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Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner forged a backfield brotherhood

Posted Jun 17, 2014

Running backs set the tone for Browns in mid-1980s

This story isn’t about how running backs Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner were the third ever teammates to rush for 1,000-yards in NFL history.

“We used to go to TGI Fridays, every Thursday,” said Byner. “Good eats, maybe a cold libation.”

“Wait, you might not want to tell that story,” interrupted Mack, as the two roared with laughter.

This story is about the brotherhood they built, and still have to this day.

***

The year was 1985. Think Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Back to the Future and ridiculous neon outfits.

It was also in 1985 that the Cleveland Browns were forming their identity as an up and coming AFC powerhouse. Marty Schottenheimer was a gritty, first-year head coach. Bernie Kosar was a hotshot rookie quarterback from the University of Miami.  Chip Banks and Bob Golic led a hit-you-in-the-mouth type of defense.

It would be Mack and Byner, though, who set the tone and defined Browns football. The Browns centered their entire offense around the pair of workhorses. When one was galloping through defenses, the other was leading the way as a blocking fullback. The two never left the field.

“People don’t realize that if Earnest was feeling it and the play was called for me, I would tell him, ‘Hey, keep doing it, man, don’t stop,’” said Mack. “And vice-versa. We knew how to read each other.”

Byner described Mack as powerful and athletic. Mack might have been quiet and business-like, but when Sunday rolled around, opponents feared the challenges Mack would pose.

“I mean, you talk about hitting people, running through people,” said Byner. “That’s why he went to the Pro Bowl. That’s how he earned the recognition.

Byner, on the other hand, was loud, boisterous and more of a finesse-style runner. Mack remembers Byner being the leader trying to get all of his teammates to work harder.

“It was funny to me to watch Earnest get mad,” recalled Mack. “He would think I wasn’t going 100 percent in practice, (and say,) ‘You can do better than that. You have to push yourself. You got to hit it harder.’ Sometimes I would get mad at him on purpose and get his blood boiling and it would tickle me to death.”

Even with opposite running styles and personalities, without Mack and Byner and their genuine friendship, the Browns likely would have missed the playoffs in 1985. A specific instance helps define how much these players had each other’s backs.

It was Week 17 in the Meadowlands against the Jets. Byner needed 99 rushing yards to top the 1,000 marker. It was a game where Mack, who had already topped 1,000 yards on the season, just wasn’t finding the right holes to run through. He gladly passed the torch to Byner. On the very last play of the game, Byner needed five yards to reach his goal. He ran for seven. But because it was the last play of the game and the ball was not spotted, the team was unsure.

“I don’t believe Marty thought we had it,” said Byner. “He was walking with me towards the locker room, almost apologetic.”

“When I saw where the referees had marked it, I was running around screaming, telling everyone, ‘He’s got it,’” Mack remembered.  “I wasn’t even sure, but if you asked me, he had it. We got to the locker room and found out for sure, and there was nobody happier than me.”

Nobody was happier for Byner than Mack. That sentence embodies their relationship. Often the pair would dine during the week with their wives. Samurai Steakhouse was their favorite. The two talk often till this day.

“The bonding helped us become a better team, because we actually cared about each beyond being on the football field,” said Byner.

The Browns’ identity change, led by Mack and Byner’s production, lit the city of Cleveland on fire. Byner remembers stepping outside his house late one evening on the night before a playoff game, and he could literally feel the energy.

“I mean, I actually felt the vibrations of the city,” said Byner. “It was magnificent. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was getting charged.”

On most mornings when Mack woke up, he walked straight outside to grab the newspaper. And on most mornings, Mack would find his neighbors waiting for him to talk Browns football.

“It’s unbelievable, the atmosphere, the fans here in Cleveland,” said Mack. “They loved Browns players. They loved football. They loved the way we played. We loved playing for them. We loved playing for the city.”

It may be premature, but some Browns diehards are already hoping the Ben Tate-Terrance West combination can flourish into the Mack-Byner duo. Byner’s not sure what will happen, but if the team starts making the playoffs, he does have one prediction.

“It’s not that just their fan for a period of time” said Byner. “If this new Browns team can get things going, these fans will be with them forever.”

Byner and Mack were ahead of their time. Now, a majority of NFL teams operate with two running backs. Back in the mid-1980s, this was revolutionary.

“We were original,” said Byner. “Being able to do things we did while supporting and encouraging each other, I don’t know if you’ll see that now. There’s a lot of individualism in it now. A guy gets a 10-yard gain and he’s dancing around.”

Later in his career, Earnest Byner was traded to the Redskins. He won a Super Bowl and was revered in Washington, D.C., earning two Pro Bowl nods in 1990-91. But his favorite NFL memories are from his days in Cleveland with Kevin Mack.

“Nothing was ever like it,” said Byner. “When I left here, I didn’t have that bond. I appreciate you man.”

“Couldn’t imagine it without you,” said Mack with a big smile.