The Browns were in trouble.
They needed immediate attention.
Actually, they needed a doctor.
And that’s exactly what they got on Oct. 10, 1976 against the Steelers at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Not just a doctor, either, but the Doctor.
Longtime Browns fans will remember that game as the one in which defensive end Joe “Turkey” Jones epitomized the intensity of his team’s rivalry with Pittsburgh by sacking Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
But it was also the game in which Browns quarterback Brian Sipe was knocked out -- literally -- with a concussion, forcing the club to go to backup David Mays. And the man nicknamed “Doctor” did not disappoint in the least, resuscitating the Browns from a 10-6 halftime deficit and directing them to an 18-16 victory over the two-time defending Super Bowl champions that got a lot of monkeys off their backs and jump-started the season.
And in the process, it forever carved out a special niche in Browns history for Mays. It’s a niche -- and a game -- he says he knows he’ll be asked about a lot on Saturdayto meet and greet fans and sign autographs at the team’s Select-A-Seat event at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The win ended a bitter streak in which the Browns had lost five straight and seven of their last eight to their arch rivals. The victory was also sorely needed from the standpoint that after a resounding 21-point opening-day triumph over the Jets a month earlier, the Browns had dropped three consecutive lopsided decisions by a combined total of 69 points, an average of 23 per game. And that string began with a 31-14 loss at Pittsburgh in which the Browns blew a 14-0 halftime lead.
Mays, who had finished dental school at USC earlier in the year, hence his nickname, had started the year as the No. 3 quarterback, but moved up a notch when then-starter Mike Phipps was lost for the season in the opener with a separated shoulder. Then, when Sipe got dinged against the Steelers, it was up to Mays, a product of tiny Southern University, whose only pro experience was with Shreveport in the World Football League several years before.
The Steelers had obviously not prepared for Mays. In fact, they knew nothing about him. Why would they? He hadn’t played a down in the regular season to that point, his rookie year in the NFL.
So his mere presence in the game threw off the pass rush-happy, go-all-out-for the-quarterback Steelers, as did his ability to hurt teams in two ways. He had quick feet and could take off and run in addition to throwing the ball.
“I like to think that throughout my football career, my athletic ability assisted me in being able to avoid people and buy time for myself in the pocket,” Mays, a longtime resident of the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, said Tuesday.
Entering the game just before halftime, he finished 5-of-9 passing for 70 yards and also rushed 3 times for 14 yards. That kind of balance kept the Steelers off-guard and opened up the Browns running game overall, as they out-gained Pittsburgh on the ground 147 yards to 111.
The goal for any back-up is to seize upon the opportunity to play when it presents itself and Mays did just that.
“The games I got to play were few and far between, so when I did get in, I had to try to make it last by doing something special,” said Mays.
Mays made his presence felt right away. The Steelers were looking to increase their four-point lead early in the third quarter before Clarence Scott blocked a 34-yard field-goal attempt by Roy Gerela.
The Browns took the ball and marched it 74 yards for their only touchdown of the day on a 1-yard run by Cleo Miller. The extra-point attempt was no good, but the Browns had a 12-10 advantage they never lost.
Don Cockroft, who had kicked 43- and 28-yard field goals in the first half, supplemented that TD by booting 50- and 40-yarders after halftime to increase the Browns’ lead to 18-10 in the fourth quarter.
Mike Kruczek, who replaced the injured Bradshaw at quarterback, then ran 22 yards for a TD, after which the Steelers also missed the extra point to make the final of 18-16.
“That’s the game fans want to talk to me about all the time, and it’s nice that they remember,” said Mays, who practiced as a dentist in the Greater Cleveland area for almost 20 years but is now retired and working as a consultant for non-profit groups and political purposes.
“The people in Cleveland want to beat the Steelers, so that game is always what they bring up to me,” Mays said.And when they do so again and again and again on Saturday, Mays will smile and gladly recall the successful surgery he performed that, for everybody involved with the Browns, especially him, was just what the Doctor ordered.