A 34 for my 34th
It’s funny how aging, or the perception of aging, works in sports.
A quick example.
In 1990, when the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series, they had a reserve second baseman on the roster named Ron Oester.
Oester was, for much of the 1980s, a solid second baseman on some good Reds teams. The Cincinnati native battled back from injuries to hit .295 in 1985.
But by 1990, Oester was reaching the end of his career. He was replaced as the regular second baseman by Mariano Duncan. He was surrounded by younger players just reaching their respective primes – Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill and Jose Rijo, among others – and at the time, represented to me the old man of the team, the grizzled veteran and clubhouse leader working for that elusive ring.
Recently I looked it up.
In 1990, Oester was three days younger than I am right now.
My 34th birthday was this week, and while it didn’t send me into a panic, yearning for youth, it was a bit of a jolt.
So to make myself feel better, I tried to think of something positive to do with the No. 34.
And then it was easy. Thirty-four was the number of my favorite Browns player growing up, running back Kevin Mack.
When I told my parents I was entering the “Kevin Mack jersey year,” they bought me a jersey autographed by Mack as a present.
I’m framing it. It’s going up right next to my Bob Dylan poster (another of my childhood idols).
How Mack came to be my favorite Brown was different.
In the 1980s, my favorite players were guys who had something in common with me.
That is, blond hair.
The Indians’ Pat Tabler and Cory Snyder had blond hair. The Cavaliers’ Craig Ehlo was blond. Hulk Hogan was blond (Hey, I was 6, I thought he was an athlete at the time).
Kevin Mack wasn’t.
He was a bruising, physical fullback who would rather hit you than run around you. In a 1992 game with the Steelers, he took a handoff and hit a defender head on.
The defender fell, then left the field.
Mack ran for more than 1,000 yards in a season just once. That was in 1985, when he and Ernest Byner became the third pair teammates in the NFL to run for 1,000 yards in the same year. As Bernie Kosar came to prominence as an elite quarterback the next year, Byner and Mack weren’t needed to carry the ball as much. But they were still effective.
To me, Mack’s hard running personified what the Browns were, and the city they represented. The Browns of that time were tough guys, and Mack came across – on the field – as the toughest.
When I was 8, my parents got us a dog, He was a chocolate lab, and his coat was the color of a Browns’ jersey.
We named him Mack.
Of course, while Kevin Mack was a force on the field, he had issues off it. He missed much of the 1989 season after being caught with cocaine, and was sentenced to six months in prison (he served a month).
When I read about it, I was crushed.
Mack returned, putting on a ridiculous performance in the 1989 season finale against the Oilers with the AFC Central title on the line.
Mack ran for 62 yards, but that doesn’t tell the story. On the final drive, Mack kept getting the ball.
The Oilers knew he was getting it.
The Browns knew the Oilers knew he was getting it.
And it didn’t matter.
With Cleveland trailing 20-17 and less than a minute left, Mack powered his way into the end zone for the title-clinching score.
I remember the radio call. The late-Nev Chandler said something like “Mack is at the 2 the 1 and …”
“HE GOT IN!” screamed color commentator and former Brown Doug Dieken.
It was a wonderful performance. But what is even better is that Mack hasn’t had any public issues with drugs since.
He was in Fostoria for a Browns Backers thing a few weeks ago.
It was a busy day at work, but, man, I wish I could have gone.
Just thinking about Mack’s career, and the fact that his number will forever hang on my wall, makes me smile.
And suddenly, it’s not so bad to be 34.
Zach Baker is the sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune
Contact him at:
zbaker@ or on Twitter @Zachthewriter