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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Earnest Byner Gives Back to Cleveland Veterans Through Healing Dawg's Organization

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As we reflect back on this past Veteran’s Day weekend, no scripture embodies the sacrifice our veterans have made to preserve our freedoms more than John 15:13.

The Greek translation for love in this instance is the term “agape.”

Agape is the highest form of love and is different from brotherly or romantic love because it is unconditional, sacrificial and volitional (an act of the will); it doesn’t fluctuate when circumstances or people change.

It is this very agape love, a love that starts in the inside, that serves as the foundation of former Cleveland Brown Earnest Byner’s nonprofit organization Healing Dawgs.  Byner wants to bring this message of love to our nation's veterans, who are hurting and often in need of great healing.

Byner shared his heart on why he started Healing Dawg’s, “To me, the healing process is always happening, whether it’s mental, physical or spiritual. We go about teaching love, what we call agape love, which is part of the healing process. That’s the first love, the love of self; the God love that everybody has.”

He reiterated that healing is available to everyone, not just veterans. “Whatever the experience there is always healing available. We heal mind, body and spirit, but we focus on the youth (juveniles), the homeless and veterans.”

Since the founding of the Healing Dawgs, Earnest has noticed that a lot of the issues that veterans are having are similar to those of former NFL Players.

The response has been so great and humbling that the organization has partnered with the VA Medical Center in Cleveland to help deal with issues such as suicide, drug use and concussions and to help raise awareness to the veterans who may be in need.

Reggie Langhorne, Kevin Mack, Felix Wright and Earnest Byner. Photo from

Byner’s message of healing from the inside out resonates because he speaks from personal experience; he had to undergo his own struggle, and personal journey to find healing.

His journey began in Milledgeville, Georgia where he was raised by his beloved grandmother.
Byner credits his grandmother for laying a foundation of humility and personal responsibility.

“It was critical to my development. Granny was my first love. Taking us to church every Sunday gave us a really solid foundation to live life. Those values that she taught me were the values that I go back to whenever struggle comes and struggle will come.”

Football was always there for Byner. He developed a love for the game at an early age, whether it was in front of his grandmother’s house, or through his local sports team. 

Throughout his career, he would go always back to his foundation in Milledgeville. Every off-season he would run the same hills he grew up on, and to run intervals on his old high school track.

After a standout prep career, Byner attended East Carolina where he went on to gain 2,049 yards on 378 carries after which he entered the 1984 draft.

He described those tense moments in the 1984 draft waiting to be called, “I was sitting in a dorm room waiting to see if the phone would ring.  The phone rang late that day. It was the tenth round and I spoke to then Head Coach Sam Rutigliano and Mr. Modell. I could go home and let my wife know the good news.” Byner became a Cleveland Brown.

In training camp, Byner had a little bit of trepidation about making the team. He described his feelings on the last night before final cuts.

“I’ve been balling from the beginning, so I haven’t had an uneasy feeling about being cut, but tonight is a little different. I slept well after I finally fell asleep, while half expecting a knock on the door. I wake up to sunshine and no knock. I pop up and run to the door to peak out. Quiet. It was almost spooky. I call home to tell Granny and then call my wife. I made it!” (Earnest Byner, Everybody Fumbles)

Now that Byner had made the team, it was time to start preparing for the season and the individual games ahead.  In the fall of 1984, it was Byner’s job to help get the starting defense ready.  He enjoyed playing fullback the most, going against guys like Clay Matthews, Eddie Johnson, Chip Banks and Tom Cousineau.

His scout team efforts, however, did not go unnoticed as he caught the eye of defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer who would then become the head coach part way through the 1984 season.

Byner became Schottenheimer’s guy. “I’m convinced that a large part of that decision was made when I played the role of scout team player. If I hadn’t done that job the way it was supposed to, then my role may have been to exit the NFL in short time.” (Earnest Byner, Everybody Fumbles)

Byner took this same ferocious approach that he displayed on the scout team towards changing the culture of the Browns team as a whole. Byner made up part of the group called “Ernie’s group” which according to assistant coach Howard Mudd, “was composed of some tough guys who would thrash around and cause havoc in the game.” 

Prior to the 1985 season, the Cleveland Browns were a divided team; offense vs. defense.  The defense considered the offense soft, so much so that the offense and defense road their own separate bus.

Along came Byner in his second year as he almost single-handedly changed the culture of the team, a feat the coaching staff couldn’t accomplish on their own.

Mudd described this culture shift, “He boldly got onto the defense's bus and declared, ‘There’ll be no more offense vs defense.’ He stood up and the Browns became one. He would openly call out his teammates if they didn’t perform with toughness and perseverance.”

Photo courtesy of

It was also in 1985 that Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack reached the heights of on field success.  The Browns became only the third team in NFL history to have two 1000 yards rushers in a season along with the 1972 Dolphins and the 1976 Steelers.

In these times we live in, however, our failures are often magnified more than our successes. The media and fans will look for a scapegoat or someone that they can blame for a team’s loss.
Cleveland particularly has had a long-suffering fan base, as the media has encapsulated many of their sports failures down to single word moments such as “The Drive” or “The Shot.”

Fair or not, Earnest Byner will be forever linked with Cleveland’s excruciating and tortured history. In the 1987 playoff game against Denver, the Browns had the ball with 1:12 left in the game on the eight-yard line trailing 38-31 when the unthinkable happened.

“The play is designed to get inside, but the tight end has collapsed the end man of the line of scrimmage. The guard bounces, so I bounce. I take a look outside and see 85 running off but decide to get vertical…I’m scoring! They haven’t stopped me all day and not now but…I’m on the ground without the ball. Dead tired and exhausted while knowing I’ve let my guys down.” (Earnest Byner, Everybody Fumbles)

Photo courtesy of

The play became known as “The Fumble” to the national sports media. Earnest took it very hard and described his struggle, “I was the next day’s news all over the country, perhaps the world, and I was the next week’s talk show joke. The travesty was that I let it stay with me based on what others thought instead of how my true friends thought. It took me about three years before I finally forgave myself and moved on.” (Earnest Byner, Everybody Fumbles)

A lot of time has passed from that fateful day and much like the city of Cleveland, Earnest had to go through healing too. Rather than let a moment like this destroy him, Earnest eventually embraced “The Fumble” and turned what others viewed as his greatest failure into an instrument to help others.

“My book is called, ‘Everybody Fumbles,’ and it’s an analogy that everyone makes mistakes, everybody stumbles and has difficulties. There is much more to me than just the fumble.”

Byner played one more season for the Browns before being traded to the Washington Redskins before the 1989 season. In 1993, he went on to win the Super Bowl in Washington that had eluded him in Cleveland.

Photo courtesy of

Byner did not view his Super Bowl win in Washington as some sort of redemption for “The Fumble.” “In my mind the Super Bowl, just like the fumble, was just part of the story of Earnest Byner that could be used in the healing process of other people.  I was thrilled that we won, but I was still thinking about developing. It was part of the story that I now use to teach about successes and failures and how you live and learn through both of them.”

After his stint in Washington, Byner then returned to Cleveland for the 1994-1995 season before ultimately finishing his career in Baltimore. He then went on to coach with multiple NFL teams and picked up another Super Bowl ring with the Ravens as Director of Player Development.

Byner working as RB coach for the Jaguars.  Photo courtesy of

Byner will always have a special place in his heart for Cleveland.  He talked about how much the city of Cleveland has meant to him throughout the years.

“The fan support has been magnificent. The mid 80’s team is a team that really galvanized the Brown’s fans and created an excitement that was electric. It’s something that has tied together the fans and that team in such a way that I don’t know if that will ever be supplanted, unless of course they win a Super Bowl.”

Byner described Cleveland fans as blue collar, hardworking and no nonsense. “The type of fans that are in Cleveland, they have shown the loyalty that has been different than the other places that I have been.”

It’s those endearing qualities that have continued to draw him back to Cleveland to help the city heal. Just like the hills and track in Milledgeville, Georgia, Cleveland is also a big part of Byner’s foundation.

“It’s a generational thing.  If they love you, they love you. The Browns are part of my life foundation, and that foundation has been solid because of the things we’ve been through. When Believeland came about, that was the thing that really solidified in my mind and in a lot of fans minds that relationship that the mid 80’s team had.”

Watching the Cavs win it all provided him with a greater sense of peace and continued healing, “I was really at peace, I felt it coming. I could almost sense it. I was actually at home watching the game by myself. I was happy, but I wasn’t surprised. When you saw the reaction of Lebron, Kyrie, Tristan, and Tyronn Lue running around like a little boy, when I saw that, that really reminded me of winning the championship when I was at Washington, it was just a peace that was prevalent.”

Earnest Byner has experienced much in his life; both the peaks of success and the depths of struggle. One thing that has remained consistent for his entire life is his love for God and love for others. To borrow the words of his assistant Howard Mudd, Byner epitomizes the phrase “say what you do and do what you say.”

Byner embodies the very agape love that serves as the foundation of his Healing Dawgs organization. His relationship with Cleveland serves as a living parable that demonstrates this very love.

After the fumble, some fans sent him hate mail which hurt Byner a great deal. He was humble and forgiving enough, however, to return to Cleveland for a few more years before eventually retiring with the Baltimore Ravens.

In the 2016 ESPN documentary Believeland, Byner sacrificed himself by apologizing for "The Fumble" in order to help the city of Cleveland heal.

It’s also this same agape love that is drawing him back to Cleveland after all these years to serve the city’s veterans, children and homeless; teaching them to love themselves.

As the next chapters in Earnest Byner’s life are written, there will likely still be some people from Cleveland and in the sports media who will always associate him with “The Fumble.”

Those who know him, however, will remember him for his love; and in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Nicholas Jackson

Copyright 2017 Nicholas Jackson - All rights reserved.

Nick is a 1997 graduate of Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio where he received his B.S in Biological Sciences. He went on to receive his Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy at Andrews University in Dayton, Ohio and then his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. He has been published in the Newark Advocate, The Granville Sentinel, and the St. Louis Metro Voice; and professionally in the Journal of Acute Care Physical Therapy. Nick has also been a guest host on 88.9 WLRY and 880AM WRFD

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