I'll never forget the excitement surrounding the return of the Browns in 1999. It is hard to imagine after what has transpired in the 12 miserable seasons since.
But the anticipation leading up to that first game in shiny new Cleveland Browns Stadium was unlike anything I can remember.
Living in Utah after joining the military, I was (thankfully) unable to attend the opener against the Steelers. Fortunately, my uncle had two great season tickets and I flew home on leave to attend the third home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
We were sitting right near the goal line as the Browns, trailing 6-0, lined up for a 21-yard field goal. Rookie kicker Phil Dawson took his place and the ball was snapped.
Suddenly, holder Chris Gardocki flipped the ball to Dawson, who tucked the ball under his left arm as if he was a life-long tailback, and sprinted towards the goal line. Dawson read a block, dropped his head and plunged into the end zone for a spectacular touchdown that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
It was just the first of countless great moments provided by a guy who spends as little time on the field as anyone but perhaps the punter.
Sunday's 41-9 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers was not just another loss to the Browns' "rival." It was a terrible finale for the only true clutch player to don a Cleveland Browns uniform since the team returned in '99.
Just in case you have a short memory, lets review some of Phil's greatest hits over the years.
- 1999, Week 10 at Pittsburgh: Dawson rushes onto the field and nails a 40-yard field goal as time expires to give the expansion Browns an improbable 16-15 win over the Steelers. If only we knew how few and far between these would become in subsequent years.
- 2002: Dawson boots game-winning kicks against Tennessee Titans (in overtime) and New York Jets helping the Browns make the playoffs the only time since '99.
- 2007, Week 11 at Baltimore: With Browns trailing 30-27, Dawson drills a 51-yard kick to tie the game. The kick was initially ruled no good after hitting the goal post support and bouncing back into the end zone. Dawson then kicks the game winner in overtime.
- 2007, Week 15 vs. Buffalo: In a blizzard, Dawson kicks two field goals, including a seemingly impossible 49-yarder in near white-out conditions to give the Browns their ninth win of the season, 8-0.
- 2008, Week 11 at Buffalo: Dawson does it again to the Bills, booting a 56-yard field goal with seconds remaining to give the Browns a 29-27 win on Monday Night Football.
- 2010, Week 13 at Miami: Dawson nails a 23-yarder to beat the Dolphins and give the Browns their final win of his tenure.
Virtually every good moment since the Browns have returned has involved Dawson in some way.
He's the most accurate kicker in franchise history and in the top 10 in NFL history. He has been the one constant and maintained an admirable professional approach, even through numerous coaching changes and humiliating defeats.
He never complained about the losing, even though playing for the Browns probably cost him at least one Pro Bowl appearance.
As another disappointing season ends and the offseason begins, all the focus will be on the coaching situation and then the draft in the spring. What will probably get lost in the shuffle will be the departure of the best thing to happen to this franchise in a decade and a half.
Phil Dawson was associated with a great number of losses while wearing a Browns uniform. But he is the one player who was always a winner. It won't be the same without number four.