In the early history of the Browns, Cleveland fans were spoiled by very few losing seasons and frequent playoff appearances.
From the team’s inaugural season in 1946 through 1969, Cleveland went to the postseason 17 times.
During the 70s, they hit a dry spell, only making the postseason in 1971 and ‘72.
However, by 1979, there was a glimmer of hope that Cleveland was finally righting the ship.
That year, the Browns finished 9-7 and, in a testament to how difficult the division was, finished third in the AFC Central.
Then, in 1980, pure insanity ensued.
Due to a number of close, anxiety inducing victories, Cleveland returned to the postseason with an 11-5 record.
Those victories were the product of the infamous Kardiac Kids.
This is when I started to watch the Cleveland Browns we weren’t the Dawg pound we were the Kardiac Kids. pic.twitter.com/8iR4B63FXE
— Kim Jackson (@kjackson4391) June 18, 2017
In the two year run of the ‘Kids’ the Browns had more than a little luck on their side.
Led by a motley group of overachievers, Cleveland would not go down without a fight and fans found themselves on the edge of their seats every week.
This is the complete story of the Kardiac Kids.
The Lean Years
As the Browns organization found themselves entering a new decade in 1970, they could look back fondly at everything they had accomplished in the previous 10 years.
Although they had a winning record from 1960-1963, the Browns failed to make the postseason each year.
Then, in 1964, everything came together and the organization won their fourth NFL Championship by beating the Baltimore Colts 27-0.
Over the next five years, Cleveland returned to the postseason four times, losing in the championship game on three of those occasions.
The Browns showed promise during the start of the new decade.
In 1971, the team finished 9-5 and lost to the Colts in the Divisional Playoffs.
In 1972, they improved to 10-4, but lost again in the Divisional Playoffs to Miami.
Then, in spite of a few years of competitive football, the drought began.
Cleveland would not appear in the postseason for the remainder of the 70s.
However, the organization was not without hope.
The Kardiac Kids Get Their Name
For Browns fans, the 1979 season began with optimism.
Cleveland had finished the ‘78 season with an 8-8 record and there was reason to believe that the team could do even better in ‘79.
With a core group of players that included quarterback Brian Sipe, fullback Mike Pruitt, running back Greg Pruitt, tight end Ozzie Newsome, and kicker Jon Cockroft, the Browns always had a chance to win.
Is this a trick question? Of course, “Both the Pruitt’s moves….”
Gregg and Mike. Do it Pruitt. Kardiac Kids. pic.twitter.com/onB9CzeMUz
— Patrick Fox (@Orangeman44) April 22, 2020
However, during Week 1 of the season, Cleveland was losing to the New York Jets 22-19 and time was running out.
The Browns had blown a six point lead and it looked like the young season would get off on the wrong foot.
Then, with precious few seconds remaining and the Browns mounting a last ditch effort, Sipe tossed a prayer in the direction of receiver Dave Logan.
OMG, Brian Sipe. I watched him play! Those Browns were awesome. These Browns give me the same feeling. Sipe to Logan, just like it was yesterday! Kardiac kids. pic.twitter.com/gRr5bAg4ra
— MarkB (@70sRockbest) July 27, 2019
45 yards downfield, Logan answered the prayer by catching the ball and quickly stepping out-of-bounds.
In addition to the clutch catch, Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko had hit Sipe late and 15 more yards were tacked onto the reception.
Cockroft trotted onto the field and kicked the ball through the uprights as time expired to knot the game at 22 a piece.
After a back-and-forth battle in overtime, Cockroft kicked the game winner with less than a minute left in the extra stanza.
Bedlam ensued as the Browns were suddenly in the win column.
Upon returning to Cleveland after the game however, Sipe learned some grave news.
“One of the physicians from the Cleveland Clinic came down to our training center in Berea,” Sipe said in an interview with Club 46 in 2019. “I think it was after that game, and showed us a paper readout on a cardiac machine, and it showed that somebody had died right at that moment. I think the story was that he was watching the game, and he died.”
That day, the “Kardiac Kids” were born.
I mean, who wasn’t a fan of the Brian Sipe led Kardiac Kids? pic.twitter.com/fFrSQfFRKY
— W. D. Neumann (@WDNeumann) April 12, 2020
The Heart-stopping 1979 Season
The cardiac-arresting action continued for the next two games.
During a Week 2 contest against Kansas City, the Browns eked out a 27-24 victory after a last-minute touchdown pass from Sipe to receiver Reggie Rucker.
In Week 3, Cleveland edged Baltimore 13-10 when Cockroft kicked a 28-yard game-winner.
Week 7 saw a close loss to the Washington Redskins, 13-9, in a battle of field goals.
A week later, Sipe led another late drive against rival Cincinnati.
This time, the hero was Cleveland’s Pete Johnson who ran for the winning score from 32 yards out.
Against the Eagles in Week 10, the Browns were losing 19-17 in the 4th quarter.
A Mike Pruitt 24 yard touchdown run led to a 24-19 victory and Cleveland was 7-3.
After a loss to Seattle the following week, the Browns were on the ropes in Week 12 to the Dolphins.
Down 24-17, Sipe threw a 34 yard touchdown pass to Newsome to tie the game at the end of regulation.
In overtime, Sipe found Rucker from 39 yards out and a 30-24 victory followed.
In Week 13, Browns fans were crushed when the Kardiac Kids failed to pull out a miracle and lost to the Steelers 33-30.
Those sad frowns were turned upside down in Week 14 when Cleveland avenged an earlier loss to Houston, beating the Oilers in a low scoring affair 14-7.
Unfortunately, the good times ended after Houston.
Cleveland ended the ‘79 season with two straight losses, a 19-14 nail-biter to Oakland and a 16-12 heart breaker to the Bengals.
Even though the Browns wrapped up the season 9-7, both Pittsburgh and Houston were better.
With a third place finish in the division, Cleveland missed the playoffs.
What gave fans hope, however, was the fact that their beloved team went 7-5 in one-possession games in 1979.
Was this an omen of things to come?
The “Kids” Continue to Thrill
By Week 3 of the 1980 season, it sure looked like the Browns had lost their magic.
In Week 1, the Patriots thumped Cleveland 34-17.
The team returned home to take on the Oilers in Week 2 and were defeated 16-7.
Even worse, the Browns didn’t score a single point in the second half against Houston.
Then, just when it looked like the season was lost, the Kids struck again.
In a Week 3 contest against the Chiefs, running back Charles White took a pass from Sipe and rumbled to a 31 yard touchdown and a 20-13 win.
The following week in Tampa, the Browns watched as their comfortable 31-13 lead was whittled down by the Bucs.
Thankfully, the lead proved too much to overcome and Cleveland hung on for a 34-27 victory.
In a matchup with their future nemesis, the Broncos came to town in Week 5 and stole a 19-16 victory.
Things really got interesting after that.
When the Browns headed to Seattle for a Week 6 contest, Cleveland was hoping to get their first ever win over the Seahawks.
After the expansion franchise began in 1976, Seattle had won their first three meetings against the Browns.
That changed when Cleveland dominated from start to finish and came away with a convincing 27-3 win.
Then head coach Sam Rutigliano was effusive in his praise.
“That’s the best we’ve played collectively in the three years I’ve been here,” said Rutigliano after the game. “It’s the first time we’ve put together fine performances by all three of our units – the offense, defense and special teams.”
The next four games were all Cleveland victories and all four outcomes were in typical Kardiac fashion.
Green Bay was leading the Browns 21-13 in the 4th quarter when touchdown receptions by Newsome and Logan resulted in a 26-21 Cleveland win.
Pittsburgh had the Browns dead-to-rights at the end of the third quarter the following week, leading 26-14.
This time, Cleveland shut out the Steelers in the final quarter and Sipe threw TD passes to Greg Pruitt and Newsome to escape with a 27-26 victory.
A 20-7 Browns lead against Chicago in Week 9 led to a back-and-forth 4th quarter.
Thankfully, Cleveland held on for a 27-21 win.
The Browns had another large lead the next week at Baltimore.
Two late Colts touchdowns brought the score to within one point.
It wasn’t enough though, and the Kardiac Kids escaped again with a 28-27 win.
After tripping up the Steelers early in the season, Pittsburgh shut out Cleveland in the second half of Week 11 for a 16-13 win.
In Weeks 13 and 14, the Browns posted identical 17-14 scores in victories over Houston and the Jets.
The Kids could have ended the season on a five-game winning streak if not for a late-game collapse against Minnesota in Week 15.
Up 23-9 early in the 4th quarter, the Browns defense couldn’t hold on.
The Vikings, spurred on by their home crowd, roared back for a 28-23 win, the result of scoring 19 unanswered points in the final frame.
Cleveland came up big again in the final week of the season when they faced rival Cincinnati.
Tied at 24 to begin the final quarter, Cockroft kicked a 22-yard game-winner to prevail 27-24.
The best part for Browns fans, the victory marked a season sweep of the Bengals.
Even sweeter was what the team gave its faithful for an early Christmas present.
For the first time in eight years, Cleveland was headed for the postseason.
The Raiders Come to Town
If there was ever a day that Browns fans needed the histrionics of the Kardiac Kids, it was January 4, 1981.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 4, 2020
As the Oakland Raiders got set to face Cleveland in the AFC Divisional Playoff game, the temperature was a chilly four degrees.
Thankfully, the game provided enough excitement to keep fans (slightly) warm while twisting and turning to the agonizing highs and lows.
The 1st quarter was mostly spent working out the legs of both punters as neither team could adequately drive against the other.
Cleveland had a shot to get on the scoreboard early in the 2nd quarter, but Cockroft’s 47-yard attempt missed.
Not long after, Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett fumbled the ball and the Browns recovered.
The resulting possession came up short for Cleveland again when Cockroft missed a 30 yard attempt.
Finally, with roughly six minutes left in the first half, the game saw its first points.
During a Plunkett pass attempt, the Browns Ron Bolton intercepted the ball and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.
However, during the ensuing extra point attempt, Oakland’s Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks blocked Cockroft’s kick.
Just before halftime, Oakland drove deep into Cleveland territory and running back Mark van Eeghen ran into the end zone from a yard out.
After the extra point was good, the Browns found themselves down by one, 7-6 at the half.
Cleveland responded quickly once the teams returned to the field.
The Kardiac Kids took the opening possession of the second half and turned it into points when Cockroft made a 30 yard kick, his first of the day.
On their next possession, Cleveland drove down the field again, but had to settle for a field goal attempt.
Unfortunately, Browns holder Paul McDonald couldn’t corral a bad snap and the play was muffed.
Just before the quarter ended, Cockroft was able to make good on another 30 yard try and the score was 12-7, Cleveland.
Early in the 4th quarter, Oakland got a drive going and went 80 yards to set up another one yard scoring run by van Eeghen.
After getting the ball back minutes later, the Raiders had a chance to put the game away for good after driving to the Cleveland one yard line.
The Browns defense held, though, and stuffed van Eeghen on consecutive plays for a turnover on downs.
Red Right 88
Down 14-12 late in the game, the Kardiac Kids had to drive the length of the field to try and pull out another miracle.
Two plays into the drive, they got a little breathing room when Sipe connected with Newsome on a 29 yard pass.
Four plays later, Sipe found Greg Pruitt for 23 yards.
Mike Pruitt then took a handoff and burst through the line for a 14 yard gain.
After Pruitt ran again for one yard on the next play, Cleveland called a time out with 49 seconds left.
Sitting on Oakland’s 13 yard line, the Kids were in a position to steal yet another win from the jaws of defeat.
In order to bleed more time off the clock and take a shot at the end zone, Sipe and Rutigliano decided to call a pass play.
The call from Rutigliano was, “Red slot right, halfback stay, 88.” Rutigliano also told Sipe to “throw it into Lake Erie” if no one was open.
After the ensuing snap, Sipe dropped back and looked to his left.
Spotting Newsome, he let the ball fly into the cold, Arctic air.
The pass seemed to float and wobble for eternity.
By the time it arrived in the end zone, two Raider defenders had a better chance at catching it than Newsome.
Sure enough, Oakland safety Mike Davis stepped in front of the pass and intercepted it for a touchback.
In 1980, Mike Davis picked off a pass in the endzone with 49 sec left to preserve a playoff win against the Browns. Later the Raider’s would win SBXV.🏆 @AK7682 @Angelrdz66 @KSJM_12_72 @AmyTrask @NFLMAVERICK @DinoL1313 #Destiny pic.twitter.com/YxIhY7VmEU
— TOOZ#72 (@denniss9117) June 18, 2020
The game was over and the Kardiac magic had ended.
For their part, the Raiders would eventually defeat Philadelphia weeks later to win Super Bowl XV.
For years, many wondered why the Browns didn’t simply kick a field goal, especially since they were only 13 yards away.
However, history reminds us that Cockroft had already missed two attempts and had an extra point attempt blocked.
A third field goal try was negated by a bad snap.
So, a field goal was no sure thing.
During an interview in 2006, Cockroft elaborated on what his physical condition was at the time.
“What many people don’t know about that situation is that I was a long way from being 100 percent physically in 1980,” Cockroft said in 2006. “I had two herniated discs and needed four epidurals to just get through the season. I probably should have gone on IR.”
The Kardiac Kids Good Fortune Ends
In theory, the 1981 Browns should have picked up right where they left off in 1980.
They still had their core nucleus of players and now had the experience of playing good, playoff caliber football.
Sure enough, the team had a number of close calls in ‘81.
Half of their games were decided by six points or less with five actually decided by three or less points.
Unfortunately, where those games would have (mostly) been decided in the Browns favor in 1979 and 1980, that was not the case in 1981.
The big plays and fantastic finishes that were the hallmark of the Kardiac Kids were lacking in ‘81.
This time fortune did not favor Cleveland and the team fell to 5-11 on the season.
Although the Kardiac Kids didn’t last, fans received a weekly helping of chaotic ecstasy for two years.
And, the players themselves still have fond memories of those days.
“It was electric around here. I don’t know how to describe it,” Sipe said in 2019. “It was just a riot.”