During the 1980s, the Cleveland Browns boasted some of the franchise’s better squads.
The 1980 team went 11-5-0, won the AFC Central then lost in the playoffs. The strike-shortened year of 1982 became another playoff year with a loss in the first-round.
But 1985 through 1989 were special years as a Browns’ fan: four division titles, three playoff wins, three trips to the AFC Championship Game, plus an 8-2 record against both division foes Pittsburgh and Houston.
But every silver lining has its touch of gray. Or in the case of the Browns - charcoal gray. There were three defeats in those AFC Championship Games, Cleveland went 5-5 against Cincinnati including some crucial losses, five total playoff defeats, and three missed chances at a Super Bowl appearance.
In the thick of all that blood, sweat and tears was offensive guard Dan Fike.
Fike started 102 regular season games and eight playoff contests for the Browns. He was relatively injury free in his stint from 1985 until 1992. And he was a stalwart for a club that paid attention to build a top-notch offensive line with guys like Mike Baab, Paul Farren, Larry Williams, Cody Riesen, and as an extension of the O-Line with Ozzie Newsome as tight end.
Growing up in the Deep South in Pensacola, Florida, Fike played defensive line for Pine Forest High School and accepted a full scholarship to the University of Florida. In his freshman year, they switched him over to the offensive line. That season, Florida went a disastrous 0-10-1. The following year Florida improved to 8-4-0 which was the biggest turnaround in college football D-1 history. Fike blocked for RB Neal Anderson and practiced daily against the linebacker beast named Wilbur Marshall. Both would later grace the sidelines of the Chicago Bears. Fike was named Second Team All-SEC his senior year.
Fike was drafted in the 10th round of the 1983 NFL draft by the New York Jets and also taken in a regional draft by the Tampa Bay Bandits in the newly-formed USFL, an NFL rival league that played a spring/summer format. After a good training camp with the Jets, he was waived before the season and then claimed with a designation to their practice squad. Instead of not playing on an active roster, he inked a contract with the Bandits, coached by the offensive-minded Steve Spurrier.
Shortly thereafter, Fike, who stands 6’-7” and a beefy 280 pounds during his playing days, was named the starting left tackle for Tampa and started every game for two years. After the 1985 season, the USFL owners voted to move their season from spring to the fall. In the end, the league collapsed.
Fike’s contract with Tampa Bay had expired while the USFL was deciding to remain a spring league or switch to to a fall schedule. He subsequently signed with the Browns for the 1985 season and earned the starting right guard spot taking over for aging veteran Joe DeLamiellure. His QB was Bernie Kosar and he blocked for Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner’s historic duo 1,000-yard season. Fike played eight seasons for Cleveland then one year for Pittsburgh.
Today, Fike still lives in the Cleveland area with his wife Karen. The couple have two children, both grown. They have a place in Maui to be near their daughter during those harsh winters coming off Lake Erie, plus own a lake house at Sandusky Bay. All his doctors are in Cleveland so that is where he calls home. He has been married 33 years and also has a son. He is now retired after selling a party planning business.
DBN caught up with Fike in Hawaii to find out which former Cleveland Brown was the class clown, how he compares Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt to Kevin Mack/Earnest Byner, and how “Conan the Barbarian” once had a huge influence on the Browns.
DBN: You were a defensive lineman in high school and received a full scholarship to Florida, yet they switched you over to the offensive side. Did the coaches see something in you that enacted the switch, and how difficult was that transition from defense to offense?
Fike: The coaches didn’t tell me why they were making the switch, they just did and it was their decision to do it. Maybe they thought I would fit in better on the offensive side, which in hindsight is correct. It was their decision and I moved over.
DBN: While at Florida, those rosters were full of future NFL players such as Wilbur Marshall, John L. Williams, Lomas Brown, Neal Anderson, Ricky Nattiel, Kerwin Bell, Chris Collinsworth and yourself. In practices, did it register that the talent level was that good?
Fike: Based on my freshman year, we went 0-10-1. So I initially thought we didn’t have enough talent to win. But in my sophomore year we went 8-4. I just saw everybody as my teammate and knew we had some good talent like Chris Collinsworth who was a speed demon. You knew he was going to go on and do well. But practicing against a guy like Wilber only made it harder for me, which in turn made me a much better player.
DBN: You were drafted by the Jets in the 10th round. You grew up in Northwest Florida. How did you find out you were drafted, and what did you think when you heard the words “New York City”?
Fike: I was in my dorm room. Someone said I had a call from a guy that said he was with the Jets. New York wouldn’t have been my first choice. I didn’t think they served fried eggs and cheese grits like where I was from. My first thought was I didn’t know what I was going to eat. I also thought I might have to buy a coat.
DBN: After Jets training camp, you signed with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the upstart USFL. How did you get that job and how much was your contract worth?
Fike: The Bandits took me in a regional player draft since I went to Florida. They were able to draft most of the Florida schools to get some instant name recognition going. My contract was not very much. My first year I made in the mid 30’s. The next year they increased it some. If you made the All-Star team you got a bonus. Nobody on our team was getting paid the big bucks and so there wasn’t much talk about it that much.
DBN: You played two seasons at left tackle with Tampa. What was that offense like with head coach Steve Spurrier at the controls with “Bandit Ball”?
Fike: Bandit Ball was wide-open. Crazy, off-the-top Spurrier doing his thing. A couple of times in practice he would get in there and play quarterback and show everybody how to do it. It reminded me of the very old days when sometimes the coach was actually a player-coach and did both. He was a piece of work. He had a great personality. That was a fun offense but you never knew what part of the bag Spurrier was going to pull something out of. That game was great for the offensive numbers of the quarterbacks, the running backs and the wide receivers. Our offense just put up huge numbers every game.
DBN: The Bandits were a hit, a playoff team and outdrew the Buccaneers in attendance. At the time did you feel you were in a good place being in the USFL?
Fike: I loved being in Tampa and being a part of the USFL. Of course the NFL was our competition, but a lot of the guys we had at Tampa had played in the NFL and the same with a lot of players in the USFL. And there ended up being a lot that went on to great NFL careers. It was good in Tampa. I was a Florida guy all my life at the time, and being in a spring league and at the same time being able to watch the NFL games during the fall.
DBN: Where were you when you heard the USFL was going to shut down?
Fike: I was already with Cleveland at the time. In hindsight, me making that move was a good decision. After the USFL folded, that meant whatever players were left over did not have any leverage for better contracts.
DBN: You then signed with the Browns in 1985. How were you contacted by Cleveland and did you have any other teams contact you?
Fike: One of the scouts for the Browns called and said they were interested in me. My contract was negotiated by David Mann, an attorney in Pensacola who had played linebacker at Florida. My contract with the Bandits was up after the second year and they hadn’t made a new contract offer yet. And then the Browns called and no other teams. I thought that was the best option for me going forward. There was a lot of talk about the USFL moving to a fall schedule and going head-to-head with the NFL. Nobody really knew what was going to happen next in that league.
DBN: How was Browns training camp different than Bandits training camp?
Fike: What’s the difference between Steve Spurrier and Marty Schottenheimer? Totally different coaching personalities and their training camp was the same but different as far as the emphasis on the offense versus the defense. With Marty we did a lot more head-butting and full contact on both sides.
DBN: In 1985 you started 18 regular season games with the Bandits plus a playoff game, then earned the starting right guard spot with the Browns and started 13 games plus a playoff game all in the same year. How is that humanly possible?
Fike: And two training camps. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that every morning now my body’s aching and my head is aching. Every day I wonder how I did what I did and how I played for as long as I did. God was on my side. I just did what I had to do. But it was a very long year and at the end of it all I was happy to take some time off.
DBN: What are the differences in playing guard and tackle, and the differences in playing the right side of the offensive line versus the left side?
Fike: Right side you are in a right-handed stance and the left side you are in a left-handed stance. And yes you can jump from one side to the other. At Florida we flip-flopped our lines my junior and senior so that we could play both left and right. It worked out for me and I don’t recall it ever being an issue.
DBN: Before you would get into your stance, would the linebackers or safety tip you off to what they were doing pre-snap?
Fike: Later on in my career, I tried to see where the safety was based on what play was called - running plays stuff like that. If a linebacker was coming on a blitz, most would tip you off by the way they would get closer and begin to lean forward a bit. But all of this has to be realized before you get into a three-point stance where it is harder to look around.
DBN: You blocked for Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack when they both gained 1,000-yards in the same season. In today’s offensive scheme, how are Nick Chubb with Kareem Hunt similar and different?
Fike: Because the team wants to run the football. Every running back wants the ball and feel they can score from anywhere. Earnest and Kevin both knew they could do this and the current tandem are no different. Also, Byner was the speedier and shifty back whereas Kevin just lowered his head and ran through guys. The two current backs are very similar.
DBN: Neal Anderson at Florida, Tampa’s Gary Anderson and Kevin Mack of the Browns. You blocked for each back at different levels. Which was your favorite running back and why?
Fike: K-Mack. I played with Kevin the longest, but Kevin was more of a fullback/tailback combo and was just a bruiser with speed. He didn’t shy away from contact. His blocking skills were very good. We nicknamed him “Terra-train” because one game he took on one of the linebackers from Pittsburgh and just bowled him over. Kevin and Earnest were my favorite guys. They were my running backs. They were my brothers. I had to fight for them a long time. Of course one in a while they would sneak in the small ice cube of a guy by the name of Gerald McNeil into the mix.
DBN: The 1986 Browns won the division and went 12-4-0 while head coach Marty Schottenheimer was Coach-of-the-Year. Who was the locker room clown?
Fike: Locker room clown would have to go to Hanford Dixon or Frank Minnifield. They fit that category. We were all tough guys, but these two were always trying to do pranks or you might think they weren’t taking things serious until they hit somebody or intercepted a pass.
DBN: Which defensive player in the league gave you the most grief and do you want us to go slash his tires?
Fike: No, at this point it doesn’t do any good to slash somebody’s tires. Because I am six-foot-seven, most of the time it was the shorter, quicker defensive lineman. On the Browns it was Michael Dean Perry. I had a problem getting my pads low enough to be effective against him. I did fine against all the Steelers’ players and everybody in our division. (Nose tackle) Greg Kragen of the Broncos was slippery and wasn’t something that I practiced against on a daily basis. He shot gaps and played on the corners of shoulders.
DBN: From 1985 to 1989 Cleveland won four division titles and went to the AFC Championship Game three times yet failed to get to the Super Bowl. What could have changed the outcome to any of those three games?
Fike: A fumble, a penalty, a return. Anything. I am not talking about Earnest’s fumble. Any one of the turnovers we had could have been the difference in any of those games. Marty was always harping on getting all the little details in a game. When you get a penalty in a key spot in a game, you never knew that this was actually the key spot. You never wanted to have that penalty on you and let your team down.
DBN: When you played, what restaurants did you eat at regularly in the Cleveland area?
Fike: They are closed now. We used to go down to the Flats and there was one restaurant that Bob Golic used to always like to go to called Tangerine Farley’s. They sold beer they called “a yard of beer” which is a three-foot tall giant glass with a bulb at the bottom and a flange top. Golic would slurp that whole thing down. To stop it from losing its coldness, he had to drink it quickly. It was hard for offensive linemen to get full at restaurants.
DBN: What are the differences in offensive line play in today’s NFL than when you played?
Fike: I still watch games. Schemes are pretty much the same. You have to put a hat on a hat. I learned that back in high school. I think they get away with holding a lot more now. We used to have to keep our hands on the inside of the shoulder pads. I see them all the time now on the outside which in my day was an automatic flag. Run blocking seems to be coached in the same way.
DBN: Most folks know the offensive line are the brains of any offense. Why does QB Bernie Kosar think he is the smartest boy in the room?
Fike: Because he was. If you are a quarterback you better know your offense better than your coordinator. Because he is the one out on the field. You still have to have the guts to change or call an audible at the line of scrimmage when he sees something the coach can’t see from over there on the sidelines or in the booth. Quarterbacks had to score highly on the SAT and ACT in order to be well-coached.
DBN: In 1986 you were part of a short film produced by center Mike Baab called “Masters of the Gridiron.” How did the idea for this “Conan inspired” flick come about, and were you kidnapped and forced to be in it?
Fike: We laugh about that movie every time we get together with Mike. It was a fun, little movie. Mike was a huge Conan the Barbarian book reader. His wife Lolis had done some work in TV and radio. They just got together and wrote a script and pulled it together. We did three days of filming and we were done. It was a riot. We are still talking about it. It was amazing we pulled that off using real weapons. Nowadays, you try to get most of the guys together with swords and axes and the owners would have a heart attack.
DBN: What horror stories can you share about the old Municipal Stadium? What are your best memories?
Fike: The only horror story I have is with “The Drive.” The stadium itself coming out of the Indians dugout and the tunnel was just Cleveland. The fans would just have that old stadium rocking. And part of our season would overlap with baseball still going on so we had to deal with a dirt infield.
DBN: In 11 seasons playing pro football, you started 138 regular season games along with 10 playoff games. What do you attribute your durability to?
Fike: One is conditioning, two the training staff, and three would be knowing my job very well. Now I don’t know squat.
DBN: You were involved with the Browns during the invention of the “Dawg Pound.” The origins was to boast the Browns’ defense up against the Browns’ offense, which included yourself. It has since morphed into engaging fans against the opponent. In the beginning, did the offensive line think this dog barking stunt was immature and stupid, and basically would not work – or did it begin to have an affect on your unit?
Fike: It didn’t affect the offensive line. Originally, it was more a of a defensive deal. It then spread to the fans and in the end they would be trying to help us as an offense, and then of course try to hinder the other team’s offense.
DBN: What is your fondest memory of being a Cleveland Brown?
Fike: My teammates and the fans. My teammates were great and the fans were awesome. And that in the stadium or anywhere you would meet fans out-and-about. Awesome. They still are.