Andy Janovich was nervous.
It was early in training camp, and the fifth-year fullback was just getting into the swing of things with his new team. After four years in Denver, Janovich had a new home in Cleveland, and he was already feeling the love. The offseason was weird, sure, but months of Zoom meetings helped Janovich get to know his new teammates and coaches while also stoking his excitement for the upcoming season.
But now, upon a request from his new coach, Janovich was consumed with uneasiness. His stomach was churning.
Kevin Stefanski alerted Janovich he'd be one of the first players to share his Four H's — History, Heroes, Heartbreaks and Hopes — with the entire team: players, coaches, the whole nine. He'd follow new S Karl Joseph, who would kick off a meeting that, despite the truncated, every-second-counts build-up to the 2020 season, would focus little on football. It was about getting to know the players behind the masks, something that was so much tougher to do in a COVID-restricted offseason, which completely wiped out any organic interactions between players and coaches.
Janovich was acquired by the Browns in a March trade with the Broncos for a reason: They needed a badass, nasty, unafraid fullback for their offense. He checked all of the boxes. Janovich, though, prefers to let his punishing, physical style of play do the talking and rarely enjoys actually talking about it. He's all about the work, a philosophy Stefanski has preached to his players ever since his very first (virtual) team meeting in April.
Simply put, Janovich would rather crack shoulder pads with a stampeding linebacker for hours on end than speak in front of a large group of people for a few minutes.
"I thought about it all damn day," Janovich said. "I couldn't think of anything else."
As much as the assignment filled him with butterflies, Janovich took it seriously. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had so much to share, and he owed it to his new teammates and coaches to be as open and honest as possible. After all, he expected the same from them.
"If you don't really like the people you're working with, you'll just want to collect a paycheck and go home and say, 'Who gives a crap?'" Janovich said.
"That's a good way to build a team is to get to know guys. If they really want to get to know me, we can be personal about everything. I think that's how really, really good teams get to be."
So, when the time came, Janovich opened his laptop, looked into his screen and spoke from the heart. He revealed un-Google-able details about his past, teared up discussing his unfathomable heartbreak and spoke with genuine optimism about what he believed the assembled group could accomplish in 2020 and beyond.
You see a fullback like Andy, and you don't expect him to get emotional on a call. Some of the stuff he's been through is pretty intense. Joel Bitonio
In the most unusual of offseasons for a team with a new head coach, new general manager and a boatload of new faces, this was a moment — a turning point that brought everyone closer while COVID-19 forced them away from each other for hours, days and months on end.
"I was floored by it," Stefanski said. "He set the tone with the teammates understanding we all trust each other and want to understand each other better.
"One way to do that is to tell each other to know what you're all about."
Everything shut down when Stefanski was just getting his footing as the Browns' new head coach.
He'd been on the job for close to two months and had only recently closed on a house. His family was still in Minneapolis. HIs coaching staff had just been finalized and the offices around him were starting to fill up. Players would return for workouts in a month, and preparations were underway to welcome them into a new culture, a new beginning, under his leadership.
But then, in a flash, everything had to be adjusted. Stefanski and all Browns employees were no longer permitted in the facility and would work remotely for an indefinite period starting March 13. Stefanski rejoined his family in Minneapolis and many of the team's other coaches returned to their previous residences, but the work continued.
"The question I kept asking was, 'how do you come together when you're apart?'" Stefanski said. "We just got to a point where everything was virtual. We kept thinking we were going to get together in the spring, maybe late May, maybe June, and it didn't come."
In one of his few hours not filled with internal meetings, Stefanski spent some time on a Zoom call with VCU men's basketball coach Mike Rhoades. The focus was on team-building, and Stefanski shared a number of his own ideas during the conversation, which was set up by Stefanski's longtime friend, VCU Director of Basketball Operations, Jimmy Martelli. Rhoades told Stefanski about "Four H's" and how successful it'd been during each of his past three seasons.
It wasn't quite clear how it'd work for an NFL team, especially one constrained to virtual meetings. Rhoades' roster, of course, is much smaller than the 90+ NFL teams host for training camp, and he only had experience with the exercise in a traditional team meeting setting.
Stefanski, though, was undeterred. The potential hang-ups weren't enough to kill the entire concept.
"I stole their idea," Stefanski said, "just like I do every week in game planning."
The question I kept asking was, ‘how do you come together when you're apart?’ Kevin Stefanski
For Janovich, the first H was a blast because it allowed him to talk all about his family. And, well, there's a lot to discuss.
Janovich is one of nine, and that total grows to 12 — seven boys, five girls — when you count his three step-siblings — "Love them all to death, too," he said. His father, Ron, is now a grandfather 30 times over with the 31st on the way soon.
A big smile crosses Janovich's face when he thinks about what the holidays looked like before COVID-19.
"You can't beat being in a big family," Janovich said. "Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, it's just wild. There's just about 50-60 people running around the house. It's chaos the whole time. It's chaos but you can't beat it. It's unbelievable.
You get to realize it's bigger than football. Everybody's story, everybody's journey is just amazing how we can all go inside together and bring us together. So many different races and backgrounds and stories. For us to all be a team, it just goes to show how special this game really is. Larry Ogunjobi
"I go to my wife's family get-togethers and it's 10-15 people, really cordial and quiet. I guess this is how a lot of people spend their holidays enjoying it, being able to watch the game or something. We didn't grow up with that."
Janovich's path to the NFL doesn't match most of the other fullbacks who have clung to jobs in the face of more and more offenses veering away from the position. While a number of players switch to fullback out of survival, Janovich has been one ever since his high school days in Gretna, Nebraska, a small suburb of Omaha.
Janovich, who was also a linebacker in high school, had a scholarship offer to the University of Nebraska-Kearney but opted to enroll as a walk-on at Nebraska when the opportunity presented itself. That was his dream "as soon as he knew what football was" largely because his uncle, Jerry Murtaugh, was an All-American linebacker at the school during the 1970s.
"I wanted to play for Nebraska and I wanted to be like my Uncle Jerry," Janovich said.
Janovich earned a scholarship by his sophomore year. He rarely touched the ball during his first three seasons before taking on a bigger role in the offense as a senior. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after rushing 42 times for 265 yards and three touchdowns while catching two passes for 58 yards, including a 53-yarder.
At No. 176 overall, Janovich was the first fullback selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. In a touch of irony, the pick originally belonged to the Browns ... who parted with it in a trade that also included the first-round pick Tennessee used to select … Jack Conklin.
Janovich took on a role right away with the Broncos, appearing in 11 games as a rookie before seeing the field in all 16 in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018. Janovich started in 19 games over four years but was limited to just seven games overall in 2019 because of an elbow injury that prematurely ended his season.
Denver made a change at offensive coordinator after the 2019 season with the hire of Pat Shurmur, whose offense doesn't feature a traditional fullback like Janovich. The Browns recognized it, made the call and ultimately parted with a seventh-round pick to acquire him.
Janovich was giddy after doing some quick research on Stefanski. He called it a "dream offense" for a player like himself.
Janovich covered all of the above in CliffsNotes fashion when he spoke to the team. It was the next two H's that really peered into Janovich's upbringing.
The Intersection of Heroes and Heartbreak
Janovich's hero and heartbreak go hand in hand.
It starts with his father, "the hardest working guy you'll ever meet," Janovich said. That's Janovich's hero because, to this day, he still has no idea how he handled everything that came his way.
Ron Janovich worked long days as a car mechanic for most of his working career before taking on a job at a railroad company. Janovich's mother, Margie, stayed at home to care for all of the children, most of whom she home-schooled. Andy doesn't know when his father found time to sleep because when he came home from work, he was spending time with the family.
"Everything he brought home, that was it," Janovich said. "He just made it work."
That continued even in the face of tragedy.
Margie was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just a couple of years after Andy, her eighth child, was born. She was pregnant with Andy's youngest biological sister at the time and delayed treatment on the cancer until the baby was born. She passed away when Andy was just 3 years old.
Ron was the glue that held the family together.
"I don't think the guy ever slept," Janovich said. "He worked dark to dark and then he comes home and is raising kids."
You kind of get a sense of how people tick because a lot of it is just the big heartbreak is the reason they wanted to do the things they did. Andy Janovich
Janovich didn't hold anything back as he laid the story out to his teammates, his emotions taking over as he spoke into his computer screen.
"It wasn't the easiest," Janovich said. "Nobody likes to talk about it all that much."
His new teammates had yet to even share a meal with him, but they quickly understood what made Janovich the player and man he is today. Even Stefanski admitted he didn't know the extent of what Janovich relayed in a moment he won't soon forget.
"You see a fullback like Andy, and you don't expect him to get emotional on a call," G Joel Bitonio said. "Some of the stuff he's been through is pretty intense."
You're literally sweating with each other, sometimes you're bleeding with each other. I do think there's a personal connection that makes it easier to do those things. It's much harder to do if you don't know the person next to you or you don't like the person next to you. Kevin Stefanski
When VCU players gave their four H's, they were able to look in the eyes of their teammates as they spilled their guts. When it was over, and the speaker of the day was emotionally exhausted, they were able to show their appreciation with hugs, pats on the back and face-to-face words of encouragement.
The Browns, of course, couldn't recreate that setting because of COVID-19 protocols. Full team meetings were discouraged during training camp, requiring coaches to either relay important messages in outdoor practice settings or lean upon even more of the virtual meetings that consumed the offseason.
That's why Stefanski encouraged the team to use a different method of showing their teammates how much they cared.
Though they couldn't look in the eyes of all of their teammates, Janovich and other players who spoke felt the love through the Zoom chat function. It was there where they saw their teammates' support, whether it be with words or emojis. After the meeting, Chief of Staff Callie Brownson compiled the messages and sent them to the player so they had a full account.
"You show vulnerability and then it's nice to get a pat on the back and say, 'hey, nice job," Stefanski said. "We just felt it was important guys got feedback and that immediacy of feedback based on what they're saying and sharing to their teammates."
Even for the players who had been with the Browns for multiple years, these moments forged even deeper connections.
Bitonio, the longest-tenured Browns player, has been teammates with CB Denzel Ward since 2018. He said he'd known a little about the history they shared — both of their fathers passed suddenly from heart issues — but it didn't come into focus until after both shared it with the team.
"Until he gets in front of the team and tells us about it and I tell about it, you don't realize how much more connected you are with guys who otherwise — he's a DB and I'm an offensive lineman — you wouldn't understand where they're coming from," Bitonio said. "It just helps you connect and we have a pride in what we do as players.
"When you become a family, it just means a little bit more for you."
The more and more Janovich heard from his teammates, the more he realized how much he shared in common with them. The settings and details differed, but their journey was similarly impactful.
"You kind of get a sense of how people tick because a lot of it is just the big heartbreak is the reason they wanted to do the things they did," Janovich said. "They were inspirational in their life and them dying was, 'oh man, I want to carry on their name to make them proud.'"
When Janovich arrived in Denver, the city was still buzzing after the team's triumph in Super Bowl 50. But after four seasons with the Broncos, Janovich is still looking forward to his first playoff game.
That kind of background matches most of his teammates, many of whom are on the doorsteps of their first-ever trip to the playoffs. Janovich saw all of the faces on the Zoom call and knew enough about them as players to express his hope of one day not only reaching the playoffs, but winning the whole thing.
One by one, as they finished their time before the team, each player, in one way or another, echoed Janovich's sentiments. They hoped to celebrate a Super Bowl victory whom with they just shared their life story.
"You get to realize it's bigger than football," DT Larry Ogunjobi said. "Everybody's story, everybody's journey is just amazing how we can all go inside together and bring us together. So many different races and backgrounds and stories. For us to all be a team, it just goes to show how special this game really is.
"We've got people all across the world, all across the country, so many different backgrounds, so many different stories and we're all here together on a team going toward one unified goal."
Stefanski is reluctant to give direct credit to the four H's for why the Browns sit at 10-4, their best record at this point of the season in a generation. Bitonio said it was one of the many Stefanski-led initiatives that helped bring the players together despite all of the logistical hurdles.
Nothing was normal. No one pretends it was. But for Browns players, Stefanski and his staff made the unusual feel routine throughout the buildup to the season.
"He was always ready for it to be different," Bitonio said.
This was, as Stefanski tells the team all of the time, "embracing the suck" of the situation it faced. The Browns were socially distanced for months on end, but they entered 2020 as together as they've been in a long time.
"You're literally sweating with each other, sometimes you're bleeding with each other. I do think there's a personal connection that is easier to do those things," Stefanski said. "It's much harder to do if you don't know the person next to you or you don't like the person next to you. I think everyone knows you're not going to have a team where everybody is best friends and hang out together off the field and everybody knows examples of those types of things.
"But I will say, it certainly makes life easier when everyone gets along."