Kinsey (left) and Kosar will be Browns fans for life.
Elizabeth Baird

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All he wanted to do was play football. From his first pro snap in 1985, in the city where he would become a legend to every kid in town (including me), all he wanted to do was play football. Multiple trips to the playoffs as the Cleveland Browns’ on-field general. A Pro Bowl appearance. Three AFC Championship Games, falling just short of the Super Bowl each time as millions of fans continued to adore him despite the heartbreak. Any Clevelander can tell you about “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” What they might not be able to tell you — what they might not know without getting up close and personal with their hero — is the true essence of former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar.

Like many athletes who are suddenly thrust into a higher tax bracket upon turning pro, Kosar came from humble beginnings, circumstances that made the instant financial windfall of an NFL contract — the ramifications of which we explore starting on page 36 — exhilarating and overwhelming all at once. Kosar contends, however, that while the image of the pro athlete suddenly flush with cash buying mansions and bling for himself may be reality in some cases, in many instances, it’s a much more altruistic bent that pushes him down a path to financial ruin.

“Most of us [pro athletes start out as] lower-­demographic people,” Kosar begins frankly. “My family and friends didn’t make money. Most of them didn’t have jobs. So when we make it, they all make it. To go pro and support your family was something as kids we thought we should do.”

Add to that mix the fact that Kosar’s first ­priority was to perfect his game.

“We had won a national championship in college (at the University of Miami),” he says. “I was so excited to be with [Browns teammates] Ozzie Newsome and Clay Matthews. I was obsessed with not wanting to let those guys down, to prove that I deserved to be part of the team and I deserved to be the quarterback there. I couldn’t do the lifestyle, pay attention to everything moneywise, do investments. To be successful, I had to just focus on football. Your family and friends, who have complete access to you, are asking you for money all the time. It was easier to give it to them. It felt good, but it gave you time just to focus on football. I think a lot of guys used their family and friends to handle the money so that they could play football and so they didn’t feel bad about being disloyal.”

Kosar, who filed for bankruptcy protection in Florida in 2009, has been public about how his financial issues ultimately caught up with him more than once. “It’s come and gone three or four times with my family and friends. Before I got to my first NFL game, the first-season [salary] was gone. But I felt good about myself. I knew my dad couldn’t pay for the colleges and my brother and sister were going through paying off the houses, the cars, so being able to pay off that stuff, I felt good.

“Now, the numbers are bigger for just about everybody,” Kosar continues, proud of his efforts to enlighten the NFL’s current crop of players. “Making guys aware that you can help but you don’t have to help at the risk of depleting yourself like I did a few times, because you may not get that opportunity to make it up. I watch so many of the players heading toward the same thing. Some players don’t have the opportunities or blessings that I’ve had to be able to overcome those things multiple times, let alone once. I didn’t even have the problems like Ponzi schemes, bad agents, those type things that we’re hearing about today. Put your money in the boring bank so that you can focus on your craft. That could be basketball, baseball or whatever it is.”

Since retiring from the NFL after the 1996 season, Kosar has been involved with the Browns, with the Arena Football League and with various business ventures and charities outside of sports, including exploring ways to help former players­ afflicted with concussion-related symptoms. That’s an issue he has struggled with (though he happily reports his health has vastly improved thanks to intense treatment). A father of four, Kosar has learned from his past life as the pride of Cleveland football, a path that has been littered with undying adoration from fans in the Dawg Pound. “My kids have a good line,” he says. “ ‘Dad, if you ever feel depressed, just walk down the streets of Cleveland.’ The fans are really nice.”

Those fans witnessed firsthand the legendary Bernie Kosar versus John Elway QB battles of the late 1980s, when Elway’s Denver Broncos defeated the Browns three times in American Football Conference title games and prevented Cleveland from advancing to the Super Bowl. Friends with Elway today, Kosar couldn’t help but give the two-time Super Bowl champ (and current Broncos executive) grief over the Broncos’ elimination from the playoffs last season.

“Elway was whining about how tough it is to lose a game like this and the pain, how he understands the pain of losing,” Kosar remembers with mock indignation. “I left him a message. I go, ‘Bro, you have no idea what the pain is in the playoffs. You have no idea compared to us.’ ”

Yes, Cleveland sports loyalists have not had a lot to cheer about, though that will surely one day change. What hasn’t changed is Kosar’s desire to help those around him, even if these days, that help may not be monetary.

“Sometimes I think people think, ‘It would never happen to me if we were in this spot.’ But things happen. I talk a lot to kids in school about not feeling bad about making mistakes. Be open about it and try not to make them again. Learn from them. There’s no shame in falling. The shame is in not trying to get back up.”

Another chance to get back up is all Kosar ever wanted. That, and to be able to play football.

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Travis Kinsey
Managing Editor