To paraphrase Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, this is the kind of stuff you find in a storybook.
He was talking about quarterback Brian Hoyer, a guy discarded by everybody, who comes back to his hometown, is relegated to third string on the team he grew up rooting for as a kid and then, through injury and happenstance, finds himself the starting quarterback.
No one really thinks he’ll rise to the moment, but he leads the team to victory on the road. People still suspect it was nothing more than a fluke — one of those On Any Given Sunday moments — and wonder how he will respond when he plays at home for the first time.
And then comes that storybook scene near the end of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.
With 11:31 left in the game and the Browns holding onto a slim 10-6 lead over the favored Bengals, Hoyer and his Cleveland offense took over the ball at their own 9-yard line. If the ballyhooed Bengals defensive front can rattle him and bottle up the Browns offense, Cincinnati will get the ball with good field position and plenty of time left to take the lead.
Instead, Hoyer leads the Browns on a 12-play, 91-yard drive that he caps off with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Chris Ogbonnaya for the game-sealing score. As the Browns fullback is gathering in the pass, an emotional Hoyer began sprinting back down the field, pumping his fist in exaltation.
The sold-out crowd was cheering him. His teammates rushed toward him and only later did Hoyer look back and laugh about how the moment could have played out.
“By the time he caught it, I was at the 40,” he said. “It would have been really embarrassing had he not caught it… Capping off a long drive with a touchdown is what you need to win games like this… I was just excited.”
Not only did he know what the moment meant to the game — there was just 4:54 left, the Browns led 17-6 and that would be the final score — but he knew what this meant to this town and especially this team.
The Browns — who just two weeks ago were 0-2, had lost their starting quarterback to injury, their trumpeted running back thanks to an out-of-the-blue trade and were being written off by everyone — would walk out of FirstEngergy Stadium Sunday 2-2 and tied for the lead in the AFC North.
As Hoyer had fist-pumped his way down the field, he was met by some of the Browns’ defensive players, especially linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the player who’s been here the longest and has the most clout.
Jackson is the team leader in every sense of the word and for the first time in a long time he sensed a kindred spirit on the offense. He embraced Hoyer and in the dressing room afterward he still lit up when asked to recall that moment.
“I wish I could keep replaying it,” he said. “That’s the feeling you want to have. I’ve been here a long time and lost a lot of close games… But… we’ve got a team now. We can get it done on both sides of the ball now.
“Hoyer is focused, poised. He’s a confident guy. He makes up his mind quickly. He gets rid of the ball. He helps his offensive line… The guys trust him. I trust him… He surprised me; I didn’t know much about him before he came here really.”
Jackson realizes what makes this story so special now is what came earlier.
Before Hoyer was the Browns quarterback, he was a Browns fan.
He grew up in the Cleveland suburb of North Olmsted and went to Browns games at the old Municipal Stadium with his dad, Axel, who had season tickets. The sight lines were partially obscured by pillars, but Brian craned his neck to see his heroes, especially quarterback Bernie Kosar — whose No. 19 jersey he wore religiously.
He remembers sitting in the stands and sobbing that 1995 day the Browns played their last game at the old stadium, beating these same Bengals — before the franchise moved to Baltimore.
After that Hoyer focused on his own career — starring at St. Ignatius High in Cleveland, then playing at Michigan State and finally signing with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He spent three seasons as Tom Brady’s little-used backup.
Last year he bounced around three teams. The Pats cut him in the preseason, Pittsburgh picked him up for just over two weeks in late November and then cut him and Arizona signed him and started him once in late December before jettisoning him after the season.
Cleveland took him on as a third stringer behind starter Brandon Weeden, who began the season terribly and then was sidelined with a thumb injury. With the team 0-2, the Browns then stunned everyone and traded Trent Richardson to Indianapolis.
Going into Minnesota a week ago — with Hoyer inserted at quarterback — no one foresaw the Browns’ victory. Hoyer threw for three scores that day — and three interceptions — and afterwards got congratulatory messages from Brady and Kosar.
Sunday he completed 25-of-38 passes for 269 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.
“I try not to get caught up in the hype,” he said. “Today might have only been my third start but it’s my fifth year in the NFL. I haven’t always been out there playing but I know how to mentally prepare and have the right mindset for the game.”
In the dressing room afterward, players on offense and defense talked about the difference Hoyer has made. They all spoke about his confidence and his infectious emotion.
“He comes over talking to the defense,” said cornerback Joe Haden. “He’s all in our face, going ‘C’mon Joe, let’s go. I know you’re having a good game but I want to see more.’ I was like, ‘Man, Okay, I’ll do it.’ ”
Cameron said he experienced the same thing in the offensive huddle on that final drive.
“The team feeds off that,” he said. “We can tell this means a lot to him. He’s from this area. It’s been a big dream to play in front of these fans and get a win against another Ohio team. This was a big day for him.”
It was even bigger for the team and the town.