Rutigliano's Inner Circle Could Serve As Model To Help Troubled Rookie
By Steven King
Armonty Bryant has two strikes against him, but he has not struck out yet with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns say they considered parting ways with Bryant – a pass-rushing defensive end/outside linebacker from East Central Oklahoma – when he was arrested on a drunk-driving charge near campus less than a week after they took him with the first of their two seventh-round choices last month in the NFL Draft.
Last October, Bryant was arrested for marijuana possession, meaning the Browns drafted him knowing full well he already had one strike against him. But the Browns ultimately decided to keep Bryant, let him participate in last weekend’s rookie minicamp and go forward with him – with their fingers crossed.
“It’s a serious matter,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said after Friday’s first day of camp. “I had the chance to sit down with him and talk about my expectations, make those expectations clear with him. Ultimately, Armonty needs to show that he is going to be accountable, and I expect that out of him.”
What Bryant said last Friday is almost identical to what he said to the same Cleveland media on the day he was drafted April 27: “Good people make mistakes is something that I’ve always been told by my head coach. I feel like it was just a stupid move on my part. I should have been more mature about the situation and be more focused on football, which is something I really want to do with my life. Now that I’ve gotten that second chance, I feel like I won’t let anyone down. I won’t let myself, the people around me or the Cleveland Browns down. I appreciate them for taking this chance on me.”
But Bryant did let the Browns down and it didn’t take long for him to do it. This time, he had better be careful – and truthful – because if he messes up again, there almost certainly won’t be a third chance. He will have struck out and, as least as far as the Browns are concerned, he’ll be on the outside of the NFL looking in.
If Sam Rutigliano were still the coach of the Browns, however, things would be different. Bryant would remain with the club, but only in a technical sense. He wouldn’t see the field this season.
“He wouldn’t play at all,” Rutigliano said recently. “He needs to get professional help.”
Why is what Rutigliano says relevant? Because three decades ago when he was in the midst of his 7½-year coaching career in Cleveland from 1978-84, he was well ahead of the curve – a pioneer, really – when he helped instituted the Inner Circle – a program established to deal with members of the club who were battling drug addiction. The move came at a time when the rest of the NFL teams were looking the other way in regards to the problem.
The identities of those Browns in the program have never been fully disclosed publicly, but it has long been believed that some very high-profile players with the team known as the “Kardiac Kids”, were involved. FB Johnny “The B-1 Bomber” Davis admitted himself as one member years ago, tearfully saying, “Without Coach Sam and the Inner Circle, I’d be dead by now. That saved my life.” Also revealing his involvement was Charles White, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back who was team’s first-round draft choice in 1980.
Because of that experience, Rutigliano is very firm in his beliefs in how teams should handle players battling substance abuse and, as such, what the Browns should do in regards to Bryant.
“Bryant needs to be protected from himself,” said Rutigliano, now 81 and living in the same Waite Hill home in the eastern Cleveland suburbs that he did while coaching the Browns, located only a mile from the former residence of then Browns owner Art Modell. “Football is not important right now. Getting his life in order is what’s important. Letting him play football is doing him a disservice. It really is. It’s not helping him at all, and it’s not helping the team.
“He’s obviously got a problem, and he needs to go somewhere and get help from experts in the field and get his life in order. You then bring him back next year and see if things have improved. If they have, then you consider reinstating him. But if not, then he has to stay away – for his own benefit and for the benefit of everybody else on the team. You can’t have that influence in the locker room. You just can’t. That stuff spreads like cancer.”
Rutigliano went on, “Bryant is a seventh-round draft choice, so he’s not going to make the team anyway this year. Who’s he going to beat out? By sending him to get help, which he really needs, it’s not as if you’re losing a star player. But, as I said, whether he’s a star or not isn’t important. What is important is that you’re trying to save a life and the way to do that is to protect the guy from himself.”
Chudzinski was a big fan of Rutigliano’s “Kardiac Kids” while growing up in Toledo, Ohio. When Chudzinski got the job in January, Rutigliano wrote him a note of congratulations. The two have communicated back and forth since then – directly and indirectly -- and plan to have lunch together at some point before training camp starts.
Maybe when that happens, Rutigliano will tell Chudzinski about the Inner Circle and what he thinks the Browns should do with Bryant, who is not unlike some of those members of the “Kardiac Kids”.