The first time I really remember seeing him, Bernie Kosar was about to be on the wrong side of history. As a kid, I had watched the 1984 Orange Bowl, but I didn’t really know who the QB was. It seemed to be more team on team than man on man.
When I saw the lithe 6-foot-5 man taking on the 5-foot-9 elf from Boston College on the day after Thanksgiving, the midget in me pulled for Doug Flutie.
I watched practically weeping as they showed Kosar on the sideline smiling and accepting congratulations from guys with bad mustaches and Jheri Curls.
“I want the short guy to win,” I wailed to my father. “Not this Bernie guy.”
My father tried to explain reality to me and how six seconds wasn’t enough time to do anything and so forth and so on…
For the next 30 years of my life, I pulled for that short guy but also for the tall one. Kosar found a way to finagle his passage to his hometown Cleveland Browns. I had loved the team for years, for reasons that still escape my family, and I watched him grow the team from weak roots to playoff promise.
I remember that cold-as-shit weekend in 1987 where he whipped the ball through an icy wind on the banks of Lake Erie for 489 yards, bringing his team back against the Jets for a 23-20 double OT win. He was down 10 with less than three minutes to go and he managed to make it happen for the Browns.
I also remember suffering with him as John Elway made the Browns his personal bitch. The Drive. The Drive II. The Fumble. Every year, Kosar would pull them to within an inch of the Super Bowl. Every year Elway would keep them an inch away.
It also seemed like every year, Kosar arrived in the playoffs made of nothing but duct tape and glue. He would be beaten, battered and nearly crippled.
He had the mobility of your average Greek statue and the escape ability of the passengers on the Titanic. In the days of Mark Gastineau, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary and other rabid defenders, Kosar essentially wore a “Sack Me” sign every Sunday. Over 16 weeks, they would crush him repeatedly and mercilessly.
During one playoff game, I remember seeing a sideline report on Kosar’s hand. Turns out he had torn a tendon or something in the index finger of his throwing hand. To make sure he could play, the trainer built this thing out of a rubber band and epoxy.
They lost anyway.
Finally, I remember that one horrible fall in 1993 when Bill Belichick (before he was “Miracle Bill” of the Patriots), called a press conference and cut Kosar in mid-season without a viable backup to injured Vinny Testaverde. Belichick muttered the line “diminishing skills” and with that, he was gone.
The only good thing about that was seeing Kosar getting scooped up by the Cowboys, who were en route to a Super Bowl. When Troy Aikman got one of his patented concussions, Kosar stepped in and helped push the team into the Big Show.
(Over the years, I seemed to have remembered Bernie throwing a ridiculously good pass to Alvin Harper for a touchdown. Found it in that link. It's like finding a memory of your first kiss.)
The last snap of that Super Bowl win? All Kosar, who knelt to the ground to run out the clock.
I only got to see him play live once. It was in 1994 or 1995 when the Dolphins (his last stop) played the Packers in the pre-season Shrine Game at County Stadium. He led the Dolphins’ second unit down the field with ridiculous precision. Of course, he wasn’t going to supplant Hall of Famer to be Dan Marino, but I could dream.
Eventually he retired and became one of the few success stories in post-game life. He had a business degree and a good mind for running things. He invested in real estate, restaurants and greeting card businesses. He was doing exceptionally well.
Then, everything broke again.
The market turned, his wife left, his health began deteriorating. His fortune turned to dust and his fans started to wonder about him.
The Browns brought him back to do color on their broadcasts, only to find that fans believed him to be drunk or drugged up on TV. The slurred speech and the lapses in thought had them thinking the worst of the man who gave them his very best.
As it turns out, Kosar was dealing with serious post-concussion syndrome, much like many of his other mid-1980s NFL brethren. No one knew to ask for a while and when they did, Kosar wasn’t willing to share.
As of this writing, Kosar has finally come to grips with some of these issues. He’s still trying to rebuild his life. He’s speaking out on issues of finance, as witnessed in Billy Corben’s classic “30 for 30” film “Broke.” He also appears to be getting healthier.
Kosar recently spoke out in favor of an experimental treatment he’s been receiving for concussions. He said the pain has subsided, the ringing in his head has stopped and he feels healthier than he has since his 20s.
My only concern is in the minor details of the story (shown here) that refer to his doctor as a “pioneer” and the treatment as “groundbreaking.” In both cases, the quotes are directly from the source material, leaving me curious as to why the writer chose that path. My hope is that this isn’t some sort of snake oil salesman, glomming onto a downtrodden player in hopes of a fast buck. My cynicism leads me to think this to be the case, in spite of hoping against it.
Still, I’ll be keeping an eye on ol’ Number 19, watching him get back off the turf one more time.
If anyone deserves a winning outcome, it’s Kosar.