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Overcoming A Stigma
In January, the former Browns running back was fired as backfield coach of the Tennessee Titans after a season where Chris Johnson ran for an NFL-best 2,059 yards.
Byner was fired after two years of helping Johnson become an elite back. The former Browns star asked Titans coach Jeff Fisher about the decision — twice.
He never received a good answer, other than Fisher had long wanted to hire Kennedy Pola. Fisher had tried to hire Pola in 2008, but he remained in Jacksonville.
Then Fisher turned to Byner, who took Johnson from rookie to stardom. Byner is the first to say Johnson has tremendous talent, but he still wonders what he did wrong.
“I do know that Jeff has great respect for Kennedy,” Byner said. “But it’s still baffling to me.”
Then something else happened. Four days after Pola left Jacksonville for Byner’s job in Tennessee, Jacksonville hired Byner to replace Pola.
“I think back to The Fumble,” he said. “You go through something like that, you learn to keep moving forward. You can’t stay angry or bitter.”
Byner was talking about that horrible moment in Browns’ history on Jan. 17, 1988, in Denver. Byner was 2 yards from scoring the touchdown — one more step — that would have tied the AFC championship game with 1:05 left. Instead, Denver recovered the fumble on its own 1-yard line.
The final score was 38-33 because Denver took a safety in the final seconds.
“I felt like I let everyone down,” he said. “The team, the fans, the city. Everyone.”
Many Browns fans forget Byner was the team’s leading rusher (15 carries, 67 yards) and receiver (seven catches, 120 yards) that day. Or that he scored two touchdowns.
“Without Earnest, we never would have even been in that game,” former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar said recently. “I still think about him — every day. Of all the people for [The Fumble] to happen to, it’s just a shame it was Earnest. Talk about a great guy.”
Byner will tell you The Fumble “made me a better player and a stronger person.” He said he was devastated when he was traded to Washington a year later, yet he had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under coach Joe Gibbs. He played for a Super Bowl winner, and made the Pro Bowl.
All after leaving Cleveland. All after The Fumble, and feeling as if he failed.
When Byner came back to the Browns in 1995, Browns fans treated him as a hero. “For a long time, they have shown me such love,” he said. “They are great people.”
Byner started at the bottom as a player — a 10th-round draft pick of the Browns in 1984 out of East Carolina. That was so low, they don’t even have 10 rounds anymore. Yet, he drove himself to become a superb running back.
After he retired, Byner went to work in the scouting department (the bottom) of the Baltimore Ravens front office. He later became the running backs coach in Washington, then Tennessee.
“Now, it’s Jacksonville,” he said. “Just like after The Fumble when so many people in football supported me, it happened again when I was fired. Lots of people called, and [Jacksonville coach] Jack Del Rio hired me.”
Sometimes, Byner talks about The Fumble with players who are struggling. Or else, people ask him to discuss it, wanting to know how he bounced back so strong.
“It has helped me be a more caring, empathetic person,” he said. “I learned that I could have been eaten up by anger, or I could get up again. I learned as much from The Fumble as anything in my life, and the lessons have been good.”