Byner clings to golden moment Super Bowl lessens pain of fumble

January 17, 1992|By Vito Stellino

After Steve Sewell fumbled away the Denver Broncos comeback shot in the final 90 seconds of the AFC title game

against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, he sat on the bench with his head in his hands and then said after the game, "This will probably bother me for the rest of my life."

After Sewell got home and saw the play on television for the first time, he didn't feel any better.

"I just think about it over and over again. I don't know when this is going to stop," he said.

Earnest Byner, a veteran running back with the Washington Redskins, can feel empathy for Sewell. The same thing happened to him four years ago today when he was playing for the Cleveland Browns in the AFC title game against the Broncos.

His fumble on the Denver 3 with 67 seconds left cost the Browns a shot at the tying touchdown and a shot at playing the Redskins in the Super Bowl.

After he was traded to Washington three years ago, he said of the fumble, "It will never go away."

Byner, though, went a long way toward putting it behind him Sunday, when the Redskins made Super Bowl XXVI against the Bills with their rout of the Detroit Lions in the NFC title game.

For some of the Redskins veterans, the trip will be their fourth. For Byner, it will be his first. He may appreciate it more than they do.

"I realized I might not get another chance," he said.

Byner didn't join in the celebrating in the locker room after the game Sunday. He left quickly to go out to dinner with his wife, Tina. During the game, he looked at her in the stands and they pumped their fists at each other.

"She's been there for me since the eighth grade. She knows me better probably than I know myself, to tell you the truth," he said.

Last week, even coach Joe Gibbs said that Byner's "bitter experiences" in the past were one of the many poignant stories on the Redskins' side going into the game.

The Browns lost back-to-back AFC title games to the Broncos in January 1987 and January 1988. The first one featured Drive I -- John Elway's 98-yard touchdown drive -- though Byner missed the second half of that season with an ankle injury and didn't carry the ball in the loss to the Broncos.

Last week, Byner declined requests for interviews. But he's talked this week, now that he's reached the Super Bowl.

"The way we lost those games was heart-breaking," he said. "But it's just something you've got to build character on. One thing I had to do was a lot of soul-searching on my past for a long time."

Byner, who once said that fans brought up the fumble even when he was on a vacation in Europe two years ago, likes to put it in the past now. He insists his past misfortunes didn't make the Super Bowl any sweeter. Just getting there was enough.

"Being in Cleveland had nothing to do with it. I'm a Redskin. It's special because we played darn good ball and we worked real hard to get to the level of being accepted as one of the best in the league. It's really a nice feeling just for those reasons. Before the game, I was nervous, but in the last few minutes, I was just so overjoyed," he said.

Asked whether he feels empathy for Sewell, he said: "You don't want anybody to mess up. You always want to see guys do the best they can. That's my thing."

He says the trade to Washington, not the fumble, was the low point in his career.

"I went from being an untouchable to somebody they wanted to get rid of," he said.

The fumble was a big reason for the trade. In Cleveland, he never lived it down. In Washington, he got a clean slate.

When the Redskins got Byner three years ago, he was an H-back. When Gerald Riggs was slowed by injuries, Byner jTC became the starting running back and has put together two 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl years back-to-back.

But since he's 29, the Redskins are grooming rookie Ricky Ervins to eventually take his place.

Against the Lions, Byner rushed 17 times for 62 yards and Ervins had 53 yards in 12 carries. They're virtually sharing time.

Byner has helped the youngster, especially with figuring out blocking schemes.

"He needed some tips on things and I helped him out, more as a friend than anything else," Byner said.

"He's a heck of a football player and that has no bearing on Earnest Byner. If you don't have confidence in yourself, you don't do that type of thing," he said.

Asked if that was an example of how much self-confidence he has, Byner replied: "I didn't say that. Take what I said and keep it."

Ervins calls Byner a "mentor" and says he's always helping him out on the sidelines.

"We've got to win as a team," Byner said. "He can help out in ways I can't, and I can help out in ways he can't so it all works together."

Now he just has one goal left.

"It won't be right if we don't get that ring," he said.

NOTES: The Redskins will practice the next 2 days, take Sunday off and then have a final practice at Redskin Park on Monday before flying to Minneapolis. . . . It'll be their last practice at the current Redskin Park because a new, larger one is being built a few miles away.

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