Character Often Defined In Defeat Rather Than Victory

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November 5, 2021

If you enjoy healthy competition, as I do, there are a number of outlets to express one’s competitive nature. Sports immediately come to mind. At the end of the day, in most sporting events, someone wins and someone loses. Yet in between winning and losing many valuable lessons can be learned. Case in point: As a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan growing up in Northeast Ohio, one of the most heartbreaking moments in our football team’s 75-year history was “The Fumble.” With 1:12 left to play in the AFC Championship game and the Browns driving for the game-tying touchdown, running back Earnest Byner fumbled near the goal line. It was a devastating loss, denying my beloved Browns a trip to Super Bowl XXII. More than 30 years later, it still hurts, but I’m comforted knowing I’m not alone. If you’re a sports fan, I’m confident each of you have your own memory of a favorite team’s stunning defeat, whether the sport in question is football, baseball or basketball.

Wide receiver Brian Brennan consoles Earnest Byner after “the fumble.”
© MARK DUNCAN 1988 AP

Three decades later, however, what you may find surprising is my most enduring memory of “The Fumble” is not of Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille stripping Byner of the ball at the two-yard line, but what transpired after the fumble. As the All-Pro running back lay numb on the field trying to absorb precisely what happened before gradually rising to his feet, Browns wide receiver Brian Brennan walked over and gently tapped Byner on the helmet, as if to say, “It’s OK Earnest, you left it all on the field.” A few minutes later, television cameras captured wide receiver Webster Slaughter and quarterback Bernie Kosar approaching Byner separately on the sideline, expressing their support, because that’s what good teammates do. NBC color analyst Merlin Olsen, upon viewing the moving images, said, “[There’s] a lot of love on that Cleveland sideline and a lot of pride.”

Despite my disappointment at the Browns missing a golden opportunity to play in the Super Bowl — a goal that continues to elude the team to this day — I remember being impressed by the empathy, compassion and support exhibited by Byner’s teammates.

Fortunately, Byner’s football legacy would not end with “The Fumble.” He would go on to a successful post-Browns career, rushing for more than 8,000 yards and scoring 72 touchdowns and winning a Super Bowl as a member of the Washington Football Team in 1991.

While our individual failures are not played out on a national stage like Earnest Byner’s that cold January day, we all experience setbacks in our personal and professional lives at one time or another. How we respond to those failures says more about who we are as individuals than the victories we achieve. In the Browns case a generation ago, they stepped up and honored both their city and their teammate, even in defeat. I hope you will be able to do the same the next time you experience a business setback, because that’s what good teammates do.

The author is publisher of PCT magazine.