As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
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From Cleveland Magazine, September 1981
At a cocktail party, a usually staid English Ph. D. chokes on an olive as she exclaims, "Brian Sipe! You're going to interview ... wow! Could you get me his autograph? I've been following him for years!"
"No kidding?" A fourth-year medical student chimes in with glee. "Listen, are you going to tape it? I mean, would you mind if I borrowed your tapes to copy them? I'd give them right back."
In each case, I was astounded. These were not, after all, sports-crazed bozos whose idea of a meaningful experience is to plop on the sofa with a can of Schlitz in one hand and a Browns pennant in the other as they watch grown men fight over an odd-shaped ball. These were, in fact, people who took some measure of pride in not knowing the difference between a quarterback sneak and a stolen base. People like me.
And yet the reaction of my cerebral friends, I was to learn, is representative of the titillated reverence which all of Cleveland seems to display toward Sipe. Enigmatic phi losopher-quarterback, pinup protagonist of a Sunday afternoon soap opera, Greek god, millionaire, sex symbol ... he is all of this and more. The mere mention of his name would turn otherwise sedate secretaries, earnest students and responsible mothers into teenaged love-struck wrecks, swooning and gasping and dreaming of what it would be like to be in my shoes. My shoes - which only recently set down on the pavement in Cleveland-which had never taken me inside Cleveland Municipal Stadium-which served as the only obstacle keeping me from inserting my foot in my mouth as I was first assigned to this story. Brian who? I had almost asked. That, as it turned out, was the question I was to answer.
In an era when other celebrities -from Hollywood starlets to Congressmen to chauffeurs of the famous-are willingly, enthusiastically baring their souls to national tabloids and TV talk-show hosts and anyone else who will listen, Brian Sipe has remained a private person. So intent is he on maintaining the barriers around his personal life, that he has rejected numerous opportunities to capitalize on his allure. While teammate Lyle Alzado is making television commercials and appearing in movies, and while other athletes are similarly using their celebrity status as a means of accumulating wealth and prestige in other fields, Sipe remains aloof, spurning the spotlight. Embarrassed about the hoopla surrounding him, he condemns it as groundless.
My mission was to discover the answer. After negotiations only slightly less intense than the SALT 11 talks, I was to be granted an audience with this god-like creature who I had been warned was paranoic in his attitude toward the press.
Was there some dark, awful secret behind the walls he had built around his life? Something murky and disgusting? After all, how could anyone be as squeaky clean as Brian Sipe? Not only is he at the pinnacle of his profession and the heart-throb hero of thousands of adoring fans, I was told, but he is an intelligent, articulate, enormously talented, humble, well-liked family man who married the high school Homecoming Queen! I was determined to find the flaw, and would leave no stone unturned in my quest.
0n June 17th, 1981, at 8:35 a. m., I waited with a photographer next
to a parking lot of Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, California. It was
hot. California was suffering a heat wave, and the high today was to be 106
degrees. We chatted nervously about the photography business. He was late.
What was about to occur would represent the culmination of feverish, impassioned negotiation. Under pressure from Kevin Byrne, the Browns' director of publicity, Sipe had finally broken. He would grant one more personal interview, one more story on why he likes to keep his private life private. But this, he vowed, was to be the last, and it had to be on the condition that I was not allowed to go to his home in San Diego or to interview his wife. We would meet on neutral turf, in a place and time of his choosing. I was to await a phone call when I arrived in San Diego for notification. A photographer would be allowed for the first half hour only, and the whole thing was to take no more than two hours. I was relieved that no veil or other special clothing was required.
There were three long days of waiting before the phone finally rang in my dark room at the Hanalei Hotel. It was Brian Sipe himself.
"Okay, I'm going to meet you at Quail Botanical Gardens at 8:30 a. m. Wait for me by the first park bench. Oh, and don't take this personally."
I had spent a week researching my subject in preparation for the big event, probing into his past in order to stun him with incisive questions about his secret life. I had talked to nearly 30 people: coaches, teachers, principals, classmates, teammates, trainers, surfers. roommates, neighbors and others. So far, his secret remained intact. Yet I had uncovered some exciting leads that had indicated that my subject might be a math genius ... reformed campus radical ... self-styled high school wild man ... teen-age alcoholic ... unkempt child.
At 8:45, as the sun filters through the thick gray atmosphere and warms the parking lot to 97 degrees, the royal carriage screeches into the empty parking lot. It is a battered maroon Volvo chauffeured by a nrettv Mond woman. His greatness lifts a drooling, bug-eyed infant off his lap, passes her to the driver with a kiss, and alights. This was it.
Impeccably groomed in a bright, oh-so-casual Southern California ensemble, he strolls over, dragging his flip-flops in that special beach-veteran way, and introduces himself. Though he is fully bearded, I recognize the crinkly brown eyes that are said to beacon the sensitivity and intelligence of the mind that lies behind them. I notice his sun visor and sportswear shorts are perfectly color-coordinated. Exchanging inanities, we climb the steps toward the garden to find a bench in the shade, and I am momentarily overcome by the strong scent of cologne.
Once we have selected a bench and I have destroyed any possible aura of competence by fidgeting nervously with my defective tape recorder (he finally figures out 1he problem with the batteries and advises, 'You're supposed to face the other side toward me. See, here's the microphone. Did you just buy this?"), I begin to ask my questions. The photographer, under time pressure, begins to snap away. Keeping in mind what I have learned from my research in the past week, I try to construct his life story as we talk. We start at the beginning.
Sports have been a part of Brian Sipe's life as far back as he and those who know him can remember. Growing up as the second child and only son of Martin and Betty Jo Sipe in a sparsely populated upper-middle-class neighborhood in El Cajon, California, he showed early prowess at everything from softball to kick-the-can. Because his mother worked as a model and his father traveled in his work, Brian spent a good deal of time at the neighbors'. The balmy weather and open lots enabled neighborhood kids to play outdoors year-round, and Brian was the leader, choosing the teams and organizing the games. Memories of playing in the sun in the beautiful El Cajon Valley cemented his love for California.
From the first, he was a star athlete. Sports and success became synonymous, and he grew to have strong confidence in his ability to excel at any game. His mother chauffeured him around to his many activities when she could, and his dad took an interest also, building him go-cart after gocart for Y-Indian Guides competition. Brian became a three-time champion. Though his parents were pleased with his passion for sports, and encouraged him, they frequently admonished that sports weren't the only important endeavors; that his schoolwork deserved attention, too.
By 1961 Brian had had all the fame and glory an I I -year-old could ask for. Already a go-cart champion, he was in that year the youngest member of a local Little League team that won its way to the Little League World Series. Even today, it is an event that is remembered with excitement and pride by people in the La Mesa-El Cajon area. The victorious team returned to marching bands, speeches by local officials and a seemingly endless schedule of banquet celebrations.
That experience may have sated his appetite for recognition and reward from sports, Sipe now muses. At the time, it seemed an incomparable achievement, the very pinnacle of success, and he looked forward to gloating at school in the fall. But he found the recognition was not as fulfilling as he had expected. From that point on, he says, he began to play sports for the love of competition, not for the reward. Soon he refused to wear his championship jacket and turned his attention to the excitement of the upcoming Pop Warner football season-though his father delayed participation because of Brian's offhand attitude towards his schoolwork.
When he did get to play, he was picked as quarterback because he was taller
than most of his teammates. His size gave him an advantage off the field also;
while neighhors remember Brian as polite, shy and well-behaved, he insists that
during the last years at Our Lady of Grace Academy, he was the class bully,
- I ruled the place, and I had a lot of confidence in myself. I think I would
have liked to carry the same image with me to high school, but I was beaten
up by a huge Samoan kid in front of the crowd. That taught me humility and that
the title of class bully wasn't worth the physical sacrifice. I became a pacifist."
Sister Mary Bertina, his principal at Our Lady of Grace Academy, admits there were some reports from teachers of Brian's unruly behavior. But most of the time, she says, he was a well-behaved child who seemed to thrive on discipline. Volunteering her only criticism of young Brian, she says he sometimes arrived at school "not too clean; often his clothes were soiled and his hair uncombed."
"In retrospect," Brian says, "I'm glad I went to a Catholic school, although I've avoided organized religion ever since. It taught me respect for authority and discipline. (That is, every kind of discipline but academic discipline -I never learned that.) I think it made me a better athlete, also, because I learned at an early age to question only the important things. I've always gone along with whatever my coaches and superiors expected of me."
Throughout high school, though he starred in baseball and basketball in addition
to football and dated Jeri Frame, the prettiest cheerleader, Brian did his best
not to call attention to himself. He was quiet in class and self-effacing with
his friends. Unlike many high school athletes, notes James Clouse, his civics
teacher at Grossmont High School, Brian was not loud or obnoxious and did not
Coaches describe him as a young man who knew where he was going, quiet but teeming with healthy self-confidence. When he reported for JV football practice a week late, remembers coach Jerry Lewis, he was told that he would be third string and wouldn't play. Brian just smiled and put his mind to winning his way back to the team starting line.
"He was unflappable," says Pat Carroll, coach pf the varsity football team. "He would stroll to a game like he was going to work. I'd clap my hands and yell, 'Okay, are we ready to go?' and he would answer 'Yeah, coach, we're going to do fine.' On the field he anticipated defense and improvised plays. He never got excited. The next point was always what mattered to him. He took charge of the game, and the others had confidence in him."
High school coaches were impressed by his dedication to sports and recall that he said he wanted to play professional football. "I knew what to say to please them," chuckles Brian. "I used to go to Coach [Pat] Carroll's house to review films mainly because I took every opportunity to get out of the house. On the way back, I could usually sneak in a stop at Jeri's house."
"He was very bright," says Clouse, "although he could have done much better work. He's known for being bright, isn't he?" Rumor at Grossmont High has it that Brian Sipe scored highest in the school on the math SAT exam; that he had an undiscovered aptitude for logic and concepts that later translated into a genius for football. Yet Donald Graessle, his freshman algebra teacher, scoffs. He remembers Brian only as a nice student who was a little too interested in girls and sports, and who earned only a D in the class. He remembers also that he had to be asked to leave the classroom on several occasions for wearing too much cologne.
In his senior year, Brian says, he tried to dump his shy-guy, goody-two-shoes-athlete image with his friends. He became what one friend calls "the lamshade case" at parties, taking dares to do just about anything. "He was just the type to say, 'Oh yeah? Well I can do that, too,'" says Bill Dickens, a classmate. "I once saw him jump out of a second-story window into a pool on a dare."
"My parents drank a lot of watered-down liquor in those days," says Brian. He would take a half inch off the top of each bottle and put it all in a jar with some orange juice and drink it down. "Doing that kind of thing made me one of the guys," he says.
"Everyone looked up to Brian," says Dickens, "but he wanted to be just a regular guy." In art class, which was tuaght by the baseball coach, the players would all gather at the back of the room with the coach and talk baseball. To be cool, Brian would join them, but would be the only one drawing as they talked.
At the urging of San Diego State University coach Don Coryell, Brian chose not to try his luck at one of the Pac 8 schools, but to go from a season at Grossmont Junior College to the backup quarterback position at SDSU. He wanted to play, he remembers, he needed a scholarship, and most of all he wanted to stay in San Diego. "I loved the beach. I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning, when the waves are best, and go surfing with friends. It was a time of woodies and surfboards and Beach Boys music. Surfing and getting my own apartment were more important to me than football."
Although SDSU had traditionally been known as a party school centered around a football team, Brian remembers the late sixties as a time of tremendous change. "In 1969 the school suddenly developed a conscience, and since I have always been an observer to my surroundings, I was profoundly influenced by it. I was bothered by the war, but it was more than that. I went from consideration of only my interests to a boader view, the consideration of the problems of the society and world in which I lived. Football took on a bad name with some people, and although I played, I realized that it was insignificant to the problems of the world."
Brian did not participate in what few demonstrations were held on campus, but he did wear his hair long enough that at one point the disapproving Coryell threatened to cut off his scholarship money. He spent the summer of 1970 doing yoga and eating rice and fruit while camping out on Maui with other "free spirits." "My dad called most of them losers. We were all ex-surfers who had nothing in common besides the desire to be there." There he was introduced to Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which prompted him to read everything Hesse had written. "It was a period of soul searching for me; I was very impressionable. I was stirred by the curiosity of Eastern thought. We were all looking for new answers. It was only natural to turn to the East."
"I remember when I was a little boy telling people I wanted to be an engineer. My main ambition for many years was to create something that would outlive me. But in college my thinking and my priorities changed. I came to believe that my first obligation was to make myself happy and that if I could do that, I could make people around me happy. That's when I started living life for its experiences. The next thing I knew, I was playing professional football. I guess I was just challenged by something."
But if Brian was motivated by pro football's challenge his first year, remembers Browns owner Art Modell, it was hard to tell. "My early recollection of Brian is that he didn't seem sure he wanted to play pro football; that he wasn't sure what he wanted to do." Modell has been quoted as saying, "Nobody paid much attention to him."
"I had been an athlete all my life," explains Sipe. "It was the thing I had excelled at in my own and others' eyes, and I was ready for some other experiences. So I didn't much care whether or not the Browns were overly impressed with me. If I didn't make the team, I knew there were a lot of other things I wanted to do with my life."
Yet one gets the feeling that it came as a second blow to the ever-confident Sipe when he was put on the cab squad that first season in 1972. In one breath he says that he had embarked on an adventure in football at the professiona level with no expectations. In another he confesses that he assumed from the start that he would make the team immediately. In a matter of months, he had gone from San Diego's darling and NCAA pasing champion to a forgotten position at the very bottom of the Browns' pecking order. And he had gotten there as a bottom-of-the-barrel draft choice.
"Philosophically, I decided that there had to be a reason for it," he says.
He lived in Lakewood in a house with teammate Pinky Brinkman and Brinkman's girlfriend, Marge. "Brinkman and [wide receiver] Paul Staroba were my best friends. We used to sit up in the back of the meeting room and refer to ourselves as the B.A.C., the Bad Attitude Club. After that year, they were let go. They might as well have let me go, too, for how impressed they were with me. I didn't apply myself at all that year. I was just too busy living."
In part, he was distracted by his new environment. "It was the first time I had lived outside of San Diego. It was like moving to the other side of the world. I was amazed how bad the weather was. Just amazed. The sun didn't come out for the whole month of November. I remember being a little depressed about it."
But while there was disappointment, there was also fascination with Ohio's ehtnicity, and its lakes, creeks and lush green landscape.
"There were so many things that I was curious about. I did a lot of exploring that year. I've always been interested in architecture and homes, and I used to drive around the East Side all the time just looking at the beautiful estates. Ther ewere things in Cleveland I'd never been exposed to in Southern California, and I was really preoccupied with all this newness. It seemed to get in the way of my performance at football."
Jerry Sherk remembers the quiet magnetism of the handsome, contemplative rookie and being impressed with both his depth of thought and his ability. They became friends and fellow philosophers, and Sherk encouraged Brian to be aggressive about his career. But Brian was still questioning the relevance of football and especially the big-dollar business of professional football. "In any case," Sherk remembers with a smile, "Brian would only get about three snaps of the ball per practice, and of those he would usually fumble two."
"I think they kept me just to have four quarterbacks in training camp, because you're supposed to have four quarterbacks, but they were looking to replace me. But I went through a big change that spring after my rookie year." He returned to San Diego and married Jeri Frame, his long-time girlfriend who was just finishing her child-development studies at SDSU. His California friends remember that Brian was depressed about his first-year experience. It was at that point that he finally resolved his questions about football's relevance.
"I was mad at myself. I decided that I had been a goof-off all my life. I had goofed off at things that were important to me, but I was able to convince myself that they weren't. Now I thought I had goofed off a chance to be involved in professional football when I knew I was good enough to be better than anyone I saw around me and there was just no reason to kiss it off."
Indeed, by the next season, the Browns had padded the quarterback corps with two additions, former SDSU star Don Horn and Randy Mattingly. Sipe was once again relegated to the cab squad. "But that just served as another motivating factor," says Sipe. "From then on I was a different football player. At that point they took me seriously, although I don't think they ever thought of me as a potential starter."
It was three years before Sipe got his first real chance in 1976, when Mike hipps was injured in the course of the opening game. "Brian had been behind the scenes so long, working hard and absorbing things, that when the time came, he was ready," says Sherk. There were two years of struggling under the leadership of Forrest Gregg, who saw his favorite son, faltering Mike Phipps, traded at his own request after Sipe's initial successes in 1976. But it was in 1978, when Sam Rutigliano took over as head coach, that Brian finally came into his own.
It happened in the gme against Baltimore. The previous week, after a dismal performance in the loss to the Denver Broncos, Sipe had convinced Rutigliano and quarterback coach Jim Shofner not to replace him. They told him he had their confidence. Sherk remembers sitting with Brian outside a bookstore in Baltimore on the day before the game, each reading a book. "Brian finished his book, shut it, and announced that he had read something that would change his whole life, including his performance on the field. The next day he threw for 309 yards, including four touchdown passes, winning the game 45 to 24. He had arrived."
From his first season dedicated to the game to the present, Sipe has had to prove himself every step of the way, silencing detractors, some even from his own ranks, who point first to his comparatively small physical stature. He has reflected placidly to reporters in the past that this has been an advantage. "I was not burdened by the great expectations that a lot of other quarterbacks had to deal with ... I kind of enjoy the label [as a lucky overachiever]- that I'm the guy whose arm isn't quite strong enough or that I am not quite big enough, or that otherwise I don't have the necessary tools, that I am getting more out of my skills than the average guy -though I don't think the label is appropriate. I've always felt that if I excelled in anything it was in those intangible qualities that quarterbacks have to have. Some quarterbacks can move a football team, and some can't."
Surely by now Brian Sipe, national sportswriters' choice as 1980's Most Valuable Player in the NFL, has convinced the last doubter of his ability to move a football team. After the final play in the game against Oakland last year which dashed fans' dreams and temporarily sent a whole town into abject grief, some may silently curse his judgment, but on the eve of the 1981 season, all nonetheless look to him, trust in him, to lead the reborn Browns to the mountaintop to plant a Cleveland flag. Thus Sipe, no longer underrated, returns this season for a command performance; a reluctant hero for the first time burdened with great expectations.
As he sits slouched and cross-legged on our bench under an exotic Canary Island palm just weeks before his California respite will end and he must return to the mouth of the mighty Cuyahoga, Brian tugs on his visor and rubs his dark beard, pausing to choose his words carefully.
"I'm in kind of a precarious position because I happen to be one of Cleveland's most prized possessions and yet I'm not a Clevelander. I do feel a responsibility to the town, and I want people there to know that. It's just that I was born and raised in another time and place, and I'll always be loyal to my home. I want Cleveland to know it has nothing to do with them."
"It's no coincidence that most quarterbacks are good-looking," he adds. "It has to do with learned self-assurance. When you're young, so often it's the goodlooking kids who are the most popular, and the most popular who get to choose the teams and to be the quarterbacks."But does he feel the pressure?
"I don't know . . ." Bent over, resting his elbows on his knees, he turns his head and fixes his laser focus on me . . . "I don't say I don't. But that might be a pretty adaptive way of handling it on my part, don't you think?"
I clear my throat, and switch tack: What doesn't he like about the game?
"It's gratifying to see Brian finally treated with the respect he deserves," Paul Staroba had told me. Sipe was the very lowest man on the totem pole, Staroba recalls, and caught some rough treatment from the assistant coaches who couldn't yell at anyone else.
"Pro football is pretty insensitive to the individual," says Brian. "There are an awful lot of young guys just out of college for whom pro football is a life's dream, who find that for a while they're treated pretty much like cattle. That may be why a lot of football players are more boisterous and more noticeable than your average person-they feel a little like a Marine about to land at Guadalcanal. You know, that this might be their last day at it.
"I wish I could say that I've always had my act together so well that I've just been myself, but I think the reason I was never boisterous and obnoxious myself was a reaction of sorts to the typical jock image. I don't like that kind of behavior, and I really don't like t:ie image. Ever since I was young, I'd thought there was more to people than their athletic prowess.
"There were some years -- '73 through '76 -- when I felt in a precarious position myself; when I knew that I was good enough to play, and I was afraid I wasn't going to get the chance. There were also a couple of years when I was worried about making a salary because I was married and I wanted to buy a house and do some other things."
From the very first, friends say, Brian made intelligent moves with his money. One of his biggest pleasures was his first investment, remembers Staroba, a house which he fixed up, lived in, and eventually rented out. Now he owns several pieces of investment property, all in the San Diego area, in addition to his home in Hinckley, Ohio. Jerry Sherk credits Brian with turning him onto the California land rush in his first years. Now Sherk owns a home in San Diego which he acquired through broker Del Pifer, a former SDSU running back and friend and advisor to Brian. Pifer says that while Sipe has only come into big money in the last two years, he now owns some prime property in North San Diego County.
"I have a little philosophy about what I'm doing," says Brian. "I'm setting myself up so when I'm out of football I'll be free to do what I want to do: to design and create some living space. Architecture."
And his investments afford him a certain freedom now as well. "You get $25,000 to do a Miller Lite commercial," he reasons, "but you pay a heck of a price for that money. John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders through a Super Bowl Championship, but he says he was never famous until he did a Lite commercial. Now the cab drivers stop on the street and ask him all about his life. Well, I don't know what price you put on your privacy, but to me there is no reason I should have to put up with that kind of stuff for $25,000. 1 can make that in one good real estate investment."
Yet Brian's agent Ed Keating had told me that with effort, Brian could have made close to 10 times that-$250,000 in endorsements and appearances during this last off-season. He discloses that Sipe did recently sign a six-figure contract allowing Puma shoes, the brand he has always worn, to use his name. "But generally, Brian doesn't want to be opportunistic about his success, and he has asked me not to be aggressive on his behalf. Plus, he knows that once you make a deal, the company owns a piece of you and will lean on you to make personal appearances. He doesn't want anything to get in the way of his concentration during the season or his relaxation and time with his family in the off season. He knows what his priorities are."
Twisting a fallen clump of pine needles between his fingers, Brian requests to go off the record to explain how-given his anti- materi a] istic leanings in his formative college days and his questions about the social relevance of football -he justifies his enormous salary. Then, summarizing, he says, "The fans are paying so much money to see us play on Sundays, I think when you consider the percentage of that ticket pass th