MANTUA, Ohio -- In a cup on an end table in Bernie Kosar's family room are three teeth, knocked from his mouth by Mark Gastineau, and two screws from an ankle surgery gone bad. He shows off the cup as if it is a picture of his kids. Football has taken so much from Kosar, making his life's journey more treacherous than any journey should be. Twenty-one years after his last pass for the Browns, Kosar remains as much of a rock star in Cleveland as anyone inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "He is the most loved person over multiple generations in Cleveland sports," said lifelong Cleveland-area resident Neil Cornrich, an agent who represents many prominent football coaches and players. "It's an honor to be his friend."
Football has given so much to Kosar, enriching his life and preparing him for extraordinary challenges. In October 1987, the Browns found themselves tied at 10 with the Steelers in the third quarter. Kosar felt certain big things were ahead for this team if they could just win this one. So desperate was he to win the game that he said a prayer. "God, please help me," said Kosar, who was single and the object of desire for many attractive ladies. "I will not have sex for the rest of the season if we win."
The Browns won 34-10, and Kosar kept his promise despite some of the most alluring temptations of his life. The Browns finished 10-5 and on top of the AFC Central division. They won their first playoff game and traveled to Denver to play the Broncos in the AFC Championship. The Browns trailed by seven late when Kosar led a drive deep into Denver territory, and as Kosar handed off to Earnest Byner on the eight yard line, he was certain that all of his sacrifices would pay off. Then Byner fumbled on the Denver three with a little more than a minute remaining -- "The Fumble" in Browns lore. The Browns lost the game, and there would be no payoff for Kosar. It was a devastating letdown.
Football would teach Kosar to deal with disappointment very well. He was on the wrong end of the famous "Hail Flutie" play on which Boston College defeated Miami. He could not prevent Frank Reich and the University of Maryland from mounting the biggest comeback in college football history to beat his Hurricanes. He watched John Elway direct "The Drive" to beat the Browns in another AFC Championship game. He had his share of gratification, too. In two seasons, he had more come-from-behind victories than any other quarterback. In 1987, he had the second-best passer rating in the league. He won a Super Bowl as a backup with the Cowboys in 1993. Bears head coach Marc Trestman, who coached Kosar with the Browns and at Miami, thinks Kosar may have been a Hall of Famer if not for a few Elway plays. Kosar did not have Elway's physical talent, but he did have Elway's ability to exploit defensive weaknesses.
The Browns traveled to Pittsburgh in October 1986, to try to win in Three Rivers Stadium for the first time in 17 years. They had a three-point lead when they took over with 1:30 remaining, but the Steelers had all of their timeouts, so the Browns could not go three-and-out. On second and 8, the call from the sideline was for a swing pass to the fullback in the flat -- the same play that had failed in a similar situation the week before. Kosar ignored the call. "The Steelers had not shown the tendency to play Cover 2 in that situation," Kosar said, "but I knew they saw the play from the week before, so I figured they would defend it that way. I'm a monster believer in chess. I play it, my kids play it. You have to think steps ahead, think what others are thinking. I figured they thought we'd be surprised by Cover 2. I told Reggie Langhorne, 'Just run straight downfield.'" The Steelers rotated into Cover 2, and Kosar faked a swing pass and hit Langhorne on a 37-yard bomb, sealing a Browns victory and ending the infamous Three Rivers Jinx.
Kosar may have been the least athletic player in the NFL, but he saw things few people could see. His football career was all about his brain, and he remains a "football savant" in Cornrich's estimation. Kosar still exchanges ideas on the game with a number of esteemed NFL men, including Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "He has a great mind for football," said 49ers tight ends coach Eric Mangini, who used Kosar as an unofficial consultant when he was the Browns head coach. "We'd watch tape, and he'd see some things that others wouldn't. We'd talk through coverages and cover beaters. He could take you through it. It wasn't just a concept. He gave you the read progression. It was layered stuff that you love from a coaching perspective. He had so much experience that I could ask questions, bounce ideas off him."
Kosar has no idea how many concussions he suffered in his 12-year playing career, but he estimates he probably lost consciousness from hits 20 times. "When we were playing, the concussion test was, 'How many fingers?'" he said. "They didn't give you one, because that was too easy. They didn't give you three, because you may miss it. It was always two, so you weren't wrong." Kosar carried smelling salts in a pouch in case he was knocked woozy. He has suffered from changes in his speech, ringing in his ears, amplified noises, sleep problems and anxiety. He gets more emotional than he can explain at times. He won't watch the motion picture The Notebook, for instance, because he gets too teary.
Football takes, football gives.
Mouthpiece? Kosar never wore one. It didn't make sense to him, because his ability to see the field and communicate adjustments to teammates was his primary survival tool. He is missing seven or eight of his back teeth now, and he figures he broke his jaw eight or 10 times. "Can you hear it?" he asked, as he moved his jaw and it popped. He has had dental implants, but many of them have failed. Kosar recently had surgery to remove some of the pins in his jaw, because they were drifting too close to his ear canal.
The same week, he had pins and screws removed from his ankle. Those pins and screws were required for repeated fractures sustained from being stepped on by his blockers. (The weird stance he adopted late in his career, with his right foot way back, was a way to avoid having his foot stepped on again.) There were knee surgeries, elbow surgeries and back surgery. His right forearm is bigger than his upper arm, and he can't straighten the limb. His injuries made it difficult for him to exercise, and he recently let his weight balloon to where he was "a couple Ho Hos away" from 300 pounds.
Kosar never blamed anyone for what became of his body. He speaks fondly of former Browns trainers and doctors. He is not part of any litigation against the league, and he says he won't be. No one has to ask Kosar if he would let his son play football, because his son does play football. He is a high school freshman, playing tight end and offensive line. Football taught Kosar never to stay down. When he fractured his ankle in the first half a 1992 game against the Dolphins, he stood and walked off -- and then came back to finish the second half. Pain, he discovered, he could deal with.
Football takes, football gives.
When Kosar's post-concussion symptoms worsened a few years back, he searched for holistic, alternative means of dealing with them. He was introduced to an anesthesiologist in Florida who said he could help. In November 2012, Kosar visited Rick Sponaugle at the Florida Detox and Wellness Institute and received supplements through an IV, 30 treatments over 75 days. Sponaugle, citing the proprietary nature of the treatments, has declined numerous requests to reveal exactly what he administered. Kosar said many of his concussion symptoms resolved. People who have known Kosar for a long time agree that there has been a clear improvement since the treatment. "He seems to be better when he gets a treatment, said longtime Kosar friend Milo Valenti. "I might get a treatment myself." Sponaugle has posted before-and-after brain scans on his website, which he claims show improvement. Kosar felt his best immediately after the treatments. Now, he would like to visit Sponaugle for more treatments.
Around the same time he was initially treated by Sponaugle, Kosar began taking supplements and meal replacements based on his DNA. He lost nearly 65 pounds and nine inches on his waist. Kosar subsequently invested in Foru, a company that sells DNA-based health and wellness supplements. The journey to heal himself has led Kosar to partner with Sponaugle and others on a project that he believes can be very significant. "I think we're close to finding a way to ending the need for insulin shots for Type II diabetics, by using the insulin produced by the body," he said.
Football takes, football gives.
In 1991 Kosar helped start the NFL Quarterback Club as a means for star players to earn more money from their individual brands. Through the venture, he got to know Junior Seau, and he became like a big brother to the former Chargers linebacker. Seau visited him in late April 2012. Kosar could tell something was bothering Seau, and he asked him what was wrong. "He started talking about how his head hurt, the noises, how he couldn't sleep," Kosar said. "We all had the same symptoms. Then he said he felt so much pressure to help out family and friends. He was importing pineapples from Hawaii to try to help them. He was giving so much. It was easy to do when he was making $5 million a year. It was hard to do when he retired." Four days later, Seau ended his life with a bullet in his chest. Through all of his issues, Kosar said he never considered doing the same. Kosar never would quit. Football had something to do with that.
When Kosar showed up at the University of Miami in 1982 for his first day of practice, he was under the impression he was the heir apparent to senior Jim Kelly. Then he caught a glimpse of another freshman: Vinny Testaverde. "I ran a 5.6 40-yard dash, he ran a 4.7," Kosar said. "I barely could bench press a buck-85, he lifted 325. I was like, 'I'm dead.'" Kosar told head coach Howard Schnellenberger that he thought he had no chance against the physically superior Testaverde, so he intended to transfer. "If you are going to run from a challenge now, at 18, and go home to mommy, you'll probably do that your whole life," Schnellenberger told him. "If you give your best, you can look at yourself in the mirror, win or lose." Kosar stayed and beat out Testaverde, and at the age of 19, as a redshirt freshman, Kosar led Miami to a national championship.
Football takes, football gives.
Every setback, every challenge, appears as opportunity to Kosar. "You just don't quit," he said. "There is always light. You can always work it out. I say every day, if I do good today, tomorrow will take care of itself." When Seau told Kosar about the pressure he felt to help people around him, Kosar knew exactly what he meant. Kosar was the son of a steelworker who lost his job and couldn't find work in a bad economy. Kosar graduated from Miami in two and a half years, with a dual degree in finance and economics. A building at the university's School of Business bears his name. This is a man who knows how to make money, so the financial river did not run dry when Kosar quit playing. In fact, he was earning more after football than he made as a player.
Kosar is a pleaser by nature. Whatever is wanted, he gives -- to the game, to fans, to family and friends -- but he can give too much. At one point, he said, he was paying monthly bills for 108 credit cards and 120 cell phones. He never even saw the bills. Family members back in the Youngstown area were running his finances. "I would ask for them, but they wouldn't let me see them," he said. "It was, 'Don't worry about it, we're fine.' If I insisted, it would cause a major family issue. It got convoluted."
In 2008, Kosar filed for bankruptcy, saying his debts were between $10 million and $50 million and his assets worth between $1 million and $10 million. The real estate collapse in Florida hit him hard, as did playing it fast-and-loose in the stock market. Kosar, who is now on firm footing financially, acknowledges being cavalier about his money. He said he was both humbled and hurt by the experience. "This thing stopped ringing," he said, waving his cell phone. "It went from ringing every second, when you are helping people out, to not ringing at all. Probably 95 percent of it stopped. It opened up my eyes to realize who my real friends are, and to help me figure out what was really important. I had my kids, and they didn't care if I had one dollar or a trillion dollars. And I had some friends who stuck with me."
One of those friends is Valenti, a Cleveland entrepreneur who owns Valenti's Ristoranti in Beachwood. Kosar and Valenti got to know each other at golf tournaments in the 80s, and became frequent companions. On Sept. 28 of last year, Valenti was despondent. His nephew had died of a drug overdose the day before, and he didn't want to leave the house. Kosar, wanting to lift Valenti's spirits, insisted he join him to watch a college football game at a restaurant in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood. Kosar drove, and at the end of the night he dropped off Valenti and headed home. At 2:45 a.m., he was pulled over for going 74 mph in a 50 mph zone. Kosar refused to take a portable breath test and was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. The arresting officer cited Kosar's slurred speech.
"Bernie has slurred speech," Valenti said. "About 90 percent of the people know that it's not because of drinking. It's from concussions. He didn't have anything to drink that night. Me neither. We didn't want to drink." Kosar later pleaded no contest to a reckless operation charge, and prosecutors dropped the DUI and speeding charges. Kosar said he will enjoy a drink from time to time, but he does not keep alcohol in his house. "I don't know what he was doing in college, but I eat with him four nights a week," Valenti said. "It's iced tea, coffee, water. Maybe a glass of wine, but he doesn't even like it that much. He doesn't have a drinking problem."
In the new book Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era, it is alleged that Kosar suffers from slurred speech as a result of the Browns giving him the addictive pain killer oxycodone. "Was it shocking that guys were getting shot to play in a game back then?" Kosar said. "It's easy to say you shouldn't do that in 2014. We know different things today than we did 25 years ago." Kosar acknowledges that he took what he thought was necessary to get ready for games. "We all were heavily on anti-inflammatories," Kosar said. "I was on the same stuff that Secretariat won the Triple Crown with in 1973." Kosar's sobriety also was called into question during a rambling radio appearance in 2012. Sponaugle attributed Kosar's lack of coherency to his taking too many sleeping pills, which he said Kosar no longer needs.
Last summer, Kosar was critical of then-Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens and his receivers on a Browns preseason broadcast. After hearing an anecdote about Clemens meeting the Pope, Kosar said, "Bless me father, for I have sinned, I have to watch him the whole fourth quarter." It was a poor attempt at humor, Kosar said later. The Browns subsequently fired him as their analyst, and a predictable uproar ensued. "Fans reacted like their son had been fired," said Jim Donovan, Kosar's broadcast partner. Kosar could be critical, but he also could be very prescient, and many fans loved listening to him analyze almost as much as they loved watching him play. "He would analyze the game like he was playing quarterback," Donovan said. "As soon as the defense would come out, he would diagnose where the play should go offensively, who it should go to and why the formation would work or not work. And he did it pre-snap. People loved that."
Throughout Kosar's post-football life, many of the men who have been in charge of the Browns have acted as if they fear Kosar and the power that his popularity gives him. Adding to their fear is the fact he always has been strong willed -- the quarterback who shakes off the sideline and draws up a play in the dirt. His unfiltered honesty can be threatening. "Every time we get some new regime with the Browns, they try to discard him or call him a name," Valenti said. "They call him drunk or drug addict, or say he's had too many concussions. There is nothing to base any of that on. It's disheartening to the rest of us. We don't like that."
Kosar never has been swept away by the storms in his life, because he learned how to stay the course long ago. Prior to a 1987 playoff game against the Jets, Kosar and backup quarterback Gary Danielson came up with the concept of faking a spike. Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer called it in the game against the Jets, but the Browns didn't score on the play. Because of Kosar's lobbying, the fake spike stayed in the Browns' playbook through three head-coaching changes. Kosar then convinced Jimmy Johnson and Don Shula to put the play in their playbooks when Kosar went to Dallas and Miami. Kosar practiced the fake spike every week, but the play remained in mothballs for eight seasons. Finally, in November 1994, Kosar urged Shula to call the play with 30 seconds left, with the Dolphins trailing the Jets by three. Dan Marino acted like he would spike the ball to stop the clock, and the Jets defense took a nap. Marino hit Mark Ingram for the game-winning touchdown.
Football takes, football gives.
Kosar attended Browns games at Municipal Stadium as a child and listened to his father tell tales about Otto Graham. He pretended he was Brian Sipe. The Browns were in his blood. He finagled a way to be chosen by his team, after they traded for the first pick in the 1985 supplemental draft. At the time, there was a stigma about Cleveland, the Mistake on the Lake. But Kosar desperately wanted to be there. Then he helped the Browns thrive like they had not thrived since the 1960s.
During his playing career, Kosar purchased a 400-acre farm about halfway between Cleveland and suburban Youngstown, where he grew up. Though he also maintains a South Florida residence, the farm remains his home -- and it's a spectacular home. Just outside are deer, wild turkey and coyotes. In the back, he keeps horses and 25 okapi. (He started with two, a present for his kids, and they multiplied.) There is a pool and tennis court, and there are trails for his ATVs.
Kosar may have affected the way Cleveland feels about itself more than anybody other than LeBron James. But unlike James, Kosar never turned his back on his city. Even though he has been shown the door by the Browns twice, he keeps coming back like a pup with his tail wagging. So even though Kosar played in only one Pro Bowl and never took the Browns to the Super Bowl, he became more than just a quarterback to Cleveland. The week after Kosar was cut, fans showed up to the Browns game wearing Bernie masks. So popular was he that the Democratic Party contacted him about running for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. Many believe Kosar could have won.
Kosar is one of the people. He enjoys mingling, talking to fans about local high schools and community events, and even about mutual acquaintances. He tells the stories people want to hear, making self-deprecating jokes. Then he poses for a picture with his arm around you, like an old friend would. At public appearances, women he does not know try to kiss him on the lips. The line of fans waiting for a moment with Kosar at an auto show earlier this year was considerably longer than the line for Browns head coach Mike Pettine. One middle-aged man recently approached him in his restaurant, Kosar's Wood Fired Grill in Northfield, Ohio. The man asked for Kosar's autograph and told him, with emotion, "You're my idol, Bernie. I cried like a baby when they cut you." Kosar has felt a lot of things in his post-football life. He never has felt unloved.
Football takes, football gives.
As the Browns have floundered, many fans have called for the team to turn to Kosar again. In 1999, when the new Browns came back into the league, the NFL wanted Kosar to be part of the ownership group, and Kosar wanted in. But he aligned with the wrong group, and when Al Lerner was awarded the team, he did not take Kosar along. After Lerner's passing, his son Randy Lerner wanted Kosar to be team president in 2006. Kosar was going through a messy divorce at the time and was not ready to make the required commitment. Later that year, he backed out of talks with the University of Miami about becoming their head coach. "I told them I had these things going on," he said. "If it were just me, I would have loved to have done some of that. But I had family responsibilities."
On the floor and against the wall in Kosar's family room is a self-portrait of a beaming Sara Kosar, the eldest of the Kosar children. The artwork is about four years old. It sits where it does for a reason. It covers a hole she kicked in the wall during a fit of anger. "My oldest daughter went through a lot with the divorce," Kosar said. "It was hardest on her. I screwed up with it. I always think about what could I have done differently." Now 22 and a yoga instructor, Sara helped Kosar get healthy by giving him ideas and direction about holistic treatments. Kosar said that being a good father to Sarah and her three siblings -- Rachel, Rebecca and Joe -- is the most important thing to him. Not far from Sara's self-portrait is a large tapestry of Joe in his basketball uniform, with Dad kneeling beside him. This is what it's all about for Kosar.
He has found new love with Anna Tomaro. "She's my better half," he said. The other night, a bat got in the house. He jokes that he hid behind her in their attempts to capture the animal. He once said that he did not like being 45 years old, but he now says very much likes being 50. He will tell you that he is happy where he is and proud of where he is. "The lessons you learn from the things you've been through, if you are open with yourself, it can be pretty awesome," he said. "To come through them, survive them and come out the other end, I'm so thankful."
The first time Kosar played in the NFL was when he had to replace an injured Danielson, in the fifth game of his rookie season. The stadium erupted with cheers when Kosar came running on the field, and the moment was surreal. Then he fumbled his first snap, and the cheers turned to boos. At the time, it was the most embarrassing thing ever to happen to him, but he completed his next seven passes and led the Browns to a victory. He learned something about himself that day.
Football takes, football gives.
The Kosar kids are growing up. By next summer, only Joe still will be in high school, and Kosar figures he will be ready to get to some of the things he has been putting off. He spent a couple of days with the Bears during OTA practices in June. He spoke to the Bears quarterbacks about preparation, game planning and taking care of their bodies. He worked the remote control during tape review. He stood in the huddle during practice. "That was as much fun as I've had in a while," Kosar said. Some might see football as a curse to Kosar. He calls football a "gift" and gushes about his love for the game.
He likes the idea of coaching. He could see himself in a role similar to the one former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski has with the Colts -- a special assistant who helps with game management and big picture issues. He also likes the idea of being involved in management. He has some experience, having served as the president of football operations for the Arena league Cleveland Gladiators and a trustee for the University of Miami. He was involved in the hiring of Miami head coach Al Golden and others.
Kosar said that prior to the 2010 draft, he lobbied for the Browns to take tight end Jimmy Graham, telling then-Browns president Mike Holmgren he thought Graham immediately would be one of the top five players in the league. The next year, Kosar said he urged Holmgren to draft quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "He knows the league very well and he knows the personnel," Trestman said. "He has a great understanding of the game. Bernie was one of the great leaders of men I've been around. He's a brilliant guy with tremendous business acumen. From my standpoint, I look at him as a guy who could be a president of a club, or a general manager of a club. He has that kind of ability. Certainly he could be a coach, if that's what he wanted."
What excites Kosar more than anything is the chance to influence and help young men, as he said he observed Trestman and Bears general manager Phil Emery doing. "They really are affecting lives, helping these kids be good guys and good football players," Kosar said. "I'd really like to do that." That's why Kosar is not too upset about not being part of the Browns' preseason broadcast team. He thinks there is a more significant purpose for him.
Football has more to give, and take, from Bernie Kosar.