In 1994, the Cleveland Browns were all the rage. They had just gone 11-5-0 under head coach Bill Belichick, now in his fourth season of coaching the Browns. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division with a 12-4-0 record and defeated Cleveland 17-10 and 17-7 during the season. The two victories were the margin for the division crown.
The Browns were relevant from 1984-1988 when Marty Schottenheimer was the head coach. During those years, the defense was sterling and the offense ran the ball down their opponent’s throats. After Schotts left and then Bud Carson failed for two years, Belichick took over and finally, the payoff was starting to emerge.
The Browns’ defense was once again ranked Number 1. The running game was developed behind RB Leroy Hoard. But the passing game was ranked 21st. The Browns decided they needed to infuse some youth in the quarterback room.
They drafted Georgia’s Eric Zeier in the third-round of the 1995 NFL draft. Zeier (6’-1”, 214 pounds) was a four-year starter while at Georgia. As a freshman, he came into the fifth game and defeated Clemson in his first game as the starter. Head coach Ray Goff was in his third season with the Bulldogs. From there, Zeier started the final seven games that year and every game during his final three seasons until his graduation.
While at Georgia, Zeier passed for 11,153 yards with 838 completions on 1,402 attempts, a 59.8 completion ratio, 67 touchdowns, 37 interceptions and a 137.1 QB rating. He is only one of three quarterbacks to ever throw for more then 11,000 yards in a college career.
Zeier finished with a 26-14-1 record, went 4-0 against rival Georgia Tech, 0-4 against rival Florida, and was the winning QB in victories in the Citrus Bowl and Independence Bowl. When he graduated from Georgia, he owned 67 school records and 18 SEC records.
With those numbers, and also being named First Team All-American for the 1994 season, the Browns drafted him. At the time, Cleveland’s starting QB was Vinny Testaverde with the aging Mark Rypien and journeyman Brad Goebel as backups. But Testaverde had ranked 17th in passer ratings behind names such as Craig Erickson, Jeff Hostetler, Stan Humphries and Jim Everett.
So, Testaverde wasn’t exactly tearing up the league and threw the third most interceptions. And the offensive line was pretty good. Testaverde was only sacked 12 times.
For 1995, Sports Illustrated predicted that Belichick’s magic would propel the Browns into the Super Bowl that year against the Dallas Cowboys. Instead, 1995 would become a disaster, and the last played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. In 1996, the Cleveland Browns relocated and became the Baltimore Ravens.
And for that one season, rookie Eric Zeier was welcomed to pro football encompassing a horrid backdrop, a season mired in distractions and failure, rumors, hearsay, disarray and beguilement, and then the eventuality of leaving Cleveland for good.
That was Zeier’s indoctrination into the world of professional football.
In his rookie year with Cleveland, Zeier started four games with 161 pass attempts and 82 completions for 864 yards, four TD’s and nine INTs. After he relocated to Baltimore, he started seven games in three seasons before moving to Tampa and played for the Buccaneers for two years. For his NFL career, he finished with a 74.4 career QB rating.
Today, Zeier lives in Marietta, Georgia. He is the Regional Manager with Homeowners Financial Group which is based out of Atlanta. His wife Julie and himself are raising five sons: Zeke, Ike, Knox, Ford and Tucker. His oldest two sons play ice hockey with Zeke playing for Bethel University. Zeier met Julie on a blind date. She had no idea that he was a football player and had never heard of him. She had attended the University of Tennessee - so there’s that SEC tension in the Zeier household these days.
Zeier is also a radio broadcaster as he has been the color analyst on all Georgia football away games since 2007.
DBN was able to pull Zeier away from his extremely busy life to find out what growing up with an Army Major is like, if any of his children realize their dad passed for over 11,000 yards, and what was going on in that 1995 season with the Browns.
DBN: You were born in Pensacola, Florida, but started your football career at Heidelberg High School in Germany where you won a championship. How are German football fans different from Americans?
Zeier: My dad was in the Army and growing up we lived in 13 different places in Florida, South Carolina and in Europe. In Germany, the high school I played for it was the kids of military families and the program was equivalent to a 1-A level. We only had 26 players and two played in the NFL: myself and Ron George. We would have had a very good team if we played in the States.
DBN: You played three sports: basketball, football and baseball. At what point did you decide to focus on football?
Zeier: I played everything. I played golf in the off-season. I dropped basketball my junior year because it conflicted with the start of baseball season.
DBN: How did moving to Georgia and playing in the football-crazed South change the way you played?
Zeier: I was fortunate everywhere my dad was stationed that I had a great introduction at a young age. When I got to Georgia, it was very similar to what carried over from Germany with similar schemes. I was very accustomed to playing schematically and it was the same. We grew as a team in Marietta. They love their football in the State of Georgia.
DBN: Coming out of high school, how many scholarships were you offered, and why did you pick the University of Georgia?
Zeier: There was interest from a lot of schools including some that were ranked in the Top-5. The main interest was from FSU, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Miami, UCLA, and Notre Dame. My focus initially was UCLA or Notre Dame, or I wanted to be close to home. Schools in the SEC were closer to my family - my mom, dad and sister. I chose Georgia for part of this reason. Being at your state school later in life also brings business world opportunities. Georgia was up-tempo with a wide-open offense. I liked the coaches such as Wayne McDuffie and Steve Ensfinger, the OC. But, if I wasn’t playing football, I would want to go to Georgia academically.
DBN: When Georgia head coach Ray Goff recruited you, did he say that you had the opportunity to start as a freshman which you eventually did?
Zeier: That was never a guarantee and was known from the start. But I did get an opportunity to compete and win the job. Playing freshmen players was not a common thing back then. Greg Talley was the starter and had been very successful. We also had Preston Jones and Joe Dupree – both very talented. It was an intense camp and in the spring. Going into summer I was the co-#1 with Talley.
DBN: In all four years at Georgia, you never beat Florida. Was it the water in the Sunshine State, the old Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, or the old ball coach?
Zeier: That is salt in the wound. We came close a couple of times when Spurrier was rebuilding. But he was able to bring in quality guys very quickly and had some of the elite teams in the country. In 1992, we should have beaten them.
DBN: When you had finished at Georgia, you amassed 11,153 passing yards, one of only three QB’s to pass the 11,000 mark. What do you tell your children you did while in college?
Zeier: We don’t get into records set. I have five boys and they get interested sometimes. Sports teaches you about life. Teams are life lessons that I talk about with my boys. All of those records were done with the help of others and that is something I want to hand down as examples of teamwork. There is a beauty in the game that builds relationships you keep all of your life.
DBN: Your father was a Major in the Army. What was the best comment he said to you during your entire college career that still sticks with you?
Zeier: It was always in the conversation to find a way to win. But he told me, “If you can’t be bigger, be faster. If you can’t be faster, be stronger. If you can’t be stronger, be smarter.” There are always things in your life that you can control to make whatever success looks like. That keeps you grounded.
DBN: The Browns drafted you in the third-round of the 1995 NFL draft - Cleveland’s second pick in the draft. Coverage of the draft on ESPN was in its infancy. Did you have a draft party at home or find out you had been drafted another way?
Zeier: That was a long day for me. I had my agent and my family in the basement of my parent’s house in Marietta. That morning, my dad and I had played golf but I was distracted by the draft. We came back to the house and watched it late into the third-round. I was actually getting ready for bed. Then Coach Belichick traded up in the round to get me. There were no cell phones then, so I had to run upstairs when the phone rang. Then I ran downstairs to tell my family. The next day I flew to Cleveland.
DBN: What was your first training camp like?
Zeier: I remember being as nervous as I could have been. Guys you grew up watching are now practicing with you. The speed of the game is a different level. In the first couple of practices I realized that it was going to take all I got with the talent around me.
DBN: The Browns had just gone 11-5 the year before and Sports Illustrated picked Cleveland to go to the Super Bowl your rookie year. Was this the vibe going into the season?
Zeier: Yeh, it was very good. The football team was good before I got there and the buzz was all around Cleveland about the upcoming season. There was a lot of confidence and an awareness that we would make a deep run in the playoffs.
DBN: What kind of man was head coach Bill Belichick and did he spend much time with the offense?
Zeier: I knew the minute I stepped in his presence that things were different. He had his finger in everything. We had great offensive coaches and while he spent a lot to time with the defense, he knew what was going on always with the offense. I spent a lot of time with Belichick. He told me what he expected from me as a rookie. He knew how to delegate and had a part of everything that went on.
DBN: Vinny Testaverde was the starter. Did he become a mentor to you, or look at you like you were there to steal his job?
Zeier: All of us at the position were competing and had a good relationship. It wasn’t a mentor/mentee situation, but it was intense competition. It was never a situation where you wished ill will on someone in the quarterback room. We encouraged each other on to be better. There was genuine care for each other.
DBN: During this same time period, former Giants’ QB Phil Simms was rumored ready to sign with the Browns. As a quarterback, why do you think the coaching staff wasn’t satisfied with Testaverde?
Zeier: I don’t think it was Vinny’s play they were unhappy with. Football is a business. You try to get as much talent on your football team as you can at all times. Later it was discovered they wanted Simms as the backup, not to take over for Vinny.
DBN: Where did you first live in Cleveland, and what places did you go out to grab a bite?
Zeier: Strongsville. I rented a small apartment with Mike Frederick. Our time was short-lived because we spent most of our time at the facility. Neither Mike nor I were good cooks so we ate at this one Boston Market quite a bit. They got to know us pretty well and would sneak us in the back and set us up in a little booth.
DBN: After Game 10 in your rookie season, Browns’ owner Art Modell made the official announcement to relocate to Baltimore. You must have heard rumors earlier though.
Zeier: Up to that point, I thought it was just posturing. No player thought it truly was going to happen - even when it was told it was true. The distraction can derail focus taken off the job at hand. Everything else took priority. Where am I going to live? When do I take my kids out of school? You catch everyone talking about the possible move, and then the move, and not about football. It took everyone by surprise. It was a big deal handed to the City of Cleveland who up to that point had the best fans in the NFL.
DBN: What are some memories of your first and only year in Cleveland?
Zeier: The first time I set foot in the old stadium it was preseason on a Monday Night. I played well and had some success. There was excitement that I thought I could play in this league. It was a culmination of a lifetime worth of work.
DBN: You started four games in your rookie year with the Browns. How did you find out you were starting your first game and who was the first one you told?
Zeier: I found out Monday after the game we lost to Jacksonville. Belichick told me. I called my mom and dad and told them I would be starting the following week. We beat Cincinnati in that game.
DBN: You have been in the financial industry for quite a while with Academy Mortgage and now with Homeowners Financial Group based in Atlanta. How did you get interested in this industry?
Zeier: In my second year, there was a seminar held by Home Bank Mortgage and got some information but didn’t think much about it. Later, when I was playing for the Atlanta Falcons, they drafted Michael Vick. I was recruited into the mortgage industry once my playing days were over and have never looked back. You get an opportunity to have a generational impact and provide hope to individuals. That was something that captured my heart.
DBN: What products are offered?
Zeier: Residential financing, home appraisals, underwriting. Part of the process is personal attention. People have certain goals and we want to make sure those goals or met, or offer suggestions that clients may not have considered. We are a direct lender and everything is done in-house. (Editor’s note: For more information - www.homeownersfg.com)
DBN: As a regional manager, is this just another team sport and can you make insubordinate employees run sprints?
Zeier: I can’t make them run sprints but I may start a push-up program especially for those late for meetings. It takes a team to execute the process and it takes everyone in their team roles. There is a level of cooperation. That carries over almost daily. What does it take to be excellent at your craft? That leads to excellence if you remain focused. Front and center is the greater whole of the organization. Sound similar to a football team?
DBN: You have continued your affiliation with Georgia as the color analyst for away games and the Tailgate Show for home games. This seems like a hard job being on the spot during live broadcasts. Do you enjoy it and does this keep you in football?
Zeier: That has always been a great honor for me. It does keep me involved in the sport and in Georgia football. I get to stay connected with the University. There are more blessings that I did not expect by traveling with a special group of people and a lot of fun. This has helped shape me.
DBN: How did you meet your wife Julie, and did she only marry you because you were the quarterback?
Zeier: She didn’t even know I had played football. It was a blind date. My sister and her sister knew each other. I was already in the business world. She went to the University of Tennessee, so there is one day a year with issues.
DBN: Besides money, how is the game different than when you played in the NFL?
Zeier: Drastically. The protection of players is a lot more. There are rule changes that help the offense more. Quarterbacks get less experience than getting under center like in college. The quarterback gets in shot-gun more with a quick passing game trying to keep the football into space.
DBN: Name some fond memories of being a Cleveland Brown.
Zeier: The first thing that comes to mind is that I got drafted by the most passionate franchise in the game. I still get 40-50 football cards to sign through the mail all the time from fans. It was an amazing fan base and the friendships I made while playing in front of the Dawg Pound. I started my career there although it was short lived in the City of Cleveland. It was a unique time of my life and I am better for it.