Joe Haden had two choices for where he could officially close the curtains on an illustrious NFL career: Cleveland or Pittsburgh — and he had no doubt in his mind which city he'd choose for his last act.
After seven years with the Browns, where he instantly bonded with a fanbase that had an unlimited love for football and never took his talents for granted, and another five seasons with the Steelers, located just 130 miles away and the biggest rival to his first NFL home, Haden remembered the comfort and love he always felt in Cleveland as he decided last summer he had played his final game.
Haden, 33, will sign a one-day contract with the Browns soon to end a tremendous 12-year career in the NFL. He'll be honored in the Browns' Week 8 game against the Bengals on Monday Night Football at FirstEnergy Stadium on Oct. 31, and he'll be remembered in Cleveland as a constant source of positivity and dominance during a difficult period in Browns history.
Haden, meanwhile, will remember Cleveland for the constant affection the fans always showed him.
"What made me want to retire as a Browns player was the city of Cleveland and the fans that I connected with," he said. "I got drafted there at 21 years old. I was a kid, and I really feel like I grew up in Cleveland. Living in the city and the connection that I had with Browns fans was unbelievable."
Take a look at some of the top photos from Joe Haden's Browns career. Haden will sign a one-day contract with the team and retire from the NFL.
As Haden looked back on his Browns career, he recalled the packed crowds and loud roars of FirstEnergy Stadium that never dulled even as the franchise endured several losing seasons. He'll never forget the times he bonded with the city outside of football, too, like the time he picked up the tab for dozens of fans he invited through social media at a sushi restaurant, or the countless Cavaliers and Indians games he attended as he immersed himself into the Cleveland sports scene.
Then, he has his on-field achievements. Haden was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 and garnered 19 interceptions across 90 games in a Browns uniform. He's seventh all-time in NFL history with 155 pass breakups since the stat began to be tracked in 1994, and he leads the league in that category since he was drafted seventh overall from Florida in 2010. He's the Browns' all-time leader with 101 pass breakups.
No matter what the Browns' record was, opposing quarterbacks constantly faced a stiff challenge against Haden. His favorite plays included an interception against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in a win against the Falcons in 2014, a two-interception game against the Ravens in 2016 and his first career pick in 2010, which happened against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
"Anytime we beat the Steelers or anytime I had a pick there, the city would just go crazy," he said. "The thing I embraced the most in Cleveland was the way that I loved the game and the way they loved football and their city so much."
Haden always gave fans a reason to turn on the TV on Sundays, even as the team struggled to the tune of a 29-83 record over his tenure that spanned from 2010-2016. His infectious positivity and big plays kept teammates and the fanbase in high spirits, and the losses never changed his mindset that he was just a kid living his dream as a football player in the NFL.
"'What am I here to complain about?'" Haden recalled asking himself. "You're out here playing ball and getting bread to be a corner. Lock it up and go onto the next challenge. That perspective kept everything easier for me."
But life abruptly changed for him on Aug. 30, 2017.
Haden was released by the Browns that day and signed with the Steelers. The breakup was unexpected and emotional, but he still felt a close relationship with Cleveland even as he began a new chapter with his former team's top rival.
He didn't have to wait long to return to the city, either. A week later, he was back at FirstEnergy Stadium for the Steelers' Week 1 game against the Browns, and the walk inside the building triggered a flood of memories that reminded him why he loved his days with the franchise.
"It was just crazy getting there and going to the away locker room," he said. "I had never been in the away locker room before, and it was weird passing the home locker room and all the people — the valet, the security and seeing all the people who were like, 'We miss you, Joe.' Those are the people you remember for seven years who you ran into every game.
"I didn't think I was ever going to be on another team. Ever. That was a tough pill to swallow, and the toughest thing of going against the Browns was having the love I have for the people there and being booed. I was playing for the Steelers, so I understand, but that was the toughest part."
Haden heard the boos whenever he returned to Cleveland over the next five years with Pittsburgh, but his love for the city, much like his desire to keep playing for it when times were tough, remained unchanged. The memories were never going away, even as he vied for a Super Bowl with a divisional rival and spent last offseason prepared to join a third NFL team to chase a Lombardi Trophy.
Now, that chase is over.
Haden realized he wanted to retire in August after he dropped his kids off at school for the first time as a father. Jett, his 3-year-old son, was starting preschool. His 6-year-old son, Joey, was starting kindergarten. Haden and his wife, Sarah, dropped them off on the first day of school and picked them up in the afternoon from their home in San Fernando Valley, California.
The day felt perfect for Haden, whose routine before then was all about preparing his body for another year in the NFL. He devoted hours each day to work out and complete therapeutic treatments while he waited for his next contract. A few teams reached out, but none of the offers were strong enough to lure Haden, who planned to move his family wherever he signed.
But then Haden saw the smiles on his kids' faces as he waited for them after school.
The feeling was life-changing. So life changing that he had made up his mind — his playing days were over, and his focus was on fatherhood.
"Man, I loved it," he said. "Life was good. I was able to look at my family, look at my wife and look at what we've got going on and be happy. It was a real, legitimate happiness."
Haden felt even more at peace with retirement when he watched the Browns play the Steelers on Thursday Night Football in Week 3.
He and his wife joined two friends at a steakhouse for dinner and cocktails, and he oozed fulfillment rather than nostalgia as his two former teams battled in another physical AFC North matchup.
He didn't miss the tackles, the hits, the interceptions or the adrenaline. That was all part of a previous life, one he was ready to wave goodbye to.
"When I was watching the game, I was seeing these professional athletes putting their life and body on the line every single snap, and they're amazing at it," he said. "I've known the grind that it takes to do that every Sunday. I'm getting older, and with my body, it takes a little bit harder to get up.
"It was a respect I had for them and a different perspective where I was like, 'Man, I'm just cheering them on. I'm cool.' That was the first time in my life that I've felt that."
Haden plans to remain in California and has considered a career in commentating NFL games. He's in no rush to decide, though, and wants to embrace the extra time he has with his wife and kids.
He's also looking forward to Oct. 31, when he'll renew his bond with the city that meant so much to him as a player — and became the perfect spot for him to take one final bow for his NFL career.
"The love I had with the fans was so genuine," he said, "and it felt genuine with the love that I gave back.
"It made me think, 'Man, I want to go back there and hang it up with them.'"