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Unfortunate Circumstances Paved Ernie Green And Felix Wright's Road To Stardom

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Cleveland can only wonder what could have been if Jim Brown (pictured here) shared the backfield with fellow Syracuse alum Ernie Davis. Photo by Harry How/Allsport.
Cleveland can only wonder what could have been if Jim Brown (pictured here) shared the backfield with fellow Syracuse alum Ernie Davis. Photo by Harry How/Allsport.

Two of the saddest moments in Cleveland Browns’ history involved the death of two players – one a star in the making and the other a potential star that never got the chance to shine.

Don Rogers, a young free safety on a team filled with promising young players, died June 27, 1986 – at a bachelor party the night before his wedding – of a heart attack caused by a cocaine overdose. He was a ferocious hitter who had been Cleveland’s first-round pick – No. 18 overall – in the 1984 NFL Draft. Receivers journeyed over the middle with an eye on the ball and another on Rogers, knowing he was likely about to punish them.

There are some longtime observers of the Browns who maintain that “The Drive” – John Elway’s 98-yard touchdown march that did much to put a dagger into Cleveland’s Super Bowl hopes and help the Denver Broncos win the 1986 AFC Championship Game – would have never happened had Rogers lived.

We’ll never know if that would have been the case.

Then there was Ernie Davis, who died May 18, 1963, of leukemia before he had ever had a chance to play a down at running back for the Browns. After watching Green Bay throttle his team 49-17 in a 1961 game, coach Paul Brown was impressed by the Packers’ big backfield duo of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung and set out to build the same thing in Cleveland. Wanting a bigger back to pair with Jim Brown, Paul Brown traded fast, elusive but smallish Bobby Mitchell to Washington the next offseason for the rights to Davis, who the Redskins had drafted No. 1 overall in 1962. He thought Davis – a big runner who had broken all of Jim Brown’s records at Syracuse en route to becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy – would be a great fit.

We’ll never know if Paul Brown’s idea would have worked either.

But while the deaths to Davis and Rogers were obviously major jolts to the Browns in a variety of ways, they did pave the way for two other players to step up. While it would be foolish to suggest that RB Ernie Green and S Felix Wright had better career than the ones Davis and Rogers could have enjoyed, they turned into stars in their own right nonetheless.

Green was acquired by Cleveland in an interesting way. Having traded away Mitchell and with Davis unavailable with what was then a still-unknown illness, Paul Brown went into the 1962 season without a viable running mate for Jim Brown. So the coach called his good friend, Packers coach Vince Lombardi, during training camp and asked him if he had ideas. After all, it was Lombardi’s team that had caused the problem in the first place.

Lombardi told Brown that he had a rookie named Green – a 14th-round draft pick from Louisville who would probably be able to help the Browns. Green wasn’t going to make the Packers because of the presence of Hornung and Taylor. So a trade was consummated.

Green didn’t play much that first year but quickly became one of the NFL’s best backs, becoming the perfect complement as both a runner and receiver to first Jim Brown and later Pro Football Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly. On a franchise with four Hall of Fame backs overall, Green is seventh with 3,204 career rushing yards. He also caught 195 passes for 20 touchdowns, which is five more than he had rushing.

As for Wright, he served as a backup for two seasons upon his signing with Cleveland in 1985 after playing his first three pro seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. With Rogers no longer around and Al Gross sidelined with injuries, Wright got a chance in 1987 and immediately made the most of it. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions that year before pacing Cleveland with five in 1988.

Wright had his best season in 1989 with an NFL-leading nine interceptions. He has 26 for his career, tying him with former teammate Hanford Dixon and Tommy James for eighth place in Browns history. With Wright in center field, Cleveland became much better at safety and was a contender to get to the Super Bowl.

But how would the safety position have looked with Wright’s ability as a ball hawk and Rogers’ hitting prowess paired together? Again, we’ll never know. However, it’s interesting – and painful – to think about it.