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"I have practiced trying to throw over the top," says the 6'5", 215-pound Kosar almost apologetically. "But when it gets down to it, I always go back to what I'm comfortable with. I've probably thrown as many passes underhand in this league as I have straight overhand."
Underhand? Yes, he has thrown underhand passes. In fact he has thrown from almost every arm position there is—always with remarkable accuracy—as if his right arm were a minute hand on a precision Swiss clock that has every number on its face but high noon. "We worked and worked on it when he was a pitcher in Little League, trying to stretch that long body over the top," says Kosar's dad, Bernie Sr. "But he was so effective throwing the way he did, usually from three-quarters, that you just hated to tamper with anything."
"I'll pick out a part of the receiver's body to throw to," says Kosar, explaining why it wasn't hard for him to pierce the tire the way he did. "Very rarely will I aim for the chest. For two reasons. One, if the ball is high, it can be deflected. And two, you don't see guys extremely wide open in this league."
Seen from the perspective of a teammate or a fan, Kosar seems positively inspirational. He is the oldest of three children in a tightly knit, devoutly Catholic, middle-class family from Boardman, Ohio, 25 miles from Youngstown, 90 miles from Cleveland. He graduated from the University of Miami in just three years, then told anyone who would listen that he wanted to play for his beloved Browns, thereby insuring that Cleveland would make the trade it needed to get him in the 1985 supplemental draft. The astounding thing about the early move to the pro ranks was that, although Kosar appeared to be a fragile boy quarterback, he was actually a cunning, sturdy, mature leader who, at 21, had grown bored with the college game.
"College football was not challenging," he says. "With our passing system at Miami, which was head and shoulders above any other college's, after a while it was just too easy. I don't want that to sound wrong, but in games I'd see only one, maybe two coverages. It was so unsophisticated. For me to grow at so slow a pace—what was the point?" Indeed, in only his 12th collegiate game Kosar led the Hurricanes to the national championship with a stunning 31-30 win over No. 1-ranked Nebraska in the 1983 Orange Bowl. Before the game, people were worried that Kosar might have his spindly body ripped apart by the horrible Cornhuskers. After Kosar completed 19 of 35 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, most folks didn't know what to think. His father wasn't surprised. "I remember when he was in a championship Little League game when he was nine years old and all the other kids were 10, 11 or 12," says Bernie Sr. "They brought him in from second base to pitch the last inning, and he struck out the side and his team won. That same look of determination you see now, he had it way back then."
Kosar came out of college in 1985, having achieved a 3.27 grade point average and a degree in finance, and then became the youngest quarterback in Browns history. Though he has already thrown for 8,465 yards and 47 touchdowns and owns five team passing records, including lowest interception rate for a career and a season, he is still the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL. Incredibly, he is 12 days younger than Vinnie Testaverde, the player who succeeded him at the University of Miami.
"Time has just flown by," says Kosar. "Sometimes I feel I'm older than I am. It seems like just yesterday I was a fourth-string quarterback at Miami, thinking I might not play for my entire four years in college."
If he had stayed at Miami—he left with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining—Kosar figures he would have just about finished work on his Ph.D. in the extra time. Working hard and fast on education is a family trait. Sister Beth, 23, graduated from Hiram College one term early, and brother Brian, 20, a senior at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, is set to get his degree early as well. "If you have 10 seconds to run 100 yards, why not run 110 if you can?" says Bernie Sr., who has an engineering degree and sells Ingersoll-Rand compressors to heavy industry.
The accelerated Kosar clock was confusing, and apparently a bit vexing, to Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson. He retired Testaverde's jersey during the 1986 season, and when asked why he didn't also retire Kosar's, the coach reportedly said, "Bernie didn't finish the program here." Kosar was wounded by the statement, particularly because Testaverde, no great scholar, left Miami well short of a degree. But since then he and Johnson have worked things out. "To be honest, whether my jersey is retired there or not—big deal," says Kosar. "You go to college to graduate. I graduated. That's the point."
The point for an NFL quarterback is to be accurate, and Kosar is the Einstein of accuracy. He throws an interception only once in every 45 passing attempts. During one stretch in 1986 he threw 171 passes without getting one picked off. And he doesn't just throw dinks and drop-offs to backs. "My philosophy is to let the coverage dictate what I'll do, rather than have to look here, then here, then here," he says. "I like to stretch the field vertically, not across its width. Go upfield. Somebody will be open. I know that. My height gives me an advantage."