By Jeff Gallatin
Appropriately enough for a book about the 1980 Kardiac Kids, the 672-page volume about that iconic Cleveland Browns squad exceeded the expectations of many people involved in the several-year project, including its originator – the team’s stellar placekicker, Don Cockroft.
“When I started thinking about it several years ago, I really didn’t dream that it would turn out this well or so big,” Cockroft said in a recent interview. “I thought it was going to be done a couple of years ago in 2010, but it just kept growing.”
Cockroft will be at a signing event, with copies of the book for sale, at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Fairview Park tomorrow, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., with longtime teammate and fellow Kardiac Kid Greg Pruitt as a special guest. He also will have another Westshore signing at the Westlake Porter Library from 6 to 8:30 p.m., Sept. 25.
Cockroft, who teamed up with veteran journalist Bob Moon to produce “The 1980 Kardiac Kids – Our Untold Stories,” said when the duo realized during the compilation of stories and biographical data about the team’s players that the sheer volume of the information was going beyond what they planned for, they had to make a decision.
“Bob’s got the experience with writing and putting together information, so he told me to shoot for about 1,000 to 1,500 words for most of the biographies on the players,” Cockroft said. “After I talked to some of the guys and started putting the words down into stories, I quickly realized we were going to go way over the word count on most of them pretty easily. We talked about and eventually decided we didn’t want to be cutting out too much of it because the stories were too good. We still didn’t use everything, but we got a lot more of them in, and it’s a better book for it. That’s a big reason it got to be 672 pages and took a lot longer than expected.”
When asked, Cockroft agreed that having the book exceed expectations is appropriate for a history of the Kardiac Kids, since the team was in the same division with the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as the rugged Houston Oilers, who were Central Division and American Conference runners-up to the hated Steelers for two years running.
“I know a lot of people didn’t expect us to do as well as we did that year,” he said. “I guess that’s understandable with the division we were in, but I do remember the team itself had confidence going into the season.”
One of the team leaders, stalwart middle linebacker Dick “Bam Bam” Ambrose, who has lived in Westlake for many years with his family, said the book exceeded his initial expectations and does a fine job of detailing the squad’s chemistry with each other as teammates.
“I never dreamed it would get that big when Don first started talking about it, but Don does a great job of showing a lot of the details about the team. It gives a lot of the information and shows how close the guys really were and how we worked together as a team.”
Cockroft said that sense of teamwork and the squad’s ability to never quit and frequently come from behind is highly visible in the book.
“One of the great things about that team was that every week somebody different could step forward, and usually did, to make a great play to help us get the win,” he said. “One week it could be one of the Pruitts (Greg or Mike), another week it could be Dave Logan with a big catch, or Clarence Scott with a clutch interception, and it all happened that way that year.”
He said the team was also very aware and appreciative of the high level of support from the fans.
“It was and still is amazing to me and other guys on the team,” he said. “Just go around town then and you’d see signs backing the team in windows of businesses or homes. People always support the Browns, but I remember just how special it was.”
Cockroft said that never-ending love of the Browns in general and the Kardiac Kids especially was a major factor in propelling the book from an idea into reality.
“I always have people ask me about the team and the players, especially about the Kardiac Kids, but I remember one older lady who came up to me in 2007 when I was signing autographs at the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame in Canton. She looked me right in the eye and said “Sonny, why didn’t you kick that field goal against the (Oakland) Raiders in that playoff game against the Raiders?”
The woman was referring to the the Jan. 4, 1981, heartrending 14-12 loss to Raiders in frigid winter weather with wind chills at 37 degrees below zero. After Ambrose and Robert “Stonewall” Jackson stuffed Raider fullback Mark Van Eeghen on a fourth down play to start a typical Kardiac Kids fourth quarter drive, the team drove down the field to the Raiders 13-yard line with just a few seconds left in the game. From there, instead of running the ball or going for the game-winning field goal, head coach Sam Rutigliano called a pass play, the infamous “Red Right 88.” When quarterback Brian Sipe thought primary receiver Dave Logan was covered, he instead threw the ball toward tight end Ozzie Newsome in the end zone, where Raider safety Mike Davis picked the ball off, ending the Browns and their fans’ Super Bowl dreams.
Reminded that even though the winds were howling down in that end of old Municipal Stadium, most Browns fans had absolute faith in his ability to kick a clutch game-winning field goal, Cockroft chuckled and said his response to the woman showed his awareness of the fans’ belief in him and the team while also helping move him forward on the book project.
“I told her ‘Ma’am, you’re about the one millionth person who has asked me that. I think I’ll write a book about it.’ Then, a gentleman who was nearby and heard the conversation, came over and encouraged me to go ahead and write the book. I’d actually been contemplating it for a few years, and that really got me started.”
Cockroft said it helped, that after marrying his wife, Barb, and moving back to Ohio several years ago, he encounters fans on a regular basis and has followed the team.
“I’ve been to some outings and at some different games and events,” he said.
Cockroft praised current Browns kicker Phil Dawson, citing his abilities as a worthy member of the tradition of kicking excellence on the team started by Hall of Famer Lou Groza.
“He’s one of the best around right now,” Cockroft said of Dawson.
After a recent Browns’ game, Dawson returned the praise.
“I feel really privileged to have had the chance to meet both Don Cockroft and Lou Groza,” Dawson said. “I’ve enjoyed talking with Don several times when he’s been at games. And I was lucky enough to get to have a good conversation with Lou Groza before he passed away. Those two are two greats in Browns and NFL history. I think compared to those two, I think I’m just a guy who comes to work every day.”
Dawson, who lived in North Olmsted during the first few years of his Browns career, said he also has had a chance to look at Cockroft’s book.
“Don was gracious enough to give me a copy of the book, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed looking through when I get the chance,” he said.
Ambrose, now a highly rated Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge who overwhelmingly won re-election in 2006 and 2010, said he also enjoys the book, while being reminded of the Kardiac Kids continuing popularity with Browns’ fans.
“Certainly at the time it was going on, we were aware and thankful of how the fans felt about us,” he said. “But, to me now, it’s really kind of amazing how popular that team still is, particularly because we didn’t go that deep into the playoffs. It’s very gratifying they still feel that strongly about us, even though we didn’t get to the Super Bowl.”
Ambrose said he wouldn’t mind having the Kardiac Kids have a competitor for the Browns’ fans long-term affectations – for the right reason.
“I’d be very happy if we had a Super Bowl winning team in town and have it having us take a couple of steps back in terms of being the fans’ favorites,” he said. “But I still appreciate how fans feel about the team, and Don’s book really conveys the affectation for the team.”
Referring to the book itself, Cockroft noted that it covers all the games of the 1980 season as well as the plethora of information about the players. But, in addition, he said the book is about more than just football.
“That’s one thing I can really say about doing this book,” he said. “It showed me that even though I thought we were a really close team, I didn’t know the team that well. When I talked to the different players, I found out so much about them. There are some really great stories with these guys. Henry Bradley was driving a truck and might be the most inspirational of them all. Dick is a great judge and very busy. So many of the guys are successful and active in the community. They care a great deal about what’s going on around them.”
Cockroft said one way he helps further the teams’ tradition of activity is by donating a portion of the book’s sales to different charities. If people tell him where they heard about the book, he will donate funds from that sale to a charity supported by the source of the information about the book.
“It’s one way of giving back and saying thanks for the support of the team,” he said. “And it also helps show that there’s more than just football involved with this this. If there’s something that I hope people get from the book, I certainly hope that they enjoy it, but also that they get some other things like hope, spirituality and just a general sense of good from the book.”
People interested in further information about the book can go to www.thekardiackids.com.