RUST BELT REVELRY
A woman, near tears with joy and hoarse from screaming at her heroes, leaned over the dugout that leads to the Browns' locker room tunnel. It was impossible to be heard over the gleeful din at Cleveland Stadium, but she was doing her best. When Brown running back Eric Metcalf approached the dugout, the woman went berserk. "Airrr-ick!" she screamed, but he was gone. "Oh my god!" she yelled to no one. "I'm gonna pass out!"
There was bedlam after Metcalf had become the first player in the history of the league to return two punts at least 75 yards for touchdowns in the same game. His second, a 75-yard juke and sprint up the right sideline with 2:05 left, gave the Browns a thrilling 28-23 win.
Following the winning score, Jim Brown—yes, that Jim Brown—pirouetted and pumped his fist, more emotional than he had ever been as a player. Comedian Martin Mull, a Cleveland native, hugged kicker Matt Stover. "Nothing compares to this! We're beating the Steelers!" Mull yelled. The P.A. system blared Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days. Players hugged and woofed at the sky. At 5-2, Cleveland leads second-place Pittsburgh in the AFC Central by a game going into the division's second bye week.
It doesn't get much better than this in the NFL: No plastic stadium or exploding scoreboard, only frenzied fans with their painted faces and doggy ears and a terrific rivalry between two Rust Belt teams. "This was classic, physical, emotional football," said Brown. "I was thrilled to be here."
Cleveland jumped out to a 14-0 second-quarter lead on Michael Jackson's 62-yard sprint with a Vinny Testaverde pass and Metcalf's first return, a 91-yarder. By halftime the Steelers had tied the score on two short Barry Foster runs. Then it was Pittsburgh 17-14. Then, Cleveland 21-17, on a touchdown pass from Testaverde to Ron Wolfley. Then, as the sun set over Lake Erie and the sailboats beat the dusk back home, came the day's strangest sequence of plays.
Midway through the third quarter, with the ball on the Pittsburgh 20, Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw incomplete, defensive tackle Jerry Ball nailed Foster for a six-yard loss, and O'Donnell was intercepted by nickelback Del Speer. He returned the ball to the Pittsburgh 16 before fumbling it back to the Steelers. Two plays later, with O'Donnell in the shotgun at his own 24, 284-pound tight end Eric Green went in motion. When center Dermontti Dawson snapped the ball, it hit Green on his ample posterior. After a mad scramble, fullback Merril Hoge picked up the ball and ran around end for a first down. The drive led to Gary Anderson's second field goal. His third three-pointer, midway through the fourth quarter, put Pittsburgh ahead 23-21.
With 2:24 to play, Steeler punter Mark Royals boomed a 53-yarder that Metcalf gathered in at his 25. He headed for the sideline, seemingly resigned to a 12-or 15-yard return. "Then I saw a lot of brown jerseys," recalled Metcalf. The brown jerseys cleared a path, and Metcalf was gone.
Said Steeler linebacker Greg Lloyd, who had played superbly, "He didn't beat us. He beat our special teams. That's stupid football. The defense took care of business."
After the game Cleveland owner Art Modell sipped a glass of chardonnay in his private suite at the stadium and talked about his team and his town. "We have an emotional hold on this city unlike any other team has on any other city in America," he said. "You feel it. The town pulses with it. It lives for the Browns, and it goes into a frenzy in weeks like this."