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Where are your former Browns now? WR J.J. Birden

Former receiver has shagged passes from Kosar, Aikman and Montana

The Browns had some really good teams in the mid-1980’s and in fact went to three AFC Championship Games, all losses.

Regardless, in the latter stages of the ‘80’s, they realized they needed an infusion of speed at the receiver position. In the eighth round (216th overall) of the 1988 NFL draft, they selected J.J. Birden out of Oregon.

At the time, Birden was part of a championship track team that had won the National Championship in 1984. He ran a 4.3 in the 40. He was a long jump champion. In addition, he was involved in the USA Olympics qualifying team.

Three days into mini-camp with the Browns, Birden tore his ACL while running a pass pattern on the artificial surface of Baldwin-Wallace College’s Finnie Stadium. The pass was underthrown to which Birden had attempted to stop and contort his body in order to go back and catch it. At just 5’-10” and 157 pounds, his knee simply gave out. Birden was expected to challenge for a backup role with Cleveland.

Not only did the injury require surgery which placed him on IR, but he was in the midst of qualifying for the 1988 Olympic trials for track and field. On a single play, two dreams were dashed.

Although he was getting paid for the first year of his professional career with Cleveland, his opportunity to prove to others that he could play at the professional level were also gone.

The following year, he was involved in the last cutdown for the Browns. He landed in Dallas where the Cowboys had just drafted QB Troy Aikman first overall in the draft. Birden found the practice squad his home for the year as Dallas went 1-15-0.

Birden had a very successful high school career as a student at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon. He could absolutely fly and competed in the 110-meter hurdles, long jump and triple jump in track. Even today, he ranks in the Top 5 in Oregon prep records.

Birden had great hands and was a tough kid despite being small at just 140 pounds. His mother worked as a welder in order to support the family. Birden had to catch the bus in transit from North Portland to Lake Oswego so that he could attend Lakeridge High. There, he excelled academically as well as in athletics.

Coming out of high school he didn’t receive a single scholarship to play football. Coaches took one look at his scrawny build and assumed he would be broken in two. He had college offers to run track, but during each visit he inquired if he would also be able to play football. All but Oregon said no. So he accepted their scholarship offer. They had only one requirement however, and that was to skip football during his freshman year, run track in the spring, then if he still had his heart set on playing on the football team to wait until his second year.

When Birden’s second year rolled around, he literally had to beg Oregon head football coach Rich Brooks to let him walk-on. He was very assertive to prove them wrong that he probably didn’t belong. Once he suited up, Brooks found out that he was not only speedy, but he was a great athlete with great hands.

That assertion led him to playing nine years in the NFL.

While at Oregon he had 45 receptions for 739 yards, one touchdown and a 16.4 yards per catch average.

When Birden received a letter with an invitation to the Combine, he had to ask someone what exactly was the Combine? Obviously his speed stood out to which Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer drafted him on a roster that already had plenty of talent in the receiver room.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After Cleveland, he played for Dallas, Kansas City and Atlanta. His best game was against the Los Angeles Raiders in which Birden went off to the tune of 188-yards and two touchdowns while with the Chiefs.

At the time Birden was the smallest athlete in the NFL in a world where the average player is 6’-2” and 245 pounds. The Chiefs listed his weight at 185 so that opposing defensive backs wouldn’t know just how small he was. On ESPN’s weekly NFL highlight show “Primetime” host Chris Berman would refer to Birden as “the beast of Birden.”

For his career, Birden had 244 receptions on 377 targets, 3,441 yards with 17 touchdowns and a 14.1 yards per catch average. He started 62 games in 93 he played in. With the Chiefs he also had 10 punts and one kickoff return. In all, Birden played nine years in the NFL where he kept a daily journal.

In 2007, J.J. and his wife Raina took over as top executives of Team X 88 International, an independent distribution company that sells nutritional products. Today he is also a motivational speaker.

LINK: J.J. BIRDEN MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER BOOKING

Birden and Raina have raised eight children – three of which are biological and five are his sister’s children which means they are actually his nieces and nephews. They live in Arizona. The couple has been married 32 years after being college sweethearts.

Birden was inducted into the University of Oregon’s Athletic Hall of Fame for his performance on the Ducks’ 1984 Track and Field NCAA Championship team.

His Twitter handle is @jjbirden if you want to follow him. His LinkedIn account is https://www.linkedin.com/in/jjbirden/.

DawgsByNature caught up with J.J. to find out how he missed out on running at the Olympics, who is a better quarterback between Bernie Kosar, Troy Aikman or Joe Montana, and how the NFL game is different today.


DBN: Going way back, you were always a track guy. What events did you run in high school?

Birden: I was a long jumper, triple jumper, high hurdler and ran the intermediate hurdles. My senior year I long jumped 24.9 3/4” which was the Number 2 jump in the nation. In high hurdles I ran a 13.8 and in triple jump I was 49’3” and the intermediates it was like 38 seconds. When I got to college I knew I would be focusing on the high hurdles and the long jump.

DBN: You didn’t have offers to play football being just 5’, 9” and 133 pounds coming out of a Chinese buffet, even though you were the Number 1 wide receiver in the State of Oregon. But Oregon gave you an opportunity to not only play football as a walk-on receiver but also run track. Was that important to be able to do both at the next level?

Birden: Yes it was. It was important because everyone said I couldn’t do it. In my high school years I was balling. But schools saw my size and frame and didn’t even try to recruit me. It was all Division II, III and junior colleges. I saw myself as a D-1 athlete. And I would use track to get on the football field and to prove to people I could do it really without any hopes that I could further, just that I could do it.

DBN: At Oregon you were part of the 1984 NCAA Championship Track and Field team. What do you remember most about that day?

Birden: One of our runners, Joaquin Cruz, he won both events in the NCAA and then ran for Brazil and won the Gold Medal in the 800 and 1500. And I am sitting here, like this guy is one of my teammates. He is on my track team. I didn’t realize how amazing he was until he won the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles. That made me reflect on my team and realized I was part of a very special track team which won the championship. Which by the way, my entire life I have not won a team championship except for that one.

DBN: At this point, was your focus more on trying to get onto the USA Olympic team as a long jumper in Seoul, South Korea?

Birden: 100% that was my focus. Even though in my second year I was a walk-on in football. Could I make the Olympic team, win the national meet – that was the focus not the NFL at all.

DBN: The Browns drafted you in the eighth round. How did you find out you were drafted?

Birden: I was in my apartment and back then the draft was just two days. I had gone to the Combine and some scouts had worked me out, but I was never concerned that I would really play in the NFL. I didn’t really believe I could play at that level. On the second day of the draft my agent said that I would get a call and I’m like ‘No, they’re not.’ And about two hours into the draft he calls me and says ‘Eighth round, Cleveland Browns.’ And he said he had to get off the phone so that they could call me. And then the next person on the phone was head coach Marty Schottenheimer. And my first response was ‘Who is this?’ I did not know who Marty was. One of their scouts had recommended me and had worked me out. But when Marty called me and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. You guys are serious.’ Looking back it was an exciting moment but it wasn’t like ‘okay, now I am going to play in the NFL.’ Because my focus was getting ready for Olympic trials.

DBN: During your third day of mini-camp practice you tore ligaments in your right knee on an underthrown ball and was subsequently out for your entire rookie year after having surgery for an ACL. What is the difference from being hurt and being injured?

Birden: I was on IR for my first camp. When you are hurt, you just have some sort of discomfort that you have to mentally work out and play through the pain. When you are injured, you are done. You’re out and have some sort of major injury. Tearing my ACL was the first injury blow to me as an athlete - ever.

DBN: What kind of money did an eighth round pick make back then?

Birden: I had a $16,000 signing bonus and my base salary was $60,000. For me that was huge because I was raised by a single parent, in the hood, so we didn’t have much growing up. So, you know exactly what I bought first was a car. I got a black 1988 Ford Bronco II.

DBN: In 1987 the Browns had gone 10-6 under Marty Schottenheimer, won the AFC Central Division, won a playoff game then was beaten in the AFC Championship Game. Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter were the starting receivers. How did they react to you, a speedster, coming into camp?

Birden: They were great. And I would even throw in Brian Brennan, Clarence Weathers and Gerald McNeil. They were all so willing to help. They weren’t dreading it at all and were mentors. I learned so much from them. Whenever I had questions they were always willing to take the time to help. And later when I became the veteran wide receiver I always remembered how those guys were and was able to forward my information, too. Today, I don’t understand why a player would do that to a new drafted player. You are still a team. And those veterans are supposed to be leaders. And when you make statements like their job is not to help the younger players, then other teammates start to question your leadership and commitment. My job is to make sure they don’t get my job, and if I am doing my job that won’t happen.

DBN: What was Bernie Kosar like?

Birden: Bernie and I didn’t have much dialogue because I was four deep on the depth chart and didn’t get many reps. I was low guy on the totem pole in Cleveland. He was a nice guy and quiet at least towards me. The challenge was I was not able to get very many reps with him as a first team player. But it was really cool to watch him every day. You could see he had the skills and the ability to be a great quarterback.

DBN: What places did you go to eat or hang out while with the Browns?

Birden: There was an area called “The Flats.” I remember it was a historical district that had bars and restaurants. I spent a lot of time there if I went out. But I was a home body and didn’t really know anyone in Cleveland other than my teammates. And that time I was trying to figure out if I could play in the NFL, or if I wanted to play in the NFL.

DBN: Your second year of 1989 you were able to compete at training camp with new head coach Bud Carson. What memories do you have?

Birden: I remember the first time I did 1-on-1’s in full pads. I went up against Hanford Dixon who was a great player. But I had watched him for a while. I was like I can run a 4.3, he is a little older, and I can run right by him. I never forget what happened. As soon as the ball was snapped, Hanford locked me up, grabbed my shoulder pads and then he threw me on the ground. He said, ‘Rookie, this is the NFL. You better be better than that.’ That was one of those gut-check moments that I realized I had to learn to play at that level. I became more of a student of the game and started studying the veteran wide receivers. Because it is a physical game and don’t want to be controlled. From there, I learned to use my speed and quickness so that they can’t even touch me.

DBN: How did you come about leaving Cleveland?

Birden: I was in Browns training camp that second year, and I was about 80% healthy. My knee was not 100% but I was able to practice. I had a pretty good preseason and had the most catches of any wide receiver. I thought the Browns were going to keep me. I knew they wanted two more receivers to compliment the guys they had and I was battling against a veteran Ray, Ray somebody, and a kid they had just drafted in a late round Vernon Joines, and me. The very last preseason game they had all three of us play on special teams. Well, I had never played on special teams ever. And so here I was on kickoff coverage. Imagine 157 pounds and I am trying to be the wedge buster. It was horrible. And that was one of the reasons I got cut because they realized I wasn’t going to do that.

DBN: And then there were some odd situations. You were almost signed by the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs in a span of about five days. What is the story behind all that?

Birden: I got a call from the Chiefs where Marty was now the head coach. I fly out and had a great workout and Marty wants to put me on the practice squad. And then suddenly Detroit calls but wants me on their active roster which means more playing time and a bigger contract. So Marty told me they weren’t going to activate me and knew I wanted to play so he said go to Detroit, but if they want me for their practice squad I should come back to Kansas City instead. I told him he had a deal. I fly out to Detroit and as soon as I get there they gave me a physical. I had swelling in my knee from the workout with the Chiefs. So Detroit flunks me on the physical. Meanwhile, the Packers are on the phone with my agent. The next day I fly to Green Bay and by the time I arrived they had heard the Lions flunked me. They did not even examine me and flunked me on the physical as well. I am thinking I still got Marty and the Chiefs and by this time they had heard that I had flunked two physicals. I told them the reason for the swelling was because of the great workout I had with you guys. They flunked me on the physical, too. So I was basically rejected by four NFL teams in a span of five days. That was a moment in my life where I am at a crossroads to where you ask yourself if it is time to quit, or go on. I made a decision that I was going to work my tail off so that the knee wasn’t going to be an issue anymore. Two weeks later the Chiefs called again, and the Cowboys called. I decided that KC had let me down, so I went to Dallas. I was on their practice squad all year and made $3,000 a week. That was Troy Aikman’s rookie year and only won one game. And when the season was over with, (head coach) Jimmy (Johnson) told me he didn’t think the NFL was for me and I should go do something else. I leave and they win three Super Bowls. But that year on the practice squad my knee got stronger and I got faster.

CHARGERS V CHIEFS

DBN: From there, you played in Kansas City for five seasons. The Chiefs were coached by Schottenheimer. Did this feel like a storyline that needed an ending since you were really the only speed guy there?

Birden: Soon as the season was over, several teams called me including Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans and KC. The Chiefs had nobody running under 4.5 and Marty already knew me and that is why I chose them. This was my third year which is the pivotal year. If you don’t make it by your third year you get labeled. Picking the right situation for me was the reason I ended up with the Chiefs and wanted to retire there. At the end of the day I felt Marty really believed in me. I felt that way when he was coach of the Browns as well. He is a genuine guy. I had an amazing off-season and an amazing camp. And then they cut me. They had drafted some receivers even though I was out-playing them they kept them instead. Marty told me to stick around and don’t go anywhere. He said he had to make some changes but would get me on the team. I cleared waivers, but teams were calling my agent. For two weeks, I was sitting at my apartment in Independence, Missouri. I had just gotten married and had $280 in the bank. In the third week I called Marty and told him other teams were calling and I needed to make some money. He asked me to come to his office, and when I did he brought out his wallet and gave me $200 and asked if that would get me through the weekend. On Monday, they cut receiver Pete Mandley, signed me, I got on the team, I got activated and scored a touchdown in my first game and the rest is history.

DBN: Your first year as a Chief in 1990 you had a 90-yard touchdown catch from Steve DeBerg in Week 11. Take us through that play and catch, and where is that football today?

Birden: It was a home game against the Chargers, and it was the third play of the game after two runs. Joe Pendry the offensive coordinator had put this play in based on a weakness he saw on the Chargers’ defense. DeBerg was to bring me in motion, and have the ball snapped right as I am behind Robb Thomas. Pendry said if we do this right, the defensive backs will get confused and then for me to run as fast as I can. They didn’t know who to cover me and I was gone. It was one of those moments where the ball was in slow-motion and was just get to the end zone. DeBerg hit me in stride and for a speed guy that’s what you want. You don’t want to slow down or break your stride because your advantage is your speed. The guy behind me was close because once I caught it he grabbed a bit of my jersey but couldn’t get a good grip. That ball today is in my office – the 90-yarder.

Editor’s note: play occurs at 1:30

DBN: Your quarterback with the Chiefs from 1993-1994 was Joe Montana. How was he different from Kosar, and can you arrange for him to come over to the DBN offices so that we can toss the football around with him?

Birden: For one thing, before Tom Brady, Montana was the GOAT. He was a stud. When he came to the Chiefs, he was already successful. But when he came into Kansas City, he didn’t even care about any of those accolades. It was like a fresh start. And he was still trying to be the best. And what I loved about him was his leadership. He came in and studied like a rookie, he played like a veteran and he led like a pro. And he made us all better because he was the difference-maker. Joe had been in those moments with the game on the line. He repeatedly led his team to victory. And that was the difference with him in the huddle, you knew that guy was going to do his job. You just better do your job. That lifted up the confidence and belief in our team.

DBN: That Chiefs team went 11-5 and played in the AFC Championship Game but lost to the Buffalo Bills. As a player, did you feel that your one opportunity to get to the Super Bowl had come and gone?

Birden: As a player, you always think you are going to get back the next year. At the beginning of training camp every year, every team sets the same goal – the Super Bowl. I played nine years and was in the playoffs seven times, I just thought I would get to the Super Bowl one time. Now, in retrospect - yeh. That was the closest I ever got. And that year I really thought we would go because we came back on Pittsburgh, we came back on Houston who were two hard teams. So when we went into Buffalo we just knew we were going to win. And when Montana got knocked out in the third quarter, it just took a lot of wind out of all of us. Buffalo got rocking-and-rolling and it was over.

DBN: Both Kosar and Montana were successful. Was this based on talent alone or their overall game preparedness?

Birden: I would say overall game preparation. That is I what I noticed about Bernie. He was like a coordinator in the huddle because he was a student of the game. You know who the guys are that are well-prepared who know their stuff and are ready for anything. Kosar was like that. Joe was definitely like that. And because of their preparation, it made me better as a receiver because I had to know what they were seeing.

J.J. Birden

DBN: You played in Atlanta and retired after the 1996 season. You coached high school for a year and then worked for a few businesses. Eventually you became a distributor for Isagenix health and wellness products. What got you into this line of work?

Birden: Like a lot of players, you love the game but at some point you are broke down and beat up. And you need to make a drastic career change. We didn’t make the kind of money that guys make today. I always wanted to be in a business where I could help people. After coaching I moved into the medical business and fitness equipment because it improved people’s health. I got into Isagenix which helps people achieve their wellness goals. I liked the fact that I had more control with the freedom to do that. I have been in the industry 15 years.

DBN: How do Browns fans find Isagenix and what can they expect from these products?

Birden: I have a website jjbirdenhealth.com. And if somebody is trying to lose weight or try to improve their energy, trying to improve their natural beauty or any other targeted solutions they are looking for, we have some interesting products that will help achieve those goals. I can coach them in the right direction.

DBN: You are also a motivational speaker and travel extensively with this job. Is this just for colleges, or is this a situation that the corporate world books your services as well?

Birden: I initially started doing high schools and colleges. But I have evolved now as a corporate motivational speaker. I love the business world because my methods and content resonates really well with them. They want to perform at a high-level. Well, to make it to the NFL that is what we did. We were the best of the best. So I have some really nice keynotes and principals that help them understand what I did to overcome certain things to rise above and how it relates to the business world. I just finished doing the Hershey national sales convention which was an awesome event.

DBN: You are also the author of one of Amazon’s best selling books “When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage!” What is the premise of this book?

Birden: To help the reader understand a couple things. We all have opportunities in life meaning we have goals, we have dreams, we have certain things we want to achieve. And often people don’t know how to achieve them. My book is really the blueprint of what you have to do to achieve that opportunity. I am speaking from the perspective of someone who has been there-done that. You have to create opportunities where it appears none exist. There is a lot of people who want success and achieve their goals, but you have to want to do what it takes to achieve them. That is my story for most of my life – proving people wrong, overcoming difficult circumstances and rising as the underdog.

DBN: Your generation in the NFL set up today’s players to get big paydays with free agency, Plan B, work stoppages and before guaranteed money. Do you think every player today should send you a thank you check?

Birden: I see what guys are getting paid that have similar stats that I had. I always try to remind myself that as much as I would have liked to earn what they get paid today, it is all relative. The guys before me weren’t making nothing compared to what we made. It is just a product of the system and the way it is. The thing that I wish is players today would listen to the players of our generation and do a better job at the collective bargaining agreement. And do better at preparing for retirement. Because you are going to be a former player a lot longer than you will be an active player. Our generation is still fighting for benefits that we should already have.

1995 Fleer football card #14

DBN: Besides money, what are some things the NFL is different today from when you played?

Birden: The rules. Back when I played, I was getting knocked around every game. Ronnie Lott, Steve Atwater, and all these safeties where they could just go off on you. You can’t do that anymore. Even as a receiver on defensive backs, the amount of contact they can have on you. Those rule changes have drastically changed the game today on quarterbacks as well. I do think the game today is a little safer. When I played and got a concussion, you went to the sidelines, got some smelling salts, went back out there and you played. Rub some dirt on it.

DBN: What is your fondest memory of being a Cleveland Brown?

Birden: Going to the home games. I would always go by the Dawg Pound and they were just nuts. They were awesome. It would be raining or snowing and they would be so pumped up. My only regret is that I only experienced that during preseason games and not during the regular season. I will never forget this: when I became a Kansas City Chief we played in Cleveland and I went to the Dawg Pound and it wasn’t the same. I was now the enemy so they were booing me and wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. I was in pre-game warmups going through punt returns down there. A snowball hit me in the head while a ball was in flight, then the ball hit me in the helmet and I remember the entire Dawg Pound just laughing. Even though I was a former Brown, they weren’t cheering for me.