My "Do You Remember...?" series has pretty much covered the gamut of Cleveland major league sports thus far. We have had an Indians article, as well as one on the Cavaliers and another about the NHL Cleveland Barons. It is high time that we turn to the Browns, and no better place to turn when discussing long-ago Browns than to focus on one of the heroes of the last championship won in Cleveland: Gary Collins. And no, not the actor. We will have a look at the Browns second all-time leading receiver, who had the game of his life on Dec. 27, 1964.
Gary Collins came to the Browns from the University of Maryland in the 1962 NFL draft. He had also been drafted by the Boston Patriots of the AFL, but fortunately for the Browns, Collins chose to play in the NFL.
In his rookie season, Collins grabbed only 11 receptions, two for touchdowns, but his value was not only as a receiver. He also handled punting duties, as he would throughout most of his career, booting 45 punts in his first season.
In his second year, Collins blossomed, finishing with 13 TD's, leading the league, to go with 43 receptions as the Browns opened the season 6-0 before fading to a 10-4 finish which missed winning the Eastern Division championship by only one game.
The stage was set for the last title-winning season in major Cleveland sports.
Gary Collins' receptions slipped in 1964 to 35 catches, albeit for 544 yards. His touchdown receptions also slipped to eight.
But two days after Christmas, his diminished numbers became a moot point.
The Baltimore Colts came to Cleveland after finishing the season at 12-2. The Browns had won their division with a 10-3-1 record, but in those days the championship game alternated between divisions and was not based on record, which is why Baltimore was the road team despite a better record.
The heavily-favored Colts were held scoreless in the first half, but the Browns also had a goose-egg on the scoreboard at the Stadium. (I remember sitting in a sea of people behind what was the Indians' first-base dugout, colder than hell and a little dazed by all the noise as I took in my first Browns game. The atmosphere was electric, but also a little ominous, as the crowd waited for Johnny Unitas to get untracked for Don Shula's team in the second half. I remember that most of all, that feeling of impending doom. It made what happened next even sweeter, even for a 10-year-old boy.)
Lou Groza gave the Browns the lead, 3-0, with a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter, then lightning struck. Browns quarterback Frank Ryan hit Collins with an 18-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly it was a two-possession game. Then Ryan connected with Collins again, this time for 42 yards, and, incredibly, the underdog Browns led 17-0 as the third quarter ended.
In the fourth, Groza connected again and the lead had blossomed to 20, as the Stadium descended into delirium. And then, Frank Ryan hit Gary Collins over the middle and he outraced the Colts' secondary for a 51-yard score, and the Browns stifled Baltimore for the rest of the game. The Cleveland Browns were the champions of the National Football League for the fourth and, so far, final time. Collins ended with five catches for 130 yards, accounting for well over half of the Browns' receiving yards for the day, and just about half of their receptions. to go with his three touchdowns.
Gary Collins finished his ten-year NFL career -- all with the Browns -- with 331 catches and 70 touchdowns, averaging, for his career, 16 yards a reception. He added 336 punts for a 41-yard average per kick, leading the league in average once. His career ended after the 1971 season, with two Pro Bowl appearances on his resume. There were other championship game appearances, all, sadly, losses, but the Browns always were right there when the season ended, giving hope that "next year we will win it all again."
But it was that one game, my first Browns' game, that cemented my lifelong image of number 86 breaking free as the screams of a city echoed and reverberated through that old cavern on the lakefront.
In years to come there would be a Dog Pound, there would be heartaches, thrills, heroes and some villains. But there will always be, because of that one special day, Gary Collins, my first real Browns hero.