Cleveland Browns quarterback, 29
Brian Hoyer sits on the end of the L-shaped seating arrangement in his family room, shaking his head as his 22-pound puggle, Daisy, bounds from rug to cushion to ottoman, sniffing as it goes.
Hoyer's 1-year-old daughter, Cameron, sits on one of two child-size easy chairs in front of the hearth. When she makes a silly sound to her dad, he responds with his own, "Lob-lob-lob-lob-lob-lob."
Two-and-a-half-year-old Garrett digs through a toy bin to find a fuzzy ball that he tosses back and forth with the Cleveland Browns quarterback.
"What's your name?" asks Garrett.
"Brian," Hoyer responds. "What's yours?"
Garrett responds by crawling to the dog bed, lifting the cushion and proudly proclaiming, "I'm going to hide here."
"Under there?" Hoyer's wife, Lauren, says. "In the dog bed?"
Garrett simply beams.
This is life in the Hoyers' Avon Lake household, a short walk from where Lauren grew up, a 20-minute drive from St. Ignatius High School where Hoyer starred for coach Chuck Kyle's Wildcats — a place they are proud to call home.
"Buying a house here when I had been cut three or four times probably seemed crazy, but I knew deep down I was probably going to come back here," Hoyer says. "Regardless, I would think we'd end up in Cleveland in some way or fashion."Å¡«
Hoyer began on the long and winding NFL road when he went undrafted out of Michigan State University. He signed with New England in 2009, where he backed up Tom Brady for three seasons before being released in 2012. He made whistle-stops in Pittsburgh and Arizona before landing in Cleveland in 2013.
Permanence beckoned from nowhere when, as the third-stringer behind Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, he was named the surprise starter Sept. 22 against Minnesota after Weeden hurt his thumb. He won two straight games — an accomplishment of significance in this new Browns era — heading into a matchup with Buffalo on a Thursday night.
But on a freak play less than five minutes into the game, Hoyer caught his spike in the ground while sliding. As a defender crashed on top of him, his right knee bent awkwardly under his body. He rolled over in pain, his chinstrap over his nose and his anterior cruciate ligament severed.
Two weeks later, just days after his daughter, Cameron, was born, Hoyer had surgery to repair the ligament.
Seven months later with Hoyer in the midst of rehabbing his knee, the Browns took Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick of the 2014 NFL draft. First-year head coach Mike Pettine named Hoyer the starter in the preseason.
With Hoyer under center, they won — yes, WON — more games than any Browns team in the past seven years.
And then they didn't.
For a while, the kid who grew up rooting for Bernie Kosar idled the Factory of Sadness. The Browns became relevant again. Hometown Hoyer, Hoyer the Destroyer and Kardiac Kids 2.0 T-shirts rolled off the production line. There was excitement on Sunday, chatter on Monday. Danny Boy's in Rocky River had a regular sign touting Hoyer — "Keep Hoyer" — at its Lake Road location, while the sign outside Stamper's in Fairview Park read, "Manziel Can Wait. This is Hoyer Country."
Hoyer wasn't video game flashy, didn't turn the ball over, made smart choices and refused to give up no matter the deficit.
He led a game-winning drive from the Browns 5-yard line to defeat Drew Brees and the Saints in the Sept. 14 home opener. Against Tennessee in Week 5, he hit Travis Benjamin in the back of the end zone with 1:09 left to erase a 28-3 deficit and pull off the greatest road comeback in NFL history — then became part of a viral video of Browns players dancing in the locker room.
And Hoyer routed the hated Steelers 31-10 the next week, beating the black and gold for only the third time in 23 games. Heading into a Nov. 6 Thursday night matchup with first-place Cincinnati, the Browns were 5-3.
By the end, as the team was wrapping up a 24-3 throttling of the Bengals on the road, Browns fans jammed the northwest end zone where the team left the field. The same group that had chanted "Bri-an Hoy-er" during the game escorted him off to cheers, and he acknowledged them with a wave.
As Hoyer recalls the game that moved the team into first place for the first time in 20 years, he talks of sitting on the bus after the game, his cellphone buzzing with words of congratulations and excitement.
One text caught his eye. It came from his mother-in-law. Sharon Scrivens, who was with the kids because Lauren made the trip for the game, sent the Browns quarterback a photo of Garrett in his big-boy bed for one of his first nights.
"Looking at him sleeping, as cute as he looked, that was better than winning the game," Hoyer says. "I realize that this only lasts so long."Å¡«
Lauren and Hoyer met during a dance at St. Ignatius. She was a Magnificat High School girl, and a friend of Hoyer's was interested in one of her good friends, Christina Gonzalez, the sister of former Ohio State University and Colts receiver Anthony Gonzalez.
Hoyer said he was being the good wingman and offered to give Lauren a ride home. Frequent AOL instant messaging and post-Ignatius-game visits to Taco Bell followed, and the two have been together since.
The pair called New England home for 3 1/2 years when Hoyer backed up Brady and played under Bill Belichick. He appeared in only 13 games and threw just one touchdown pass during that time but savored every second.
"It was the best football graduate school I could go to," Hoyer says.
The day he was released by New England in 2012, he warned Lauren when he left that it wouldn't be good if he was home early.
The first thing he said after passing on the news: "Do you want to go to Home Depot or should I?" It was time to get boxes, time to pack.
The pair had a 4-month-old and nowhere to go. So they moved in with Lauren's parents in Northeast Ohio, prodigal children returning, she says. Hoyer knew he had to do something to stay ready if he got a call.
"I was going to have to employ her dad or my dad to catch for me," Hoyer says. "I knew that wasn't going to work."
Then Ignatius came to mind, where he compiled a 16-7 record as a two-year starter and was named a PrepStar All-American. "They have 100 kids on the team and probably 30 receivers," he says.
Among them was Scott Scrivens, Lauren's brother. Hoyer called coach Chuck Kyle, who said to come down. Every day, Hoyer would drive to practice, throw in drills and drive home with Scott. "I think it was therapeutic to come down here," Kyle says.
Hoyer needed something to keep him occupied while waiting for the phone to ring. "Even after practice, guys would hang around with him," Kyle adds. "It was great."
In hindsight, Hoyer calls it one of the least stressful times of his career. He could practice, spend time with Garrett and his wife, time the two do not have when he's playing.
In late November, Pittsburgh called after losing two quarterbacks to injury. But that didn't last, even though Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thought highly of him. He wound up in Arizona, where he started the team's final game that season. By spring, however, he was released and signed with the Browns.
"When I was there last year, I thought Brian was the guy for the job without a doubt," says linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who endured the quarterback merry-go-round his first seven seasons with the Browns before joining the Colts in 2014. "He's a winner. Guys follow him."Å¡«
As Hoyer talks at home and babbles with his daughter, he sits in the exact spot on the couch where he watched the Browns select the guy nicknamed after the sport he plays.
Hoyer has no official nickname, fewer major endorsements and even fewer photos on Instagram.
He watched the draft, expecting to hear a quarterback's name at some point. As the commissioner read the card for the Browns first selection, Hoyer admits he leaned forward as he heard the "Ju ..." for Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick. Fourteen picks later it was Manziel — and his money sign.
Hoyer knew it was coming, though. Before the pick, Browns general manager Ray Farmer texted to say Manziel's selection didn't change how they felt about him.
Hoyer says with the straightest face possible that knowing it was Manziel was a relief.
"We all knew we were going to draft a quarterback," Hoyer says. "OK, this is who it is."
The competition didn't faze him. Heck, at Ignatius he competed with more than a dozen others to win the quarterback job on the freshman football team.
Hoyer did what he does best. He compartmentalized — Lauren calls it his middle name — and focused on learning new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone running and play-action passing offense. And he rehabbed his surgically repaired right knee.
"I felt sorry for myself," Hoyer says of that injury, "for about 30 minutes."
He put that in its place too, attacking his rehab with the vengeance of a Super Smash Bros. character. Less than two months after surgery, he was back in the locker room without a brace or crutches. He kept the cleats he was wearing when the injury occurred in the bottom of his locker as a reminder of what it took to return.
"I don't think that many people would expect that the person in his position would be as tough as he is," Lauren says.
To Hoyer, drafting Manziel was just something that happened.
"Having to deal with this," he says, pointing to his right knee, "kept my mind off a lot of that. If I let myself get caught in that other stuff, it would have taken away from my rehab and learning a new system. I was only a month ahead of Johnny when he came in. I had been in the league a long time, but I knew I had to take care of those two things first."
And he did — beating out Manziel and getting the nod to start the season. But even Hoyer admits that as he walked into the locker room at halftime of the opener in Pittsburgh down 27-3, he wondered if he'd be pulled.
"They had just told me 30 minutes earlier not to worry and just play," says Hoyer, who went on to lead a furious comeback to tie the game and nearly steal an improbable win. "But you never know. Crazy stuff happens in this league."Å¡«
Hoyer concedes it felt like the city was split on who should play quarterback, though he was grateful to get more cheers than Manziel the first day of training camp in late July.
"I think being from here actually helped throughout this process," he says. "Had I not been from here, I think everybody would have jumped on Johnny's bandwagon. At least there were people in training camp who had my back too, which was a good feeling. But if you walked in the stadium [during the season], you probably saw more 2's than 6's."
The Manziel question was always present, but for most of the season, the debate was on a low simmer. The Browns were winning with Hoyer, and in first place for the first time in 20 years after the Nov. 6 Cincinnati win.
"I've always talked about guys that study it, learn it, love it, breathe it, and he's done that," says Farmer. "So to his credit, he's demonstrated not only to those on the outside world, but those interior, his commitment and his drive to be as good as he can be."
But after the Cincinnati victory, the team lost three of the next four games with Hoyer failing to throw a touchdown. Johnny Football started the second game against Cincinnati Dec. 14.
But for many, Hoyer represents Cleveland because he was — and is — Cleveland. He loves what LeBron James said on his return — that in Cleveland nothing is given and everything is earned. It's how he played too.
While not every one of life's fairy tales has a happy ending, that doesn't diminish the story.
Hoyer can be a free agent in March, however, he would love to stay in Cleveland. But he realizes the Browns have to want him as well. Teams such as the Texans, Jets, Titans or even the Bills may need a quarterback.
Hoyer is not one to reflect during the season, except to pause and realize that he had worked as hard as he could and done all he could to succeed. If it didn't work, it wasn't because he didn't give his all.
He's proud to carry that part of Cleveland with him.
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