When Don Cockroft came into the world, the Browns did not exist.
It would be another year and a half before they played their first game in 1946 in the All-America Football Conference.
But now it’s impossible to study Browns history without thinking about Cockroft, who was born Feb. 6, 1945 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Cockroft, a third-round choice of the Browns in the 1967 NFL Draft out of tiny Adams State, played for the team for 13 seasons (1968-80). He kicked for all of that time, and, until being passed by
Cockroft had three signature field goals in his career:
*A 26-yarder with just seconds remaining that edged the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-24, at Cleveland in 1972 and served as the catalyst to the Browns earning the AFC’s lone wild-card playoff berth, while also, according to him, jump-starting his career.
*A 35-yarder that defeated the New England Patriots, 30-27, in 1977 at Cleveland on Monday Night Football in the first overtime game in club history.
*A 22-yarder with just over a minute left that provided the deciding points in a 27-24 victory over the Bengals at Cincinnati in the 1980 regular-season finale that clinched the Central Division title and earned the team its first trip to the postseason since that 1972 season.
With his confidence renewed following the game-winning kick against the Steelers, Cockroft finished 1972 with an NFL-leading 81.5 success rate on his field goals (22 of 27). He also topped the league in 1974 by making 87.5 percent (14 of 16).
He finished his career connecting on 216 of 328 attempts (65.9 percent).
In addition, Cockroft served as the team’s punter for nine years (1968-76), having a career average of 40.3 yards per attempt. His best season was in 1972, when he averaged 43.2 yards.
Doing any of this was not easy for Cockroft, simply because he had the immense pressure of trying to fill the huge shoes of Pro Football Hall of Fame kicker Lou “The Toe” Groza, who retired following the 1967 season after having been with the Browns since that inaugural year of 1946.
To put that into perspective, on the day Cockroft was born, Groza was still serving in World War II.
But as an addendum to that, Cockroft was extremely respectful of, but never intimidated by, the aura of Groza, and ended up carving out his own niche in Browns history in the great lineage of the team’s kickers.
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