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TWO WINGERS AND A BIG PRAYER
E.M. Swift
August 10, 1981
Cleveland and Atlanta open the season with Brian Sipe and Steve Bartkowski inspiring hopes of a meeting in January
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August 10, 1981

Two Wingers And A Big Prayer

Cleveland and Atlanta open the season with Brian Sipe and Steve Bartkowski inspiring hopes of a meeting in January

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It is billed as Football's Greatest Weekend. Not as Canton, Ohio's, Greatest Weekend, which it most certainly is. Football's. There are festivities, a parade, speeches and inductions (this year the four new Hall of Famers were Morris (Red) Badgro, George Blanda, Willie Davis and Jim Ringo), and at the end of it all a new season is ushered in with a football game. Everything usually goes smoothly—often movingly—until they have to play the football game.

Last year, for example, the Hall of Fame Game between Green Bay and San Diego ended in a 0—0 tie. It was a wash in all respects—such an abysmal show (Charger Quarterback Dan Fouts played only one series of downs) that Providence finally stepped in and doused the game with a fearful thunderstorm. That ended things with 5:29 still on the clock.

But the season must begin somewhere, and as such things go, Saturday's Hall of Fame Game between Atlanta and Cleveland wasn't a bad one. Starting quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Steve Bartkowski threw 46 passes in the first half alone. The teams, both surprise divisional winners last year, substituted freely, and the Browns won 24-10. They'll meet the Falcons for real in the fourth week of the regular season. Said Browns Coach Sam Rutigliano, "Let's hope we can play them three times." The only way a third game could occur, of course, would be for them to meet in January in the Super Bowl.

A year ago you would have been hooted back to the farm for suggesting that Cleveland and Atlanta might make it to the Super Bowl, but a year ago Sipe and Bartkowski weren't the best quarterbacks in football. They were during the 1980 season. The last time they met before Saturday was as starting quarterbacks in January's Pro Bowl—and in football, unlike baseball, all-star game starters are chosen by players and coaches, not fans. Sipe was the NFL's Most Valuable Player last season and its leading passer. He completed 337 passes, only 11 fewer than Fouts' league-leading total, but he had 10 fewer interceptions—14 to Fouts' 24. Both had 30 touchdown passes; Bartkowski led the league with 31.

Early in his career Bartkowski ran into trouble when he tried to behave like Joe Namath off the field as well as on. Broadway Joe; Peachtree Bart. "I enjoyed reading about myself," he says now. "I enjoyed having people say I was running the street until three in the morning, then coming out the next day and throwing three touchdowns. I tried to conform to that image, but it never did fit."

Bartkowski was also burdened by the expectation that he would be a miracle worker when Atlanta made him the first pick of the 1975 draft. Then, as now, his arm was a rifle. "The thing that was difficult for him," says his coach, Leeman Bennett, who joined the Falcons in 1977, "was overcoming the feeling that 'I've got this great arm and I can stick the football in a hole this big.' " Bennett makes a hole the size of a grapefruit with his hands. "And he could. Most of the time." The rest of the time the ball was going to the wrong-colored Jersey or off into space. As a rookie, Bartkowski completed only 45% of his passes. He suffered knee injuries in 1976 and 1977 and, when he did play, threw an unconscionable number of interceptions (13 in 136 attempts in 1977). "Every quarterback understands that he can win a game quicker than anyone on the field," says Bennett. "I had to make Bart understand that he can also lose a game quicker."

In 1978 he lost his starting job in the exhibition season, and it was then that the old Bart died and the new Bart was born. "I have a motto," he says now. " 'If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.' " He found religion, and after he spent three games on the bench, Atlanta found a quarterback. The Falcons gained a wild-card berth in the playoffs that year, then suffered a relapse in 1979 before things fell into place last season. They won nine straight during one stretch in 1980 and, for the first time in their 15-year history, a division title. In Atlanta's opening playoff game, against Dallas on Jan. 4, Bartkowski was brilliant, passing for 320 yards and leading Atlanta to a 24-10 advantage late in the third quarter. But the Cowboys rallied for a last-minute 30-27 win.

Sipe's and the Browns' season ended that same day with a heartbreaking playoff loss to Oakland. Trailing 14-12, Sipe moved his Kardiac Kids 72 yards to the 13-yard line despite a wind-chill factor of—37�. Less than a minute remained and all Cleveland needed was a field goal, but the Arctic conditions had already caused the Browns to miss two such attempts plus an extra point. Rutigliano called for a pass on second down, and in what became last season's most second-guessed play, Sipe's toss, poorly thrown, was intercepted in the end zone. "If there was any doubt, he was supposed to throw it to some blonde in the mezzanine," Rutigliano says. "But with the troubles our field-goal game had been having, Brian wanted to win it right then. Hey, that's the personality of our team. I tell people if they don't like it, they'd better just fasten their seat belts."

The rest of the country may remember that interception instead of Sipe's spectacular season, but that's not the way it is in Cleveland. Some say Sipe has emerged as the most popular athlete in the city's history, surpassing the likes of Jimmy Brown, Bob Feller and Rocky Colavito. "I'm really caught off guard by this thing," Sipe says. "I don't see how anybody could be prepared for the kind of attention I'm getting."

Sipe, who grew up in the San Diego area, has boyish good looks that make him an ideal Midwestern sex symbol. "On the West Coast," he says, "same face, same body, and I'm just another guy." In the Cleveland area no one would dare to suggest that he blew the Raider game. Not their Brian. The Browns would never have been at the 13-yard line, much less in the playoffs, if it hadn't been for their Brian. It was Sipe's performance in the clutch that more than anything else sparked the Browns' drive to the AFC Central Division title; 12 of their 16 regular-season games were decided in the last two minutes.

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