"Castille, a bundle of aspirations, was praying for an opportunity to make a difference."
They say the one thing you learn from history is that you do not learn at all. It must be true, because history keeps rising up to clobber the Cleveland Browns. Three times in this decade the Browns have come within a minute of winning playoff games and three times that minute has turned into an entire off-season. First, there was the interception Brian Sipe served up to the Raiders in their divisional playoff game in 1980. Then there was John Elway's Sunday Drive for the AFC title a year ago. But who could have seen this one coming? This time, again within a few ticks of a Super Bowl berth, the Browns stayed highlight reel for highlight reel with Elway. And they held up under a din that threatened to crack the foundation of Mile High Stadium.
What they didn't count on was an unknown cornerback with a hero complex.
What they didn't count on was Jeremiah Castille, cut adrift by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before this strange season began, sitting there on the Denver bench for much of the long afternoon and into the night. He had watched John Elway direct the Broncos to a 21-3 halftime lead, with poster-perfect passes and Fred Astaire feet. He had watched Bernie Kosar drag the Browns back to within a touchdown, 38-31, using shot-put heaves for passes and a running style that might suggest bunion problems. He had watched a parade of famous, rich men pass in front of him and didn't feel like he belonged with any of them.
"I was on the team, but I was starting to feel like I wasn't part of the team," Castille said. So this understudy, this 5'10", 175-pound bundle of aspirations, sat there, imploring the heavens for an opportunity to make a difference. "I just prayed for a chance to be a factor."
Suddenly, his chance came. Filling in for starting cornerback Steve Wilson, who had aggravated a leg injury, Castille found himself one of the 11 Broncos who were backpedaling down the field at Kosar's whim as the clock wound down. The Browns needed a touchdown to send the game into overtime, and the way Kosar was playing, that seemed inevitable. After all, the Browns had scored TDs on their first four possessions of the second half and had stomped from their own 25 to the Denver eight in less than three minutes on this little tour. What was going to stop them—City of Denver snowplows?
And so, on second-and-five from the eight, Kosar handed the ball to his 215-pound running back, Earnest Byner, who, finding the middle clogged, broke left, picked up speed and encountered a nearly unobstructed view of the goal line. "I knew we needed a big play," Castille said afterward. "This was a money game." Sure, but did this game have room for another hero?
Didn't this show already belong to Elway and Kosar, the yin and yang of the NFL? Talk about strange casting, how did these two ever end up on the same stage—the AFC title game—two years in a row? If you stood them next to each other on a beach, Kosar would look like "Before" to Elway's "After." Elway is muscular. Kosar is built like a CPA whose health club membership has expired. Elway is beach-boy blond. Kosar looks like a mattress salesman. Elway's throwing motion would make Koufax envious. Kosar throws, as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote, "like a guy losing a bar of soap in the shower." Elway's passes arrive so angrily they leave marks on receivers' palms. You could catch Kosar's passes with a beer in each hand.
But that's the point. Two men as different as Barney Fife and Sheriff Andy Taylor, yet they are dominating the AFC in the late 1980s. "He throws side-arm, underhand, submarine, spitball, slider, knuckleball, and that's only in our first possession," Browns owner Art Modell says of Kosar. "But you know what? He gets it there."
After throwing an interception on, yes, the first possession, Kosar got it there Sunday with astonishing precision. "It was like 'ugly, ugly, ugly, great play,' " said Broncos linebacker Ricky Hunley. "He was hot."