Earnest Byner was gassing up his car Tuesday afternoon for what was about to be one of the wildest rides of his life when he stopped for a few minutes to chat. A man who for decades had to bear a unique and profound cross for the city of Cleveland's sporting failures was about to grab his wife and jump on the road for an eight-hour journey from his home in Nashville to the city that's forever in his heart, with Cleveland finally celebrating a pro sports championship.
The Cavaliers' improbable NBA title, on the heels of the well-embraced ESPN documentary Believeland and as Byner continues to promote his 2014 book Everybody Fumbles, has continued a time of catharsis for the former star running back and longtime successful NFL running backs coach. For all that Byner does -- and attempting to help others through his most high-profile setback, The Fumble, is a big part of that -- his reality is that he will forever best be remembered for coughing up the football at the Denver 1-yard line with 72 seconds left in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, on the verge of going in for the go-ahead score for the Browns.
And over time he has become increasingly at ease with that, but never more so than now, with the Cavaliers overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the defending champion Warriors twice at Oracle Arena, where they almost never lose, and handing Cleveland its first championship since Jim Brown brought home the 1964 NFL crown.
Byner, who went to two Pro Bowls, won two Super Bowls and was the first player inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor due in large part to the love longtime Browns/Ravens owner Art Modell had for him, isn't quite partying like it's 1987 (had those talented Browns gone on to win the Lombardi), but the Cavs' victory has allowed for a further release for him.
He has been dealing with his fumble, and what could have been for the city, for decades. Through his emotional role in Believeland and through the writing of his book, he had been coming closer to closure. Now, the opportunity to see Cleveland celebrate this victory up close -- some are estimating close to 2 million will attend Wednesday's parade -- and to take part in some way has made for an even more positive ending of sorts.
"It's been amazing, amazing, truly amazing to see," Byner said of watching the Cavs' march to the title unfold, "and thinking about the role the Believeland film played, I believe it actually cleared out some spiritual vortex or something to help a whole lot of people let go of a whole lot of things they were holding onto, and maybe even heal from the inside more than they had done before.
"I think Believeland served that process and came along at the right time for the right reasons, and it was received by the country in a way that a lot of people probably don't understands. It was received in such a way that it moved a whole lot of stuff to the side, and I believe actually made room for the championship to be possible and even aided in the championship being possible."
Byner has stayed in contact with Andy Billman, the director of Believeland, which debuted on ESPN just over a month ago. So, when the opportunity to join Billman and others associated with the film developed in conjunction with the Cavaliers' celebration, he jumped at the opportunity. Byner isn't even totally certain what his role will be and what exactly he will be doing there, but knows that right now there is no place he would rather be than Cleveland. It's clear Byner feels a bond with the city, stronger through his place in a movie chronicling the city's varied athletic misfortunes, and the confluence of all of these events has him overjoyed.
"Absolutely, the movie has helped me tremendously," said Byner, whose story, charity and speaking work and football camps and more are chronicled at his official website. "It put things in perspective for me, and I learned so much about the fans of Cleveland and the history of Cleveland and the interconnectivity involved between the sports teams and the city and the fans. That interconnectivity is tremendous and I learned so much more about the legacy of the Browns and the Indians and the Cavs and the legacy of the fans as far as that is concerned. I learned so much more about them, man.
"When watched the video for the first time -- when I saw the rough cut -- I cried. And the last time I watched it ... I cried. It touches me beyond just me dealing with the fumble, because of all the other things that went in to the story of Cleveland sports that are in it as well."
Byner's career included no shortage of highlights, and he was one of the best running backs of his era (a time when the league was decidedly more run-heavy). He completed his 14-year career ranked 16th on the all-time rushing list with 8,261 yards on 2,095 carries, and he racked up 56 touchdowns as well. He also caught 512 passes for 4,605 yards and 15 touchdowns. Byner had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for Washington.
After retiring as a Raven in 1997, he went on to coach in the NFL from 1998-2013, working with running backs in Washington, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Tampa, helping backs like Clinton Portis, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Doug Martin to massive seasons.
But for all of that, and through all of that, The Fumble loomed large.
So he began the spiritual process of discovery and recovery by setting out to write Everybody Fumbles, which obviously has its roots in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, but also offers inspiring stories from others to take a comprehensive look at development on a personal and professional level. Rather than fear his past, he aimed to make peace with it.
"The book started off with The Fumble," he said, "but it really is about development personally and professionally, and it gives different stories in there and different analogies and I used different athletes like Marcus Allen, Emmitt Smith, Kevin Mack as examples of what it could be and how we could develop from that process I went through. Really, it was 29 years in the making, and it initially started out like I was seeing a psychologist. But I had to actually put it into context, and it's really about 53 different short stories."
Through those experiences compiling the book and sitting down for interviews for Believeland, Byner, a Georgia native, felt unusually calm despite mounting potential for Cleveland's latest potential sporting heartbreak with LeBron James and Co. on the verge of elimination in Game 5. Even with the Cavs on the brink of defeat, he was steadfast in his resolve that now was the time for his adopted city to finally break its long jinx.
"Actually, it was really been quite peaceful watching the playoffs," Byner said, "and the reason it has been is with the 30 for 30 coming out, Believeland, that provided a lot of peace, and also it helped me to continue to heal, but it also helped some of the people and fans of Cleveland to heal. What it really did for me, man, was it took away a lot of what became my self-consciousness regarding not being perfect, and failing at a big point in the game and having to actually deal with that weight for a number of years, having that understanding that at any point I could go out and people would yell at me, 'Fumble!'
"And it still could happen, but if happens now I have a healing process that has afforded me a level of peace that allows me to watch the game with a different mindset as well. I didn't watch it hoping they could win so they could help with me with my healing; I could just watch as a fan hoping they could win for Cleveland."
Yes, Byner would actually be dogged from time-to-time by those shouting "Fumble!" at him. It happened. Hopefully, it's over now, but if it isn't Byner feels much better equipped to deal with it.
"Since Believeland, no it hasn't happened," Byner said. "But just last year during the football season when I was up there at a couple of Browns games, yeah, it actually was still going on. And it's only part of the legacy of Cleveland, and only part of the story of Earnest Byner, but it's a big part, and an important part. But it also led me to a point where if we can use this as motivation, and use the fumble as motivation and as a teaching tool to help guys like Brandon Bostic (who Byner befriended after Bostic helped botch an onside kick play that kept Green Bay from reaching the Super Bowl) or anybody that goes through any similar situation like that, then I don't mind The Fumble being brought up.
"It used to bother me and it used to hurt and dig deep into me, but because of the freedom Believeland has given me, and the love Browns fans have continually shown me, now it's for healing, for the benefit of other people and the love of the game."
Was Byner worried at all that Cleveland fans would be dealt another heartbreak?
"I just had a sense that they were going to pull it out," Byner said of the Cavs. "As a matter of fact, some of the Twitter followers were hitting me up before the game and talking about the nerves they had, and I just kept pointing them to enjoy the process, watch and enjoy the process. It's so easy to get caught up in the end result, and sports are result-oriented, so it works the nerves in such a way that you can't really enjoy the process, and enjoy play after play and moment after moment.
"So, yeah, we had a couple of shots after the game. My head was pounding the next day. Yeah man, it was fun to watch and we had a good toast. As a matter of fact, we'll be going up for the parade and I'm sure we'll be toasting some more. I made a promise with Andy Billman, the director of Believeland, that we were going to hook up whenever a championship came to Cleveland, and we'd both toast on a little bit of tequila. And I'm sure we'll top it off with a big hug."
An embrace that for Byner was nearly 30 years in the making, and was now just eight hours of highway from being fulfilled.