In the mid-1980’s, the Cleveland Browns boasted one of the NFL’s best franchises year-in and year-out.
The only problem is that they don’t have the hardware to back it up. However, they were exciting to watch, had zero quit in them, gave Clevelanders a sense of pride with their success, and won a ton of games.
Brian Brennan (5’-10”, 178 pounds) played for the Browns from 1984 to 1991. He was taken in the fourth-round of the 1984 NFL draft. He got a phone call in his dorm at Boston College from former Browns’ great Paul Warfield and head coach Sam Rutigliano telling him that he was now a Cleveland Brown although the club had never shown any interest in him prior to the draft.
It turned out to be one of the greatest fourth-round picks in franchise history.
His first coach, Rutigliano, lasted eight games before getting axed to which Marty Schottenheimer took over. From there, Cleveland went to the playoffs five straight seasons. They also captured the AFC Central division title four times and played in the AFC Championship Game three times, losing the trio to the Denver Broncos and John Elway.
Brennan joined a very impressive receiver group that over the years featured Webster Slaughter, Clarence Weathers, Duriel Harris, Reggie Langhorne and tight end Ozzie Newsome, plus running backs Kevin Mack, Eric Metcalf, Leroy Hoard and Earnest Byner.
From 1989-1990, Brennan’s new head coach was Bud Carson before Bill Belichick took over the reins in 1991. Brennan left the Browns and played for Cincinnati in 1992, then the San Diego Chargers in 1993. After that year, he was offered another contract to remain with the Chargers plus the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Bill Cowher, a former Browns assistant coach, also contacted him wanting to sign a deal.
As a finance major while at Boston College he was named Second Team All-American. For several years during the off-season while still an active player, he worked for McDonald Investments.
At the time of the Chargers and Steelers offers, he realized that he was now older and had maybe lost a step, plus all the other receivers in San Diego had Olympic speed. So instead of hanging on like a lot of players ultimately do and playing one or two more years, he went to work for McDonald full-time.
But the time spent in Cleveland was what Brennan remembers most. Bengals fans are fair-weather fans. San Diego had so many other things to do other than spending three hours watching a live pro football game. That California city is an outdoors community especially with the beaches. Fans from Northeast Ohio, however, were dedicated and loyal to their Browns. The essence of Paul Brown permeates into every community.
Browns fans are a step above all the other fans in the NFL. Brennan will tell you that first-hand – and does.
His wife Bethany, his college sweetheart, and himself had centered their life around Cleveland. They were raising three children. They liked the area so life after football did not mean life after Cleveland.
Brennan was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Today, Brennan is a manager at the Key Bank headquarters in Cleveland and still lives in the area just east in Pepper Pike. Their children, two daughters and a son, are grown now and have lives of their own – including two with jobs in the finance world. The Brennan’s have now been married 35 years, are devout Catholics and avid runners.
For his Browns’ career, Brennan had 4,148 receiving yards on 315 receptions, a 13.2 yards per catch average, scored 19 touchdowns, lost only nine fumbles and played in 117 games. During his NFL career he caught passes from Paul McDonald, Bernie Kosar, Mike Pagel, Boomer Esiason and Stan Humphries – all household names.
And despite higher-drafted receivers who were usually much taller and sometimes faster, Brennan became Kosar’s favorite target as the go-to guy when a first down was needed. He had the uncanny ability to contort his body to either badly thrown balls or tosses which were affected by the wind. Time and time again, Brennan was laying out for a pass or twisting into another body shape in order to make the grab.
DBN grabbed Brennan during the holiday break to find out what was the last thing Belichick told him, his most memorable play, and what it was like to practice every day against the original Dawgs: Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield.
DBN: Your senior season at Boston College you were a finance major. You gained your most receiving yards in a season with 1,149 yards, a 17.4 average yards per catch ratio, was fifth in the nation in touchdown catches, and was just 21 yards shy of being the Number 1 receiver in college football. What finally clicked for you to have such a good year?
Brennan: First of all I was healthy. For part of my junior year I was sidelined with a broken collar bone. Also, (quarterback) Doug Flutie and I had a good chemistry. Across the nation (wide receivers) Kenny Jackson and Irving Fryar got all the attention and were named First Team All-Americans whereas I was listed as Second Team. I was not happy that I was listed behind them because I thought I was a better player. Fryar went first overall in the draft and had a very nice career.
DBN: The Browns selected you in the fourth-round of the 1984 NFL draft despite a very good senior season. You were the ninth receiver taken in the draft and over the years, with the exception of the first overall pick Irving Fryar, your pro career out-shined all the others put together. Did you come to Cleveland with something to prove, or was just happy to be there?
Brennan: Well everyone is just happy to be drafted. While I was drafted in the fourth-round, I felt I should have been drafted ahead of all those receivers. Sometimes receivers are drafted because of their physical stature with height as I was 5’ 10 and one-half inches. In my mind, if you put me in when all those other receivers I was just as fast or faster than all the others. I had great confidence in myself all along and just needed to land in the right spot. That just happened to be Cleveland.
DBN: What was your first training camp like?
Brennan: When I got there I said to myself I am not only the best receiver, but the best athlete on the whole team. You want to play basketball, ping pong, golf? That’s how I felt.
DBN: You came to the Browns in that transition year of 1984 when head coach Sam Rutigliano was fired halfway during your rookie season and DC Marty Schottenheimer took his place. How did you find out Rut was fired, and did you think that this was how pro football was always going to be like?
Brennan: I was disappointed Sam was fired because he was a father figure. Then Marty was a great coach himself because he played the game. He demanded accountability. I liked both their styles. It was a shock to the whole team when we learned that Sam had been fired especially the veterans. As a rookie you just try to do the best you can and help the team.
DBN: You were not the stereotypical size for a wide receiver. How did you become QB Bernie Kosar’s favorite target?
Brennan: I just knew how to play the position and knew how to go 12-yards when you needed 11. I knew some of the little things like how to come back for the ball. The bump-and-run was so prevalent when I played, and you needed to know how to get off the line of scrimmage. Paul Warfield was a player’s relations guy with the Browns and took time with me to help me. Then it became a lot easier.
DBN: Was Bernie really the smartest guy in the room, or was it just the receiver room that made him better?
Brennan: The receiver group was very close with Langhorne, Slaughter, Weathers. I think Bernie Kosar was the smartest player I ever played with. He was the most accurate passer and with him we felt we could do anything with that offense.
DBN: How did going against athletic cornerbacks like Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon in practices every day impact your growth as a receiver at this level?
Brennan: It was more than vital. We were battling All-Pro cornerbacks every day. You also had Stephen Braggs and Anthony Blalock. Those competitive practices led to being a better player on game day.
DBN: As a native of blue-collar Detroit and growing up a northern kid, after a full season with the Browns, did you feel like you fit in being in Cleveland?
Brennan: I immediately felt like I fit in with Cleveland. The fiber of a Clevelander is the same as blue-collar Detroit. My dad owned a construction company. We all worked for him in the summer months and learned what hard work was.
DBN: Those 1980’s Browns teams were loaded offensively with Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Ozzie Newsome, a very good offensive line, Clarence Weathers, Reggie Langhorne, Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner, plus yourself. Chemistry aside along with a winning belief system, those squads had the potential to become the New England Patriots of the 1980’s. Your thoughts?
Brennan: We felt we could beat anyone on any given day. And we felt we were the best and most balanced offense in the NFL. We proved it. We were always in the playoffs and went to three AFC Championship Games.
DBN: That roster was also close off the field. Where were some places around Cleveland that players would go to unwind and hang out?
Brennan: First of all we were a really close receiver group. We were a close team. The heavy days in the NFL were Wednesdays and Thursdays. After the Thursday practice players would go out and have a beer. All positions on either side of the ball. We would meet up at Friday’s is one of the places.
DBN: While your 1986 season had the best statistics with 838 receiving yards with six touchdowns and the first of three trips to the AFC Championship Game, which of your eight seasons with the Browns was your favorite, and why?
Brennan: That one. Productivity trumps everything. You feel good about yourself and the team.
DBN: The double overtime playoff game against the Jets in 1986 is still being talked about. Are you tired of being asked about this game, or is it the summit of Browns fans of the 1980’s?
Brennan: That game resembles our team – was talented and knew how to test the fortitude with a belief in themselves to win. That Jets game is front and center on that. How does a team come back with that deficit with minimal time? That says a lot about Schottenheimer as a coach. I like when people ask me that question, that season, that game and the subsequent AFC Championship Game.
DBN: Who was the one defender you really enjoyed beating the most, and why?
Brennan: Three come to mind. Rod Woodson was a perennial All-Pro guy and I seemed to have very good games against the Steelers when he was on me. The other is Lester Hayes when we played against the Raiders. Everyone knew who Hayes was as another All-Pro guy. I took pride in beating him. And Dennis Smith of the Broncos. I had many good games against him.
DBN: All four seasons with the Browns were winning years with Schottenheimer as head coach. What were your first thoughts?
Brennan: I was bummed out. I thought a lot of Marty Schottenheimer as a coach and a person.
DBN: You had the remarkable ability to twist your body and adjust to poorly thrown balls with many spectacular catches. Every time you went for a catch did you feel you were a man on a mission?
Brennan: I had 20/15 vision. I could see the ball better than someone with 20/20. My first quarterback was Paul McDonald who was a lefty so the spin was different, but he threw a very nice ball. Bernie threw a very soft ball – an easy ball to catch. Bernie was the most accurate passer in my career and I played with Boomer Esiason.
DBN: You seemed to have very good games against Denver. In the 1989 AFC Championship Game against the Broncos, Kosar threw you a pass that was slightly overthrown in the end zone that you stretched every fiber of your being to catch it for a touchdown. Does this one play stand out among other spectacular catches you have made throughout your career?
Brennan: You have done your homework. I would say that was one of my most memorable plays for me. And if you ask Bernie the same question, he would say either that one or the catch in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. To answer your question – that was my finest catch.
DBN: It seems almost every NFL team has that smaller white guy receiver as the slot made famous by Wes Welker - guys like like Julian Edelman and Cole Beasley. Aren’t you the original Wes Welker?
Brennan: I always thought there was the passing of the torch in the possession receiver role. You can go back to (Fred) Biletnikoff, Pat Twilley, Steve Largent, and then maybe a few years I was that person. Then maybe to Ricky Proehl then to Welker. So, there is this progression.
DBN: Today’s NFL throws a ton of balls per game and the rules in general now favor the offense. In watching a game today, what are some things you see that have changed with the receiver position since you played?
Brennan: You tell me one receiver in my era that wouldn’t want to be a receiver in today’s era. I challenge you to find that person. Number one - the rules favor the receiver. They don’t press you. They don’t play bump-and-run like they used to. It takes a village to run an offense in today’s game and the position of receiver is so watered down. The talent level is not the same. There are more receivers on every team and they drop passes left and right compared to when we played. And they don’t care – I’ll get the next one. And they will go six yards on a pattern when you need seven.
DBN: You were a finesse and possession type receiver and played for Bill Belichick for two seasons. GM Ernie Accorsi did the hiring and firing yet it was Belichick who waived you. What was said to you and the reason?
Brennan: He said, “Brian, you are a great player and will go down as a great player in the history of the Cleveland Browns, but I am looking for a more physical player. You’re more a finesse player, and today is your last day.” That was the extent of the conversation. A man of very few words.
DBN: You were working for McDonald Investments during the off-season while still an active player. When did you first begin with them, and after you decided to hang up your cleats, did that continue to be your first job?
Brennan: As confident as I was as a player, I always felt I was one injury from not playing. Back then, the off-seasons were easier and I was bored. I wanted to do some things. I wanted to expand my mind and my brother Marty was already in the bond business in New York and encouraged me to get a job. I was lucky to get a job with McDonald Investments in 1985 in the off-season. Later, McDonald was purchased by Key Bank.
DBN: You are the Managing Director and Division Head for Fixed Income at KeyBanc Capital Markets. How did you get interested in this line of work?
Brennan: The transition is never easy for an athlete. When I was done playing I interviewed and got a job in New York but did not move my family. I always had a financial interest. Later I left and got a job at Key Bank and have been with them for 26 years.
DBN: What does your average day encompass at your job?
Brennan: Our customers are institutional buyers of bonds. My job is to manage the sales team and make sure we are covering all the major bond buyers. And then I have to manage portfolio inventory positions. It is a lot of moving parts.
DBN: You have hosted a golf tournament for over 30 years that raises money for the “Boys Hope Girls Hope” organization with Key Bank a supporter. How did you initially get connected to this event, and why does Key Bank feel the need to help children in challenging circumstances do better in life?
Brennan: “Boys Hope Girls Hope” is an organization founded by the Jesuits. Key Bank is one of the corporate sponsors. We raise money every year and help abused, neglected, abandoned promising young kids and they pay for their private high school and college education. And hopefully, this will make a difference in their lives. I was drawn to this event because it is family-oriented because I grew up in a very strong family.
DBN: What type of Browns equipment, footballs or parts of uniforms do you currently own, is it displayed at your home?
Brennan: I have some Sports Illustrated pictures where I was consoling Earnest Byner after his fumble, or maybe a catch I made. But very little. I have some jerseys I wore in a closet somewhere.
DBN: What is your fondest memory of being a Cleveland Brown?
Brennan: The fans stand out. Playing in front of those fans has a special meaning. To me, they are unique because there’s a special bond connectivity between the players and the fans.