Bernie's Bankrupt: A Symbol of a Nation, Generation and Region?

Christopher MaherCorrespondent IJune 20, 2009

19 Sep 1993: Quarterback Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Raiders at Cleveland Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns won the game, 19-16.

In politics, some people are simply on a first-name basis. Barack. Hillary. Newt. Everyone knows who they are, and nothing more needs to be said.

In Greater Cleveland, we have LeBron. Enough said.

Before LeBron, there was Bernie. Bernie Kosar.

Shaken, not stirred, and that may have been his downfall. More on that later.

January 1, 1984: Bernie, at QB for the underdog Miami Hurricanes, leads his team to an upset of the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers, winning a thriller in the Orange Bowl 31-30 in a comeback victory and getting the U its first national championship. It broke the Cornhuskers' winning streak of 22 consecutive games.

The following year, Bernie passed for a record 3,642 yards and compiled a 62.3 completion percentage, which still stands as a Hurricanes record.

His profile may only have been raised by Boston College's 47-45 upset of the Hurricanes on the famous Doug Flutie "Hail Mary" pass, whose description stands in football terminology 25 years later.

In early 1985, Bernie was on schedule to graduate early from Miami, with a dual major of economics and finance. In retrospect, a great irony.

He wanted to play for the team he spent his childhood as a fan of: The Cleveland Browns.

At that time, that was no small thing. For Cleveland, it was like Moses, not merely Moses Cleaveland, landing on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in the Flats.

The city's industrial base, the source of its wealth, had been decimated. Cleveland jokes still persisted in the national media, Municipal Stadium had become known as "The Mistake on the Lake," as had the city itself.

Throughout Greater Cleveland, residents pinched themselves when a college superstar actually wanted to play here.

At that time, the NFL had a "supplemental draft," and there is no need for this article to delve into the minutiae that allowed Bernie to become a Brown, but he suited up wearing No. 19 for the 1985 season.

In his first season, Bernie looked awkward and only brought the Browns to an 8-8 record while sneaking into the playoffs, but almost upset the Miami Dolphins in the AFC divisional playoffs in the Orange Bowl. 

From there, it was off to the races.

Lindy Infante became offensive coordinator in 1986, and the Browns' offense became explosive. Bernie threw for 3,854 yards, the Browns went 12-4, and lost the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos in the game known throughout NFL lore as "The Drive."

The following year, Bernie fell short again, bringing the Browns into Denver to lose the bid for the Super Bowl 38-33 in "The Fumble" game.

The Browns and Bernie would never come as close to the brass ring again, but even in two of the franchise's darkest years (1990-91), Bernie would throw a record 308 passes without an interception. That still stands as an NFL record.

Browns fans know the rest. In 1993, Head Coach Bill Belichick cut Bernie, citing "diminishing skills," and Browns fans were outraged.

In fact, the Cleveland suburb of Brecksville, where Belichick resided, had a police car stationed 24/7 at Belichick's home after Bernie's release.

Maybe, Browns fans were warming up their outrage for The Move two years later.

Bernie got his Super Bowl ring as a member of the Dallas Cowboys as a backup QB to Troy Aikman before he finished his career with the Miami Dolphins.

Going back eight years to his initial signing before his release, someone commented on the name "Bernie Kosar" in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and said "I'll bet that Jewish kid was smart enough to negotiate his own contract."

In fact, Bernie was Catholic, but graduating a year early from the U's business school with a dual major of econ and finance certainly did not indicate spendthrift tendencies.

After football, Bernie had many business ventures, including an extremely successful telemarketing company. He also had the NFL-licensed Bernie Kosar Greeting Card Company, whose cards were sold at sporting goods stores across the United States.

Bernie also bought a share of the NHL's Florida Panthers, started a South Florida steakhouse which folded and was most recently employed as vice president of the Cleveland Gladiators in the now-defunct Arena Football League.

Creditors in Bernie's bankruptcy filing include South Florida banks over shaky real estate, his ex-wife Babette ($3 million), Key Bank of Cleveland, the Cleveland Browns ($1.5 million), Cleveland Gladiators, and even the executive chef of his failed steakhouse.

How Bernie owes the Browns money is something we may never know.

Bernie, you were a legend in a city starved for heroes. 

Thirteen years after you took your last snap from center, callers to sports talk radio in Cleveland still wanted you to be part of the Browns' management team.

But, in 2006, I heard you doing color commentary on a preseason Browns broadcast, and you sounded like you were trashed. Not merely under the influence, but trashed.

To compound the offense, on that broadcast, you spent all of the available time you could sneak in advocating the election of arch-conservative Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor. 

Bernie, I don't share your dual degrees from a prestigious private university, but I know better than to try and sell bright red in a deep blue market.

Maybe, sir, you weren't that smart after all. Maybe Wall Street wasn't, either.

Maybe none of us were. Who could have seen Florida having a real estate bust?

When 80,000 people packed Cleveland Municipal Stadium to see you hand off to Mack and Byner and throw to Slaughter, Newsome and Langhorne, the east bank of the Flats was the place to be.

Now, it's a ghost town.

In 1998, when the Browns' new ownership had yet to be named, fans residing in Fantasyland wished you would be the new owner, QB coach, head coach or (fill in the blank here).

Now, the main topic of your presence on any Cleveland broadcast is how trashed you looked or sounded, not what you had to say.

The only constant is change.

When you grew up in the suburbs of Youngstown rooting for the Browns and I grew up rooting for the same team in suburban Cleveland, Youngstown and Cleveland were still making steel, and Akron was still making tires. 

Sir, I have no sympathy for you.

After your NFL career, you have advocated many of the policies that have put us in the mess we are in. You, having to file Chapter 11, are in the company of far better men and women than you.

I fear that our nation as a whole may suffer your fate.

In the boom times, it seemed that the party would never end. Now, we have engineers applying at Target.

Nonetheless, I cherish the memory of my old season tickets in the original Dawg Pound, and wish you the best.

Now, sir, put the Crown Royal away, use the brain that got you those dual degrees, and make us proud of you again.

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