But 50 years later — this Dec. 27, to be exact — that day remains among the most glorious in Cleveland's sports history.
A half-century later, the '64 Browns are celebrated for all those reasons. Maybe more so, because the moment also serves as a sickening reminder just how long this town's unrequited yearning for a world champion has stretched.
"Because it's been 50 years and some of the guys have passed away and we haven't been able to win one since that time, it has a different importance now," says former Browns running back Jim Brown, maybe the greatest player the game has ever known.
"You've got to remember, it's not like now," says former Browns wide receiver Gary Collins, voted the championship game's MVP. There was no ESPN and sports-talk radio dissecting every play call, position match-up and betting line. "Sure, you were excited to be in a championship game," he says, "but it's not like it is now."
Neither is Cleveland or the National Football League. In 1964, Cleveland was the country's eighth-largest city, with twice as many residents. Conversely, the NFL, with just 14 teams in two conferences, was almost half the size and nowhere near the $10 billion money machine it is today. (Brown played for $60,000 that season — not much more than a Super Bowl loser's bonus today.)
"Fans became emotionally attached to the Browns because the players were winners," says John Grabowski, historian and senior vice president for research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society, where an exhibit honoring the '64 champions remains on display through February. "Many remained with the team for years and even lived in Cleveland."
Nationally, football and the Browns rarely warranted the front page, which was reserved instead for serious news: "The Report: Oswald ... Alone," "U.S. to Strengthen Viet Airfield Guard" and "Kremlin Still Dangerous: LBJ" grabbed headlines in The Plain Dealer that football season.
"That championship also had an added edge as an escape, of sorts, in an era that had just witnessed a presidential assassination and was in the throes of an expanding war in Vietnam, major cultural shifts in society and growing racial tension," adds Grabowski.
By any measure, those Browns were pro football's New York Yankees. Even Elvis was a Browns fan. From 1946 to '55, the franchise won seven titles: four straight in the All-American Football Conference and three more in the NFL. While it had been seven years without a conference title, winning was expected.
And 1964 was no exception, although the Browns didn't clinch the NFL's Eastern Division until the final Sunday of the 14-game season when they pounded the New York Giants 52-20. Head coach Blanton Collier's Browns finished 10-3-1 and set up the title game two weeks later against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
Baltimore was better than anyone that year at 12-2, owning the league's top-ranked offense and defense. Under second-year head coach Don Shula, who had starred at Painesville Harvey High School, John Carroll University and with the Browns early in his NFL career, the Colts boasted six future Hall of Famers, not counting their coach.
The Browns had three Hall of Famers-to-be of their own in Brown, guard Gene Hickerson and kicker Lou Groza. Fleet wide receiver Paul Warfield and running back and kick returner Leroy Kelly would become Hall of Famers as well but were rookies that season.
"Everybody thought the Browns would get killed," says retired Plain Dealer sports writer Russ Schneider, who helped cover the game that day. "[Baltimore] had been so successful under Shula, with golden-armed [quarterback] Johnny Unitas. The thought was the Colts were unbeatable."
The Browns moved practice from League Park to Fleming Field, on what is now the Case Western Reserve University campus, for the two weeks leading up to the game.
Jim Kanicki Browns defensive tackle
You could feel it. In my mind, we were confident, but it was a quiet confidence. The practice weeks heading up to the game, I never saw people like Jim Brown ... so involved to get ready to play as he was for that game. We lockered next to each other. He talked to players; it was kind of like a pep rally between individuals. He would come up to me and say, "We need you big fella. Jim Parker is their best lineman, and we need you just to hold your own." He never said anything like that at all to me during the previous two years. But he was into it.
Jim Brown Browns running back
I knew doggone well the opportunity that we had. I definitely wanted to win. We were playing a great team and weren't given much of a chance, so that called for us to be more focused. And as one of the leaders on the team, I had to be really focused.
Ernie Green Browns fullback
Normally, the atmosphere around a bunch of athletes is quite vocal and sometimes playful. But leading up to the ballgame, there was none of that. I remember looking in the faces of some of our guys and the firmness, the dedication — all of that came through in what I saw.
Brown There was no messing around. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and we knew we had to be at our best at every position for us to be able to win. My role was to make sure that every player gave his best and played with intelligence and eliminated mistakes.
Jim Houston Browns linebacker
We knew we had a good team, and we looked forward to the challenge. It was that simple.
On the eve of the big game, the team followed the usual routine: Check into the Pick-Carter Hotel on East Ninth Street and Prospect Avenue, dine together and relax at a movie theater. Browns quarterback Frank Ryan, who'd enjoyed his best season as a Brown in 1964, believes the feature that night was the just-released James Bond film Goldfinger.
Frank Ryan Browns quarterback, who finished 11 of 18 for 206 yards
The only thing that was a little different about this one was the visiting team was at the same movie, and they sort of hooted at us a little bit. We got up and moved to a different location in the theater, but it offered some perspective on what we might have to deal with the next day. It was irritating. It was catcalling, and that sort of thing.
If the Browns needed any more pregame motivation, it arrived the next morning via the Baltimore fan club, the Colts Corral, and a trumpet.
John Wooten Browns guard
The hotel had a little soda shop ... and they had a jukebox record player. And before we went to the game, Jim [Brown] and I, we'd always stop and spend a couple of quarters. And you remember the Colts Corral, right? So eight to 10 members of the Colts Corral come in, and they get within a foot of us and they play "Taps." I mean, this is the height of insulting someone, right? In other words, you're dead. We sat there and didn't say anything. They played their "Taps" and left. We go to Jim's car, because Jim and I always drove to the game together. He says, "Hey, man." I say, "What's up?" He says, "We're going to kick the [crap] out of them."
At the time, the league's two conferences alternated where the championship was played. In 1964, it was the Eastern Conference's turn. The Browns gained a home field advantage with gray skies and winds whipping off the lake at 15 to 25 mph. The game-time temperature of 34 degrees felt like 23. The Cleveland Municipal Stadium crowd of 79,544 was the second largest in NFL title-game history at the time.
The game was televised nationally on CBS, but, despite the sellout, blacked out locally within 75 miles of Cleveland. Fans booked hotel rooms from Toledo to Erie, Pennsylvania, and south of Zanesville just to watch. (The broadcast was replayed locally the next night on WJW.) Most listened on the radio. Gib Shanley and Jim Graner handled the local play-by-play on WERE-AM 1300. The CBS feed on WDOK-AM 1260 included Jack Drees and Jim Morse.
Kanicki [Head coach] Blanton Collier did just a great job getting us ready. He wasn't a rah-rah guy, but he would talk to each individual player and tell us what he expected of us. I was ready to play. If there was any game that I was ready to play, that was the game.
Brown Blanton and his preparation involved us tremendously. He involved our ability to think and, in coaching us, our input became highly important. So we went into that game feeling that the coaches and players were on the same page, and that doesn't always happen.
After losing the season opener, the Colts won 11 straight games and averaged nearly 31 points behind Johnny Unitas, running back Lenny Moore and the pass-catching brilliance of Raymond Berry, Jimmy Orr and John Mackey. Some oddsmakers had favored Baltimore by more than seven points.
Don Shula Baltimore head coach
Unitas was the toughest guy, mentally and physically, that I ever coached. He would wait in the pocket until the last second before releasing the ball, which gave Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr that much more time to get open. Then Johnny would take the hit, get up bloodied and battered and do it again.
Through the first two quarters, the Colts offense did little other than a Unitas-to-Berry 23-yard connection in the first quarter. Seconds into the second quarter, Baltimore lined up for a field goal from the Browns 19-yard line. But holder Bobby Boyd juggled the snap and Cleveland took over.
The game's emotional turning point came later in the half. Unitas, facing a third down from his own 23-yard line, dropped back, spun to his left and softly tossed a screen pass to Moore, who had nothing but open field and a convoy of blockers in front of him. Then, suddenly, Browns linebacker and team captain Galen Fiss shot in and sent Moore airborne.
Walter Beach Browns defensive back
They had kind of run that screen pass pretty well. They had a blocker out there, and Galen just went through the blocker and got to Lenny before he started rolling.
Wooten It would have been a touchdown. ... It is wide open. And Galen makes the play of the game.
Beach I think that was just telling all of us, Look, we can beat these guys.
Wooten I know that Gary Collins won the MVP, and Jim [Brown] had about 120 yards [rushing] and all that, but the play of the game, believe me, was Galen Fiss breaking up that quick screen to Lenny Moore. Because if they score there, this whole thing's gonna break.
Newlywed and diehard Browns fan Kermit Pike had spent $100 in wedding gift money for a pair of season tickets that year. He and his wife, Joyce, had talked it over for a few weeks because it was such a big investment. Regular-season tickets were $5 each; tickets to the championship game were $10. Joyce got pregnant that summer and couldn't attend the title game. Kermit and his best man, Greg Pierce, watched Fiss from the lower level, section 38, row 15, seats 1 and 2.
Kermit Pike Browns fan
It was the kind of play where the crowd just went, "Oooooooh." I think it demonstrated to the Browns, Hey, these guys aren't invincible after all. It did to me.
The Browns offense didn't fare much better. Cleveland drove deep into Baltimore territory only once. But Colts linebacker Don Shinnick intercepted Ryan at the 10-yard line when Warfield slipped. The first half ended 0-0, but the tackle by Fiss had made a statement. In a game that was supposed to be a rout, the Colts mystique had vanished in 30 game-clock minutes.
Wooten When we went in at halftime zero-all, we felt like we were winning the game.
Green There's a point in a game where you know you're either going to win it or lose it. At halftime, we went into the locker room, and we're sitting around getting warm and having something warm to drink. And all of a sudden, we look at each other and concluded in unison that, You know what, we can win this. We can win this game, because the things we were doing were working. Jim was running the ball very effectively. The defensive guys were doing what they were supposed to do, and Baltimore was having some serious issues. What we had done in the first half was not a lot, but they did less.
Inflated with optimism and a 25-yard, wind-blown Colts punt, the Browns started the second half with prime field position. The offense broke the scoreless tie with Lou Groza's 43-yard field goal. The Browns shut down Unitas again, taking over on their own 32-yard line. On second down and 6, Brown took the ball from Ryan.
"Flip to Jim Brown, turning left end," called WERE's Gib Shanley on the play-by-play as his voice rose with each hash mark Brown crossed. "He's to the 40, 45, 50, 45, 40, down to the 30! He's to the 20 and down on the 17 ... yard ... line!" (The ball was actually marked on the 18.)
On the very next play, Ryan dropped back to pass. "Here is Ryan to throw," Shanley called. "He's chased out of the pocket, he fires to Collins ... touchdown for the Browns!"
Ryan Gary was a tall, lanky guy with good speed but not superb speed, but good hands. He could out-wrestle any defensive back in the league when going up for the ball.
Later in the third quarter on third and long, Ryan called a hook-and-go. Collins faked a move back toward the quarterback then went deep. Ryan and Collins connected a second time for 42 yards and a 17-0 lead.
A second Groza field goal, after Brown had been stuffed at the goal line, gave Cleveland a 20-0 fourth-quarter lead before Ryan and Collins hooked up again for a third touchdown.
Colts all-star defensive back Bobby Boyd was draped on Collins' back. After scoring, Collins ran though the end zone at the open end of the stadium and into the embrace of exuberant fans.
Bobby Boyd Baltimore defensive back
[Collins] was a good player, but you didn't think he was going to do that to us. He was big. I remember me being right with him and him going up and he could just out-jump me.
Ryan That was his strength and it showed up on that last touchdown. It was about a 50-yard throw, and he caught it with the defensive back all over his back. I'm amazed that he caught it.
Boyd You've got to give the quarterback some credit. He threw the ball right where it had to be.
Ryan The ball was thrown properly, but what was amazing was the defensive back was right on top of him when he caught it. It was the big play of the game.
Gary Collins Browns wide receiver, who finished with five catches for 130 yards and three scores
We ran a go pattern. It was a guy 6-4 against a guy 5-10 — and I won.
Meanwhile, the Browns defense smothered Unitas and his cast of all-stars. Beach, who had one of the Browns two interceptions, and the rest of the defensive backfield — Bernie Parish, Larry Benz and Ross Fichtner — held Unitas to 95 yards passing and Berry to three catches for 18 yards.
Beach who was assigned to cover Berry for most of the game
A couple of times in the game, I looked into the eyes of Johnny Unitas. ... If it was third and 12, when I'd crowd Raymond Berry, and I'd look up and I'd see Johnny Unitas kind of made a decision that I was too close and he'd have to look somewhere else.
Vince Costello Browns middle linebacker, who had an interception
On defense, we just had three-and-out and got off the field. ... And our offense was on the field a lot.
Boyd They acted like they knew exactly what we were going to try to do to them.
Paul Wiggin Browns defensive end
It was a game in which it seemed like everything we did was right and timely.
Shula It was just one of those days that nothing worked for us.
When the final gun sounded, fans stormed the field and tore down the black-and-red-striped, H-shaped goal posts. Most of the players and their families celebrated with a banquet at the ballroom of the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel on Public Square, where Browns owner Art Modell rubbed elbows with Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher and other dignitaries. The winner's share was $8,052. Collins also won a $3,800 '65 red Corvette with a black top as the game's MVP. With his newfound fame, Collins drew endorsement deals for Manhattan Shirts and Amoco Gasoline.
Wiggin Walking off the field, I remember looking at one of those big light towers and thinking, If I was up on top of one of those light towers and I was just screaming my heart out, people would look up and say, "He's not crazy, it's OK. He just became a world champion." And I remember that feeling as I walked into the locker room. It was a special feeling for just a short block of time, a feeling that I can't describe, nor have I ever been able to duplicate — a feeling that you were part of a team that was the best in the world.
Kanicki I was never one to show my emotions very much, but it was amazing to feel the electricity and the way our fans felt. Compared to today, it was probably mild. They were so invested in us, and they were used to winning and we were too. The week before the game — we lived in Euclid at the time, and I'd go with my wife grocery shopping — we were in this one store in Euclid, and this one fella who was the manager, he knew me because I'd been in there before. He said, "If you guys win, I've got a steak for you." ... That Monday after the game, he called and said, "When are you coming? I'm ready to pay off."
Beach It was kind of surreal. I didn't feel like I was walking. I felt like I was kind of floating. It's a magnificent feeling to know that you're the best in the world, and, in 1964, we were the best in the world, the best on the planet. I think it hit me the next day, when I started looking at the newspaper and reading what people were saying.
Brown There was celebration, but what I remember is being introspective. I enjoyed it inside. I enjoyed the accomplishment by just reflecting. It's a silent satisfaction. It's a quiet satisfaction. It's knowing that you have accomplished your goal and you've done it the right way and you've done it with a group of people that are like-minded. And it's something that no one can ever take away from you.
Pike After the season was over, about January or February, I remember a conversation Joyce and I had where she said, "Kermit, you gonna get season tickets again for the Browns?" You know, I thought a little bit about it and I said, "No, Joyce. I don't think there'll ever be another season like this. I don't think I will."
Sports Illustrated, which had anticipated a Colts victory, had to scramble to change covers from one featuring Unitas to a black-and-white photo of Ryan, arm cocked, preparing to unleash a pass over Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti.
On Monday morning, The Plain Dealer published an editorial congratulating the team and extolling what the game meant to the city: "There's no civic advertisement that's quite the same as 'Home of the Champions.' ... Cleveland won't forget it for a long, long time."
Not even 50 years later.