The fateful No. 80 Jersey

The fateful No. 80 Jersey

In Part 2 of this three-part feature, Kellen Winslow's promising career hits a few bumps, to say the least. The pre-1972 success of the Browns' various wearers of the number 80 is chronicled. The focus then turns to a particularly enigmatic figure at the heart of this number's striking history.

Editor's note: Part 1 of this feature detailed the inevitably poor fates befalling those who wore the Browns' number 80 since 1972, from Turkey Joe Jones to Willis Adams to Andre Rison to Kellen Winslow II, with whom we resume here, before digging deeper into the vault of Browns history.

Kellen Winslow II began his troubled Browns career holding out 12 days into training camp before inking a six-year deal that included $16.5 million up front. In a Week 2 loss in Dallas, as he and his teammates surged to recover an onside kick, his right fibula broke. It required two surgeries and ended his rookie year.

His next mishap was decidedly less valiant. On May Day, 2005, he was thrown over the handlebars of his new motorcycle in a Westlake parking lot, sustaining a torn right ACL and other injuries. After hitting a curb at 35 mph, he was lucky to miss only one more season and to not have the Browns claim breach of contract to claw back his bonus.

Winslow overcame a post-surgical staph infection to return for two fine seasons, with a combined 171 receptions for 1,981 yards. Despite his Pro Bowl play in 2007, the Browns narrowly missed the playoffs.

The difference may have come down to one judgment call. On the last play of a December game in Arizona, Winslow snagged a 37-yard Derek Anderson pass in the left corner of the end zone. It would've set up a winning extra point try, but he was pushed out of bounds, and the officials didn't rule that both feet would have been in had the defender not forced him out. (The NFL soon changed its rules to eliminate the need for such judgment calls, so now a force-out can never be ruled a completion.)

Things went south for both the Browns and Winslow in 2008. Injuries and in-house turmoil led to a 4-12 record and a thorough organizational housecleaning. Winslow missed time with another staph infection and provoked the ire of general manager Phil Savage with some pointed public comments about the Browns' role in it. Savage suspended him, but it was overruled after it emerged that a team employee had urged Winslow to keep news of the staph under wraps.

Winslow's tenure in Cleveland certainly perpetuated the pattern plaguing those who wore his number. Of the 80 Browns games between his drafting and eventual trade to Tampa Bay, he appeared in just 44. He showed outstanding hands and competitive fire, but injuries robbed him of the speed to separate from defenders and the power to break tackles or block effectively. He also committed too many penalties. In 2013, he was suspended from the Jets, his fifth team, for violating the league's policy against performance enhancing drugs.

The number 80 next landed upon another ex-player's son. Brian Robiskie grew up in the Cleveland area while his father, Terry, was a Browns assistant coach. The Buckeye was widely considered among the most "NFL-ready" receiving prospects in 2009, when the Browns drafted him 36th overall.

Since 1999, the Browns have used second-round picks on eight wide receivers. Robiskie was the least productive of them all. He had just 39 catches and three touchdowns in 31 games when the team waived him midseason in 2011. He last played for Atlanta, where his father is the receivers coach.

So when Travis Benjamin became the 25th Brown to don these dangerous digits, it became a question of not whether but when something bad would befall him. Though unaware of the background behind his jersey number, his instinct to change it appears sound. He broke Eric Metcalf's franchise's record with 179 punt return yards in a win over Buffalo and had become an increasingly important big-play weapon by the time of his injury three weeks later.

But all this history does not so far explain the logic behind this unmistakable pattern. Is it just a statistical oddity borne from vulnerable positions in an inherently risky sport? Possibly, maybe even probably. It certainly is uncanny, though, especially when the dials of Browns history are turned back to 1972 and before.

Worn with distinction

Prior to Turkey Joe's knee injury, he hadn't missed a game and was developing apace to succeed Ron Snidow, an All Pro in 1969 at left defensive end. In fact, before 1972, several Browns had worn number 80 to great effect.

Al Akins had a 50-yard touchdown run in the Browns' inaugural season of 1946. Bob Cowan scored eight times in two years and contributed to the undefeated 1948 team.
But this was mere prelude. The next five Browns to wear the 80 jersey -- spanning the AAFC era to the NFL/AFL merger -- all excelled during long, distinguished careers.
Warren Lahr wore it for his first three seasons (1949-1951) before the numbering system was first revamped. He played defensive halfback (now called cornerback) through 1959 and still ranks second behind Thom Darden in career interceptions for the Browns – first, if AAFC and playoff games are included.
The great defensive end Len Ford switched from 53 to 80 beginning in 1952 and played most of his remarkable 11-year career in the jersey number at issue.
Offensive tackle Dick Schafrath wore 80 as a rookie in 1959 before donning 77 for the duration of his legendary career. So too did his former Ohio State teammate Jim Marshall in 1960, before he was traded to Minnesota and set iron-man records as a Purple People Eater.
Bill Glass came to Browns Town in a 1962 trade with Detroit. The tall Texan earned Pro Bowl honors his first three seasons in Cleveland and again in 1967 for his pass-rushing prowess. No Brown to this day has worn number 80 for more games than the durable Glass. Any credible version of an all-time, all-Browns team would include both Glass and Ford, two otherwise very different men, as the defensive ends.
Glass had never missed a game until broken ribs sidelined him late in 1968. He then retired to pursue his successful and still-active prison ministry, now known as Bill Glass Champions for Life.
On Sunday, January 19, 1969, Lahr died of a heart attack on his living room couch in the Cleveland suburb of Aurora. On Thursday, his doctor had given him a clean bill of health. He played tennis on Friday. He fell ill on Saturday and took it for the flu. His post-retirement career had included TV color commentary for the Browns. He was 45 and left behind a wife and five daughters.
Lahr was the first alumnus of the Browns' number 80 to pass away. The next would be Ford.

An enigmatic legend

Leonard Guy Ford Jr. was a supreme talent who emerged during a trying but transformative time for blacks in American society. The Washington D.C. native was all-city and a team captain in three sports. He enrolled at historically-black Morgan State (as did Leroy Kelly two decades later) and starred as a two-way end. He served in the Navy as World War II ended, then transferred to the larger stage of Michigan, although he was denied the chance to play basketball there on account of his race.

The 6-foot-4 Ford was tenacious as a tackler and a scoring threat on offense. An Associated Press profile from 1947 quoted him as liking to "mix it up" on the field, while "[i]n practice his never ending stream of quips and jibs is often a welcome balm when nerves and tempers become frayed." He shined at the 1948 Rose Bowl, as the Wolverines trounced USC, 49-0, to cap a perfect season.

In Ann Arbor he dated Geraldine Bledsoe, a promising student and daughter of a prominent Detroit attorney. Ford earned a bachelor's degree in education from UM.
Despite two years of All-American recognition, Ford was undrafted by the NFL. Most teams still didn't employ African American players. The Los Angeles Dons picked him 15th overall in the 1948 All-America Football Conference draft. "He has everything -- great size, speed, strength, great hands," said Dons' coach Jimmy Phelan.

Ford played on both sides of the ball with the Dons, gaining 1,175 yards on 67 catches his first two seasons (17.5 YPC). He led AAFC rookies with seven receiving touchdowns.
After the AAFC folded in 1949, the NFL held a draft of players from disbanded clubs. Successful with black players from the beginning, Cleveland's Paul Brown brought Ford back to the Great Lakes region with his second pick. The Browns were well-stocked with ends, but the coach figured Ford's aggressiveness would help his defense.

In Brown's memoir, he said Ford "supposedly had an attitude problem" but it was "really nothing more than hating to be on a losing team." Ford's days on offense were over. He'd get his hands on the ball only by interception or, more frequently, recovering fumbles, which he did a then-record 20 times over the next nine seasons.

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In the upcoming Part 3, Ford's extraordinary story continues for better and worse, with a concluding thought on what should be done with the Browns' number 80 jersey.

Ace Davis is a freelance Browns writer, historian, and fan who began the first Browns blog back in 2002.

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