popular Browns quarterback in 1993.

Kosar had to know the public backlash to bringing Belichick back to Cleveland -- remember, he had yet to revive his career at New England -- meant it was impractical.

But the fact that he would mention it says two things about Kosar: 1) He is a very creative thinker and risk taker when it comes to football. 2) He really hates grudges.

Asked to discuss Kosar, Belichick responded with this e-mail: "I have always had a lot of respect for Bernie -- his football intelligence and passion for football. I appreciate the support he has shown me through the years. I have always admired his preparation and commitment to the Browns -- before, during and after Bill Belichick. I have enjoyed my communications with Bernie through the years."

It sounds very formal and sterile, but the facts are that Kosar has reached out to Modell and Belichick over the years, two guys who were part of the worst season of his life.

Pain management

Longaberger said one of the things she admires most about Kosar is "how he deals with pain, both emotional and physical. He says dealing with the pain, especially the emotional pain, has made him a better person. He doesn't stay angry."

The physical toll on his body is real.

In a low chair, he can't just stand up -- his surgically repaired ankle and aching knees aren't strong enough. He needs to pull himself up a bit with his hands on the arms of a chair. Nor can he hold his right arm straight out to the side of his body.

"I've had surgery on my ankle to get a screw taken out," Kosar said. "I had surgery on my right elbow to have spurs removed, and on my left elbow to have a ligament fixed. My back hurts sometimes. The ankle still isn't great. But I'm doing OK, I really am."

Kosar took a physical beating during his playing career, and he still feels the effects today.

Kosar also has dealt with the aftermath of concussions suffered while playing. There are some headaches, some brief memory loss, some occasional involuntary twitching.

"I don't know how many concussions I had . . . a lot," he said. "We just played through them. It was like a badge of courage. No one was counting when I played. I kept smelling salts in my pouch [around his waist] when I was out there, because I'd get hit and feel dizzy."

He paused.

"We played at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Houston every year," Kosar said. "That awful [artificial] turf, the worst fields. It was like cement. The initial hit wasn't the worst, it was when your head banged down on that turf. I have friends that I played with who are worse. They have short-term memory loss, I don't.

"But in the morning, I sometimes feel slow. At night, I get tired. I struggle sometimes to say exactly what I want when I'm tired like that. But I have been treated, I am doing better."

Kosar said all that without a trace of pity. It was as if he were reading off his work schedule for the day -- no emotion, just a fact of life.

"I've gotten to know some of Bernie's friends from the Browns," Longaberger said. "Most of them have real physical problems from football that they'll deal with the rest of their lives. But they are like Bernie -- they say they'd go through it all once more if only they could play again."

Mr. Mom

Kosar has four children: Sara (age 18), Rachel (17), Becky (13) and Joe (10).

"I spend a lot of time as Mr. Mom," he said. "The kids live in Florida, but they spend a lot of time up here with me. I coach my son's flag football team. It's so cool. We have a kid named Michael Stolzenberg. He plays with artificial legs and arms. He's unbelievable, so tough. When I feel bad, I think about him. I get real thankful. Then guess what? He runs faster than me."

Kosar loves to play catch with his son, both pretending they are quarterbacks.
"I still have a juvenile streak in me," he said. "If one of us makes a bad throw or drops a pass -- usually, it's me -- then we later play a game called Gastineau. I stand by the bed, and my son blindsides me. Hits me hard. He's about 5-4, 125 pounds. He lifts weights with me. He's strong."

Most Browns fans will remember when New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau hammered Kosar in a game. Now, it's what Kosar calls it when his son tackles him.
Kosar doesn't dwell on the past, but he thinks about it.

"I still talk to [former Denver Broncos quarterback] John Elway," he said. "We never talk about The Drive or The Fumble [which led to losses by the Browns in the AFC Championship Games during the 1986 and 1987 seasons]. He knows it's still too painful for me. We talk about guys we played, games we saw -- even some individual plays in games. He owned the Denver franchise in the old Arena League, and we talk a lot about Arena League players. But we don't talk about those [playoff] games."

Kosar was a backup to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman during his half-season with the Cowboys in 1993, but he played most of the second half of the NFC Championship Game after Aikman was injured, and received a Super Bowl ring.

Kosar did receive a Super Bowl ring as a backup with Dallas in the 1993 season, "but my goal was to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. It's why I wanted to play here in the first place. It's home."

So what was worse, The Drive or The Fumble?

"Can't say," he said. "They both sucked. But I felt the worst for Earnest [Byner, who fumbled]. He's such a good man. I think about him every day. I admire how he handled all that."

Dreaming of playing

There are nights when Kosar feels as if he's still the Browns' quarterback.
If you say, "In his dreams," you're right.
"I have dreams where I'm still playing," he said. "Not dreams about whole games, just plays. I may be watching film of certain blitzes or defenses, then I go to sleep -- and suddenly I'm in a game, facing that defense. I've had dreams about two-minute drills. I still watch a lot of game films. Arena League, the Browns, whatever. I remain fascinated by it, I love to study it."

Longaberger said: "Bernie is brilliant when it comes to the game of football. He tells me what is going to happen with a play as soon as the teams are on the line of scrimmage . . . his vision for the game is absolutely amazing. Sometimes, he will talk about his playing days . . . a specific play that he would want to do over, how [former University of Miami] coach [Howard] Schnellenberger, [former Miami offensive coordinator Gary] Stevens and [former Miami quarterbacks coach Marc] Trestman influenced his offensive philosophy and his life.

"He misses the locker room environment that no one really understands but the players. He still appreciates the loyalty and love he receives from the guys he played with."

Kosar's last game with the Browns was 11 games into the 1993 season. His last season as a pro was with Miami as a backup in 1996.

"I still miss playing," he said. "That's the best job that I'll ever have. That's why I loved sitting down late at night in Berea with [Browns offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll and [coach] Eric Mangini, looking at film. Talking football. They are great guys. They proved it in the last four games of the year."

Kosar remains a consultant for the Browns. When former General Manager George Kokinis left the team in the middle of last season, owner Randy Lerner asked Kosar to be around the team -- to be available to Mangini.

At first, the coaches were suspicious of Kosar. Was he there to spy for the owner? Did he plan to second-guess them to the players?

But Kosar took a very low-key approach, arriving at the practice facility long after the players were gone. He simply said he was available to the coaches, and it wasn't long before Mangini began to incorporate the former quarterback into some film sessions with the coaches.

"Bernie was great," Mangini said. "We clicked right away. It's all football with him. He had no agenda other than to help us get better. He developed a good relationship with Brian [Daboll]. He is totally honest, a guy you can trust."

Mangini attended some of the Gladiators' Arena League games, as Kosar is a consultant for that team.

"I wanted to show support for Bernie," he said. "We still talk on the phone, and we'll see how it works this season."

Kosar said he's open to whatever role the new front office would have for him.
"But this is [team President Mike Holmgren's] show," he said. "He has brought in his own people. I don't want to interfere."

Kosar paused.

"I'm 46, in the second half of my life," he said. "I feel better than I have -- physically and emotionally -- probably since I played. I work out about every day. I eat better. I do a lot of stretching. I have stopped making long-term plans because I have learned how it all can change. I want to make the most of every day. I really am content where I am right now."

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