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Brian Sipe is positive that his teammates were focused for the entirety of each game. He doesn’t want to knock their talent — or his own talent — but he’ll swear by it, even if it didn’t appear as such until the fourth quarter.
The former Browns quarterback, of course, is referring to the “Kardiac Kids.” That was the nickname for the 1979 and 1980 Browns that sent Cleveland into a frenzy with games that always came down to the final seconds. Sipe was the leader of the group, and he wants to make sure fans who remember the crazy season are aware of the Browns’ intentions: No, they were not trying to give fans a heart attack every game.
“I think what really set up apart at that time is that the guys could get focused late in the game when they need to be focused,” Sipe said. “That's not to say they weren't that way in the first half, but the psyche of a game changes late. This is not to slight the effort by my teammates or whatnot, but coaches get a little funny, teams get a little funny in the fourth quarter when they're protecting leads.”
The Cleveland Browns Presents: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football
The first Kardiac Kids game occurred in 1979 against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium. The Jets led 22-19 after the Browns lost a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Sipe and the offense had one last chance to move the ball into field-goal range and send the game to overtime. Fans had already begun to hit the exits and celebrate a season-opening Jets win.
Sipe heaved a 45-yard completion to wide receiver Dave Logan, who stepped out of bounds to stop the clock with only a few seconds remaining. Sipe, however, was hit late by Jets lineman Joe Klecko, and the 15-yard penalty moved the Browns in place for a last-second field goal.
Browns kicker Jon Cockroft made the attempt as time expired. Then, with less than 30 seconds left in overtime, the Browns intercepted the ball and moved into field-goal range after another teeth-clenching pass from Sipe to Logan.
The kick was good, and the Browns were 1-0.
Sipe received some unfortunate news back in Berea when the Browns returned after the game.
“One of the physicians from the Cleveland Clinic came down to our training center in Berea,” Sipe said. “I think it was after that game, and showed us a paper readout on a cardiac machine, and it showed that somebody had died right at that moment. I think the story was that he was watching the game, and he died.”
Thus, the Kardiac Kids were born.
The Browns finished 9-7 in 1979 and went 7-5 in one-possession games. They didn’t make the playoffs, but the franchise had gone six seasons without a winning record, so there was an additional wave of hype for the 1980 season. Their offensive core of Sipe, fullback Mike Pruitt, tight end Ozzie Newsome and wide receivers Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan had Cleveland ready for winning football.
Sipe and the Browns finished 11-5 in 1980 and went 9-3 in one-possession games. Late game comebacks became the identity of the Browns at the expense of their fans’ sanity, but the fans loved it.
Kardiac Kids T-shirts and hats became a common sight at Browns games, and players couldn’t go anywhere in the city without being greeted by throngs of fans.
One of Sipe’s best memories, however, happened at the airport in Cleveland.
After the Browns defeated the Houston Oilers, one of the top teams in the league, to place the Browns in position to win the AFC Central division, fans packed the terminal where the Browns were set to arrive. Airport security delayed the team’s exit off the plane to determine a way around the bustling crowd that blocked the Browns’ main path out of the building.
Then, defensive end Lyle Alzado, who weighed around 250 pounds, sprinted and dove overtop the crowd. The fans went ballistic, and the rest of the team snuck through to the buses.
“The whole place just erupts and goes crazy,” Sipe said. “We all ran up this jetway and got down, because they were all dealing with Alzado, who was being carried off to God knows where by the fans. That was pretty priceless.”
Sipe, who concluded a 10-year career with the Browns in 1983, still catches football fans off guard whenever he mentions his NFL career. The drama is still remembered even by fans outside of Cleveland, and Sipe is always eager to share it.
“It was electric around here. I don't know how to describe it,” Sipe said. “It was just a riot.”