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Shall We Dance?
Leigh Montville
December 06, 1999
When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches
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December 06, 1999

Shall We Dance?

When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches

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Brown showed his displeasure during the next series of downs. On one play Copeland was knocked to the ground, part of the pile. He was lying at Brown's feet after the whistle, and he put out his hand, silently asking for a lift back to his feet. Brown looked at him with disgust. "You have to be f——— kidding me," he said. "I'm not picking you up." He walked away.

Copeland, pissed—his word—crawled to his feet. He tried to bust Brown in the mouth a little harder on the next play and the play after that. Their collisions had a renewed zip. This time Brown had climbed into Copeland's head a little bit.

The score stayed the same, 17-12, for most of the fourth quarter. With 3:50 left the Browns started a drive from the Cincinnati 44, hoping to close out the first win in their expansion history. After a one-yard loss on the first play, they sent reserve running back George Jones behind Brown and past Copeland for a nine-yard gain. Advantage, Brown. Third-and-two. The Browns ran the same play again. Copeland says he can sense when the play is coming at him the moment the ball is snapped. He can feel a different urgency, electricity, focus, something. This time he closed the gap, and linebacker Adrian Ross made the play on Jones. Two-yard loss. Advantage, Copeland. Cleveland punted with little more than two minutes left.

The Bengals then came back to win. Smith, in his first start, directed the Cincinnati offense 80 yards down the field as if he were working from a John Elway playbook. On the 10th play, with nine seconds to go, no timeouts, Smith scrambled on third down and hit wide receiver Carl Pickens with a two-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion failed, but the score still was 18-17 Cincinnati, bringing silence to the stadium.

Brown and Copeland, both standing on the sidelines, non-combatants in the drama that decided the outcome, returned to the field for one last play with five seconds remaining. The kickoff had left the ball on the Browns' 19-yard line. An unlikely 81-yard touchdown pass by Couch or an interference penalty was the only possibility for a Cleveland win. When the ball was snapped, Brown grabbed Copeland's shirt. He wasn't going to surrender a free shot at his quarterback-of-the-future on a play that was almost certainly meaningless. That is how the game ended, Couch's pass incomplete, Brown holding Copeland's shirt.

The two men acknowledged each other with a look. Then they left the field walking in different directions.

"I think I kicked that boy's ass," Copeland said in the Bengals locker room. "That third down? That was the ball game right there. I kicked the boy's ass."

There was noise and music all around him, handshakes and enthusiasm mixed with relief, but Copeland was just a small part of the celebration. No reporter from either the Cincinnati or Cleveland papers or TV stations came to his locker to record his words. The news was all about Smith and Pickens and the last-second escape. This was nothing new to Copeland.

"I can't think of anybody who watched us on every play today, Brown and me," he said. "My family doesn't watch. My fiancée doesn't. They follow the ball, just like everybody else. I follow the ball when I watch football on TV. I never watch the line."

"You watch football?" a player at the next locker asked. "I never watch football."

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