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How basketball and a plane ride ignited the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship team


It was a blustery January afternoon. It was 1964. It was on the team airplane. It was when a championship mindset tattooed itself into a football team's soul. 

Cleveland Browns players and coaches boarded the puddle-jumper for sunny Miami. The team was leaving pea coats, frostbite and egg nog behind for bathing suits, tan lines and pina coladas by the pool. Not a bad a gig.

Despite the luxurious circumstances, no one was smiling on the plane. Nobody wanted to go to Miami.

One week prior, the Chicago Bears had defeated the New York Giants, 14-10, winning the 1963 NFL championship.

To grow its expanding sport in the 1960s, the NFL held a Playoff Bowl one week after the championship game. It pitted the third- and fourth-place teams against each other. It was a charade. The Browns resented the meaningless contest. Strongly.

"This is America," said Pro Bowl left tackle Dick Schafrath. "Who wanted to play for anything but first place?"

The Packers steamrolled the Browns, 40-23. The Browns, the iconic NFL team of the 1950s, had failed to reach a championship game for the fifth straight season. The defeat to the Packers didn't sting. The Browns' fading credibility did. The trip to Miami was the wakeup call Cleveland desperately needed.


A year before the loss to the Packers, the tides had already become unsettling in Cleveland. In an earth-shattering moment in franchise history, the young and anxious team owner, Art Modell, fired head coach and general manager Paul Brown along with his seven championships in 17 seasons. An NFL patriarch was sent packing. Everyone was put on notice.

Modell sent the message loud and clear to all of Cleveland: we aren't who we once were. The Browns need a reboot to be reborn.

A group of leaders on the team didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with Modell's thesis. They didn't need anything "new." The franchise just needed to dig back a few years in the history books.

In the 1950s there was a "Browns Way." You know, like today's "Patriots Way." Teams around the NFL tried to recreate the Browns' formula for success. Young kids around the country always pulled for the Browns. Cleveland was, if not the capital of the football world.

The Browns had lost touch with those very roots. Football wasn't as fun anymore. Maybe even more so, the players needed to bond with each other away from their sport.

More offseason activities were organized by teammates. Many members started playing basketball with each other every Tuesday night, which believe it or not was more important than you would think. Most NFL teams in the 1960s did not require any type of offseason workout routine. Lots of players would show up to training camp in July massively out of shape. Not the Cleveland Browns.

On the basketball court, the team began to read each other's body language and how certain people would react athletically in the heat of the moment. Sometimes there would be playful shoving matches after a close game. Basketball raised the Browns' competitive spirit. Tuesday's on the court helped bring the core of the team together.

"The thing about playing basketball was we really started to get a feel for how we all moved," Schafrath recalled. "We developed chemistry there."

One weekend the team threw together a Beatles themed party, wearing wigs replicating the hairstyles of the sizzling British band.  Before each home game, the entire team would go to the movie theatres together. Sean Connery starring as James Bond in Goldfinger was one of the team's favorite flicks in '64.

The Browns felt more like a team. And they played like it too under second-year head coach Blanton Collier.

The renewed sense of the word team manifested itself on the football field. Running back Jim Brown set the tone, galloping for 1,446 yards and seven touchdowns. Quarterback Frank Ryan led the league with 25 passing touchdowns. Rookie receiver Paul Warfield from Ohio State immediately became one of the most reliable pass catchers in the NFL. 

This time around, the Browns weren't flying to Miami. Instead, the Colts and league MVP Johnny Unitas were riding the bus over from Baltimore for the NFL championship.

The Browns were 17-point underdogs, an absurd number in any age and time. Anyone who followed the league closely thought the Browns were going to get absolutely trampled. Unitas was just too good of a quarterback to fail. Don Shula was just too good of a coach not to walk away with a title.

"All we read in the newspapers before the game was how much Baltimore was going to beat Cleveland by," said Browns' safety Bobby Franklin.

"Nobody respected us," said Jim Brown.

An NFL record 79,544 packed Municipal Stadium on December 27th, 1964.


"The fans had a fantastic effect on us," said defensive lineman Bernie Parrish. "You'd feel guilty if you lost a game, because of how wonderful they were to us."

From early on, the Browns used the raucous crowd to capture momentum. The Cleveland defense was sniffing out any trick play, beautifully stuffing a screen pass for a several yard loss. Stud linebacker Vince Costello picked off a Unitas pass. The Colts muffed a field goal attempt.  It felt like the Browns had the lead; even the score was 0-0 at the half.

Like a leaking pipe waiting to burst, the floodgates opened in the second half. Frank Ryan tossed three touchdown passes, all to wide receiver Gary Collins. Two went for 40-plus yards. Jim Brown pounded the football 114 yards on 27 carries. Veteran Lou Groza even added a 43-yard field goal.

When it was all said and done, the Cleveland Browns laid down the law on the Baltimore Colts, 27-0. The Colts headed back to Baltimore with a bruised ego.

"We were able to get the job done, and send the Colts home crying," said linebacker Galen Fiss.

Fans stormed the field moments after the victory, relishing in the moment. Players dressed slowly in the locker room, sipping on champagne and puffing cigars. Every Browns employee and their families partied all night at Hotel Sheraton downtown in Public Square. There was live music and autographs for fans.

"In this band of brothers, no one was more special than the other," said Casey Coleman, legendary Cleveland sportscaster. "The first guy was the same as the 40th guy on the 1964 team."

Championships taste sweet. Championships are forever.

Without a plane ride to Miami 11 months earlier and without some team bonding activities like basketball, 1964 might not be a year forever embedded in the city of Cleveland's history.

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