This week marks the 30th anniversary of “The Fumble”; the play that sent the Broncos to the Super Bowl for the second year in row — over the Cleveland Browns.. for the second year in a row. (Click to watch it here.)
Browns running back Earnest Byner had been spectacular all day long, with 120 yards receiving, 60 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on the day. The Broncos were leading, 38-31, in a rowdy Mile High Stadium while Byner and the Browns were driving. With only 1:12 left in the game, Byner took a hand-off from Bernie Kosar at the Broncos’ eight-yard-line and made a beeline for the end zone, and the likely tie. But Denver cornerback Jeremiah Castille met Byner at the one-yard-line, stripped the ball from Byner’s hands and recovered it, stunning Byner, the Browns and 76,000 screaming Broncos fans — all of whom knew at that point that the Broncos were headed back to the Super Bowl as AFC Champions.
The emotional weight of that fumble could have crushed Byner, but it didn’t. Between that 1987 AFC Championship loss and his retirement in 1998, Byner won two Super Bowls with Washington and Baltimore, was named to a pair of Pro Bowls and finished his career in the NFL’s top 50 all-time in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total yards.
Byner joined Sean Walsh on Mile High Sports AM 1340 | FM 104.7 to explain exactly how he persevered beyond one of the most devastating plays in NFL history.
“It was late in the drive; we had been balanced the whole second half, trying to get back into the game. We finally got back into the game, and it seemed like we had an opportunity to tie the game… It was a play that we ran earlier in the series, and it had bounced very similarly for a different reason,” Byner explained. “This time, they cross-faded the tight end [Ozzie Newsome] and my guard [Dan Fike]bounced out — he actually lost the guy and I bounced out. My focus was more on [Broncos safety Tony] Lilly then Jeremiah Castille. I’m thinking that I’m going to run over Lilly, and I pulled the ball in, and — for some reason — I want to let Jeremiah drop off, and while I was doing that, the ball came out.”
“It was one of those things, man. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Obviously, people talk about other variables that were in the game, but to me? The way I played dictated whether we won or not, and when that play happened — after that play happened — I felt like I let a lot of people down… and I did. I know I let a lot of people down, and broke a lot of hearts — including my own.”
Last weekend, New Orleans Saints cornerback Marcus Williams had a moment similar to Byner’s 30 years prior; missing a tackle and allowing Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to score the game-winning touchdown as the clock expired.
Byner, struck by the similarities, recorded a touching video for Williams, hoping to help the rookie move on from the play, suggesting that he “live, learn and grow.”
“It took me years and years to get over it, and to recognize that the process that I sent out to Marcus is something that really needs to happen in short order,” Byner told Walsh. “It does not need to happen the way I carried ‘The Fumble’; I carried that for years and years and years — and I was never the same player. I never had the same type of freedom of expression on the football field after ‘The Fumble’. And the reason? I never looked at that play; I never looked at that game.”
In retrospect, Byner wishes that he did — and hopes Williams looks at his. “The main reason is to look back at it; understand what happened. Look at it in a way that you can take it, learn from it, grow from it — because every time you look at it, you’re going to see something a little bit different that you could have done. And that’s what I’d encourage Marcus to do: make sure that you look at this and break this play down in such a way that you can use that energy to go out and be a better player.”
Click here to listen to the full interview with Earnest Byner, including what he had to say about the current Broncos, and how they can improve their situation, or listen to the podcast below.
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