CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 22 -- Earnest Byner said it would be impossible for the average person to understand his pain. Certainly the U.S. serviceman who approached him last winter in Germany, of all places, didn't understand.
"He came up and made a joke about my fumbling," Byner said. "Imagine that, thousands of miles away from home and someone mentions it. He just didn't understand how personal that was. It struck me the wrong way, and I told him we could step outside right there."
A year earlier, a man recognizing Byner's truck at a red light outside of Cleveland rolled down his car window and screamed, "Fumble!" People approached him in malls, on street corners and in restaurants.
He has a friendly, open face and a soft voice, and having listened to him on television and radio for so long, a lot of people thought of him as a friendly, approachable neighbor.
"Earnest," they asked, "why couldn't you hold on to the ball?"
Byner smiles at the thought. A steady rain is falling and he's standing beside his black pickup with Ohio license plates. He's a resident of Northern Virginia now, but there's still a lot of Cleveland in his heart, a point that has been driven home this week as the Washington Redskins prepared for Saturday night's preseason game in Cleveland.
Byner called Cleveland home for six years. He twice led the Browns in rushing, twice led them in receiving. He scored 36 touchdowns.
It was a special time to be a Brown, to play on a team that had finally recaptured its past glories. Byner loved watching opposing players run near the Dawg Pound, where fans pelted them with milk bones and other objects. He loved that old 80,000-seat stadium and the history there. He knew that Jim Brown had run there, Otto Graham and Frank Ryan had completed passes there and Paul Brown had stood on the sideline.
For five seasons, he was one of the key players on one of the AFC's best teams, a team that always seemed about one play away from getting to the Super Bowl.
But what a lot of Browns remember these days is not all his wonderful plays, but one that wasn't so wonderful. The Fumble. There were 67 seconds left in the AFC championship game in Denver on Jan. 17, 1988, and the Browns were three yards from forcing overtime when Bronco Jeremiah Castille stripped the ball from Byner's hands.
The Broncos recovered. Byner had made an inexcusable mistake and the Browns, who had rallied with 30 second-half points, were beaten.
It would have been painful for any team, but in Cleveland, where the Browns are almost a religion, and Byner something akin to a rock star, it was devastating. Byner stood up and explained what happened that day, and has pretty much lived with it every day since.
"They hadn't been winning and when we got it going, it was just awesome," he said. "You could just feel the electricity. I don't know what Washington was like when the Redskins went to the Super Bowl, but Cleveland was amazing. I don't know if I'll ever feel something like that again. Maybe if the Redskins go to the Super Bowl, I will."
Byner said he has only recently understood how much that play affected him, how it still bothers him today. He said he has only recently begun to understand how much he needed that draft day trade that sent him to the Redskins after the 1988 season and will send him through the opposing locker room for the first time Saturday night.
"That play haunted me then and it haunts me now," Byner said. "It will never go away. If anyone told you the same thing had happened to them and that they wouldn't be thinking about it, they'd be lying. I think about it a lot. I'll think about it the rest of my life.
"Some people have said, 'Well, it happens.' They say it like someday I'll forget. How could you forget? The worst thing I could do is try to bury it. I have to live with it."
Byner said he has dealt with that moment a number of ways, but until recently he had not talked much about it.
"I held it inside me," he said. "I think until I came to the Redskins I really didn't know how much it affected me. I don't think my wife or anyone around me knew."
Byner said he began keeping a journal and in it described some of the pain he still felt.
"I held it inside me and didn't even know I was doing it," he said. "I guess something like that, you either handle it or it makes you crumble. The thing is, so many people felt the need to remind me. They just didn't realize what a personal thing it was. I take my job personally. What happened that day can never be wiped out. It'll always be there because of the magnitude of the game. It's something I'm able to live with because I have to live with it."
He has saved a tape of it, in fact, and said someday, when his playing days are over, he may take it to schools and show it to troubled kids.
"I'll show them what I went through," he said. "I'll tell them that if I can deal with this, they can deal with their problems."
Byner said he hated leaving Cleveland. "I felt the same way I did when I went away to college the first time," he said. "But now I realize it was the right thing for me. It was time for a change."
The Browns say the fumble had nothing to do with the trade. In fact, General Manager Ernie Accorsi said he's constantly forced to remind people: that the Browns were going for a tie, not the lead; that they've still never proven they can stop the Broncos when they have to; Byner had a splendid day, rolling up 160 yards total offense; and that he was traded (for Mike Oliphant) to make room for flashy rookie Eric Metcalf.
"What we went through was awful," Accorsi said. "He became a little like Ralph Branca. It may be what he's remembered for and he just has to live with it. But people tend to forget all the good things he did for us. People also forget we put Earnest's picture on the media guide in 1988."
Spin ahead to the summer of 1990, and Byner, still only 27, appears to have more than adjusted to his new team. He rushed for 580 yards while splitting time with Gerald Riggs last season and also caught 54 passes.
The competition between Byner and Riggs was expected to be among the fiercest of this camp and it still may be. Riggs fits the classic mold of what Coach Joe Gibbs has wanted in a John Riggins-type running back, but Byner is a better receiver and probably a bit quicker.
"The key here is everybody has a role and they know that role," Byner said. "I don't know what it'll be, but when we play the Cardinals that first game, it will have been made clear to us. That's important to a player."
Having sold his home in Cleveland, having not kept in touch with many of his former teammates, Byner said he doesn't expect Saturday night to be emotional, only another day at the office.
"A lot of the guys I played with are still there, but quite a few are gone," Byner said. "I just look at it like this was the right time for me to change teams. We could all change teams one time and it'd probably be good for us. This was my turn and it turned out to be the best thing for me."