Growing Up Colt: A Father, a Son, a Life in Football
by Colt McCoy
Growing Up Colt A Father, a Son, a Life in Football
By Colt McCoy & Brad McCoy with Mike Yorkey
Rookie Start in Blitzburgh
The distance between the Cleveland Browns Training Complex in Berea, Ohio, and downtown Pittsburgh is only 135 miles, a journey of two and a half hours.
As our chartered caravan of Cleveland Browns buses rolled through the Ohio countryside one balmy mid-October afternoon, I barely glanced at the crimson-and-gold fall foliage outside my window. Instead, I paid close attention to what our offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, was saying about the intricacies of the Browns’ offense as well as the tendencies of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense.
I had been cramming all week for my first start as an NFL quarterback. I listened intently to Coach Daboll as he flipped through the Browns’ playbook. Nothing inside the thick volume was new to me. All fall long, I had prepared myself like I was the starting quarterback, even though I had been relegated to the bench as a third-stringer. That meant reviewing the playbook and the terminology, studying film, working out in the weight room, and paying attention in team meetings.
It didn’t mean practicing with the first or second team, however. Since the end of preseason, I had stood on the sidelines and watched our starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme, take snaps from center and work on our plays. Our No. 2 quarterback, Seneca Wallace, called signals for the scout team that practiced against our defense. All I could do was stand on the sidelines, toss a football from hand to hand, and observe.
In our 2010 season opener, Jake twisted his ankle but kept playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game we lost by a field goal, 17–14. When Seneca Wallace moved into the starting lineup, I was still treated like the third quarterback on the depth chart. Even though I ached to contribute to my team, I was the forgotten man on the roster. Coming from the University of Texas—where I had started fifty-three consecutive games over four seasons—I was used to playing, to being the guy. It was tough not getting to play, but I knew I had to be patient.
Just before halftime against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Seneca took a big hit on a sack and went down. We had to take a timeout so the trainers could assist him back to the bench. The way he was limping, it looked like another ankle injury.
We were running out of quarterbacks. I edged closer to our head coach, Eric Mangini, secretly hoping he’d say, “It’s your turn, Colt. Get in there.” But Coach Mangini never looked my way. Instead, he found Jake Delhomme and asked him if he could get back in the game.
Everyone knew Jake’s ankle wasn’t ready, but Coach Mangini sent him back on the field to play anyway. That sent a signal loud and clear that Coach was doing everything he could to not give me the ball.
Jake found his helmet, took the field, and tossed a short pass to end the first half, and we jogged off the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium nursing a 7–6 lead against the Falcons, who came into town with a 3–1 record. (The Falcons were a good team on their way to an NFC–leading 13–3 record.)
There was no talk in the locker room of bringing me in, however, so all I could do was pace the sidelines as play resumed after intermission. During the second half, though, Jake reinjured his right ankle in a sack. Jake hobbled between plays, but he gritted his teeth and hung in there. The game was decided with about five minutes left. We were down 13–7 but driving the ball. The Falcons intercepted Jake’s short pass and ran it back for a touchdown, ending our hopes. The frustrating loss dropped our record to 1–4, and it looked like the Browns were heading toward another dismal season.
The following day, a Monday, I drove to the Cleveland Browns training facility, wondering what would happen next. The Browns were down to one healthy quarterback—me. Since the Cleveland coaches had treated me like a leper since the season began, I figured they were busy making phone calls to bring in a veteran free agent.
Ever since I reported to training camp, I had gotten the message loud and clear: Colt, you’re not going to play this year. Your job is to watch and listen. When I walked into the Browns’ headquarters that morning, however, I was greeted like a long-lost family member who had unexpectedly shown up at a McCoy summer reunion. The slaps on the back and cries of “How ya doing, Colt?” were followed by “Coach wants to see you.”
I marched into Coach Mangini’s office, and he warmly greeted me and offered me a chair. “Colt, we need to get you ready for this weekend against Pittsburgh. You’re starting.”
I smiled. Just like that, I had gone from third-stringer to starting quarterback. My heart raced with excitement. I had been seriously itching to play all season long, and now I would get my chance to play in an NFL game and fulfill my boyhood dream.
At the same time, though, I knew all too well who we were playing that Sunday—the Pittsburgh Steelers—and where—on their home turf, Heinz Field. Visions of sixty-five thousand swirling Terrible Towels came into my mind, as well as stories I’d heard about how brutal the Steelers fans were on opposing teams, especially untested quarterbacks.
Nothing like being thrown to the wolves the first time out. When I called my dad with the news, the first thing he said was, “Congratulations, son. That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, it’s awesome, and I’m going to be fired up,” I replied. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to play the Steelers, our division rivals, on the road for my first start. If I can go out there and play against their defense, I can play against anybody in the league.” I knew Pittsburgh had the No. 1 defense in the NFL and that their linebackers attacked the quarterback so often that people called them “Blitzburgh.” But I saw nothing but opportunity. “That’s great to hear,” my father said. “There’s no other team that you’d want to start against because you’re going to be gauged by how you play against the best.”
Now our team buses were heading into Steelers territory as we crossed the Allegheny River into downtown Pittsburgh. We were a dispirited bunch after losing so many close games, and it looked like our season would get even darker following the Atlanta loss. Looming ahead was a murderer’s row of elite NFL teams: after taking on Pittsburgh, we would face the New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots, and the New York Jets—all top-tier franchises bound for the 2010 NFL playoffs.
Coach Daboll looked down at this notes. “Keep an eye on Polamalu. When he lines up strong side, and the free safety is in the middle of the field, expect him to blitz off the edge.”
Coach was talking about Troy Polamalu, whose mane of thick, curly, black hair stuck out of his helmet and ran halfway down his back. Many of the football pundits on ESPN and on the NFL pregame shows believed Polamalu was the best defensive player in the league, and they certainly had plenty of highlights to draw from to make their case. Number 43 seemed to be everywhere on and off the field, thanks to his playmaking abilities and his advertisements for Head & Shoulders shampoo shown during televised games.
Polamalu and the rest of the Pittsburgh defense were known as the “Steel Curtain” around the league. (That nickname started in the 1970s and stuck through the years.) The Steelers’ defensive backs were celebrated for pummeling quarterbacks and delivering vicious hits on receivers. But Polamalu wasn’t the only defensive star playing in Pittsburgh. Coach reminded me to look out for another linebacker: James Harrison, who was bigger and bulkier than Polamalu and thus more lethal. When No. 92 got in a shot, quarterbacks sometimes didn’t get up.
We pulled up to the Westin Convention Center hotel just as darkness fell on Pittsburgh. The plan was for us to check into our rooms and then report for dinner, followed by a team meeting in one of the hotel conference rooms.
The team meeting on the eve of a football game was our last chance to go through that week’s game plan. The coaching staff would review how we were going to attack the Pittsburgh defense as well as defend against a powerful Steelers offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a proven winner, as evidenced by the two Super Bowl rings on his fingers.
As if we didn’t have our hands full already, we would also have to contend with the emotional return of “Big Ben”—as the media called him—to NFL football. Commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Roethlisberger for six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy after Ben was accused of sexual assault during the off-season. Goodell later reduced the suspension to four games after the contrite quarterback submitted to counseling and extensive evaluations.
Playing as if they wanted to prove to the league that they could weather the storm without their star quarterback under center, the Steelers had won three of their four games without Big Ben. Now that Roethlisberger was returning to the team, everyone in the Browns’ team meeting sensed that the Steelers would be sky high, spurred on by their fans going crazy when their prodigal son stepped onto the field.
At Saturday night team meetings earlier in the season, Coach Mangini always had guys stand up and say something inspirational or talk about how they felt. For instance, if a guy on our team used to play for that week’s opponent, Coach would ask him to describe what this game meant to him or what we needed to do to win the next day.
This would be my first NFL start, and something in my gut told me that I should say something to my teammates. I knew they had questions about me swirling in their minds: How are we going to play the Steelers—one of the best teams in the league—with a rookie quarterback who’s never taken a snap at this level? What chance do we have to win—in Pittsburgh of all places?
After the team dinner, I approached Coach Mangini and told him, “I know you’re going to call on me. I’ll be ready.” He just smiled. Whatever. When the time came for Coach to call on players to speak, he turned to me first and announced that I had something to say. Rising to my feet, I stood next to my table and looked around the conference room at my fifty-three teammates, a half-dozen players who wouldn’t be suiting up in the morning, and our coaching staff and team officials.
“I want you guys to know that I haven’t embraced being the third-string quarterback,” I began. “I love and respect Jake and Seneca, but now that they’re hurt, it’s my turn to step in here and play.
“I know you have no idea what it’s going to be like tomorrow. Everyone in here is scared stiff about a rookie going into Pittsburgh and having his first start. If you want to be scared, be scared. I’m not scared. I’m ready to play. I’m excited. I’m fired up. This is my passion. This is what I love to do. And I can’t wait to get out there and play with all you guys tomorrow.
“Our game tomorrow is going to be the start of something great. Bring your all because I know I’m bringing all mine. The hay is in the barn. Let’s go.”
Let’s just say that I saw a lot of big eyes and stunned faces looking back at me. You could have run a herd of Texas longhorns— real ones—through that conference room and no one would have noticed. But those surprised looks quickly changed to smiles, followed by a few chuckles, after my “hay is in the barn” line.
Actually, that was the second time in two days that some of my teammates had heard me use the phrase. At our practice the day before, I ended our workout by gathering the offense around me. It’s called a “breakdown” in football, and usually what happens is that all the players gather in a circle around the quarterback, who does a final “fire up” before everyone breaks to take a shower. Often, quarterbacks scream something like, “Win on three . . . one, two, three—”
“Win!” everyone yells.
But for my first breakdown, I wanted to do something different.
“The hay’s in the barn,” I announced in a loud voice. “Let’s go win this thing. Win on three . . . one, two, three—”
“Win!” my teammates yelled.
But nobody left for the locker room.
“The hay’s in the barn?” asked one of my wide receivers. “Dude, what does that mean?”
The rest of the offense had quizzical looks on their faces, too.
Time for an agricultural tutorial.
“Look, where I come from, you have a harvest season,” I said. “You plant the hay grazer, you let it grow, you watch it grow, you cut it, you bale it, and you put the bales on the trailer. You drive the trailer around and park it and put the hay in the barn. When all the hay is out of the field and in the barn, your work is done and you’re ready for the next thing.”
I had everyone’s attention now.
“That’s what this week is. We worked, we worked, and we worked. I worked, I worked, and I worked. The hay is in the barn, man. It’s Friday. No more practice. Now it’s time to go win. Our work is done.”
“That’s cool, Colt,” said one of my teammates.
“Okay,” said another. “I get it now.”
When our team meeting was over, I headed up to my room. After taking a shower, I immediately fell asleep with no anxiety whatsoever. That’s the way it’s always been for me on the night before a game. I slept hard because I knew my preparation was done. The hay was in the barn.
While Colt was turning in for the evening, my wife, Debra, and I checked into our room at the Omni William Penn Hotel. We had flown in from Lincoln, Nebraska, with our good friend Dick Anderson. That afternoon, the three of us had watched the University of Texas upset the fifth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 20–13. Dick was a Nebraska fan, even though he lived in Austin, home of the University of Texas. (Dick was also Colt’s landlord for two years, but more on that story later.)
We had made the trek to Lincoln because our youngest son, Case, was the second-string quarterback at Texas. He had won the backup position as a true freshman, meaning that for the sixth consecutive year, a McCoy quarterback was suiting up for UT. After losses to UCLA and Oklahoma, the Longhorns weren’t expected to beat Nebraska on the road, but Coach Mack Brown’s team stunned the college football world with a huge, surprising victory.
Five hours later, we found ourselves in Pittsburgh, terribly excited but also terribly anxious about Colt’s first NFL start. Colt’s wife, Rachel, had driven in from Cleveland with a college friend, Leslie Peterson, and they were staying in Pittsburgh with a friend Rachel knew from Baylor University, where she attended college. We were thankful they had arrived safely, and we made arrangements to meet up with Rachel and her friend in the morning.
Debra and I awoke just after dawn, which is our custom. We began our day by bowing our heads and praying for Colt’s safety and protection. After our prayer time, I could tell Debra was a bit keyed up and nervous. She’s been a coach’s wife for many years and had watched her three sons play in hundreds of games over the years, but I could sense her apprehension. That was certainly understandable. There’s always a certain amount of fear in every mother’s heart when her son straps on a helmet and jogs onto the field—even more so this time because this was the NFL.
Debra is a student of the game, and she knew that the kind of football played in the NFL was a quantum leap from Division I college. The size, speed, and intensity of NFL players brought a whole new meaning to the nerves she felt that morning. I felt the butterflies in my stomach as well, but also a full helping of fatherly pride. My son—my offspring whom I had brought up from nothing—was fixing to start an NFL regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who many thought were the best team in pro football. My son would be playing quarterback, the premier position in football—maybe all of sports—before more than sixty-five thousand rabid Steelers fans and millions of TV viewers. How cool was that?
I reached for my cell phone and dialed Colt’s number. I knew he wouldn’t pick up because he always turned off his iPhone the night before the game. But he and I had a pregame ritual we had started his first season at the University of Texas: me calling him on the morning of game day.
“Colt, this is Dad. This is your weekly good luck call. I want to encourage you to do your best today. We’ve been through this for a long time, and you know how much your family loves you. You’re going to do great today. Don’t get your head down if you make a mistake. Come back, fight hard, and be a leader. Keep your feet moving and your eyes up, and we’ll see you after the game. I love you, Son, and I’m proud of you.”
I hung up, knowing that Colt wouldn’t listen to the message until after the game. So why did I call? Because it was our father son tradition, and I knew he’d notice if I didn’t call. That happened one time: when he was playing in a college game at Iowa State. I had hitched a ride on a private plane to Ames, Iowa, on the morning of the game. En route, we ran into thunderstorm problems and had to turn around. By the time we touched down in Dallas, it was too late to call Colt.
That evening, Colt wondered where his pregame call was. “I knew something must have happened,” he said after learning why I couldn’t call.
Debra and I took the glass elevator down to the lobby, where we met up with Dick, Rachel, and Leslie. We mutually decided that Dick and I would make a pilgrimage to Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36 for an early lunch while Debra and the girls took off to explore the city—and find a Starbucks. Debra loved her tall coffee with whip and the Perfect Oatmeal with toppings of dried fruit and mixed nuts. Armed with cell phones, we made arrangements to meet at Heinz Field.
Dick and I walked around downtown Pittsburgh before finding Grille 36. Voted the best sports restaurant in Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36 was owned by the retired Steelers running back nicknamed “The Bus.” The shiny restaurant, which had plenty of flat-screen TVs hanging from the ceiling, was located between Heinz Field and PNC Park, where the Pittsburgh Pirates played major league baseball.
The Bus’ place was always packed on game day. It looked like several hundred Steelers fans were jammed inside the restaurant that day, many of them standing around the gleaming bars with adult beverages in their hands. The noise was deafening, and Dick and I could barely hear each other talk in between bites of our burgers and fries.
I knew Rachel and my parents were in Pittsburgh for my first NFL start, but I wasn’t thinking about what they could be doing. It was Sunday morning, and I had my game face on. I tried to minimize all distractions.
Our team buses left the hotel and headed toward the stadium. As we pulled up to Heinz Field, I got my first glimpse from behind my darkly tinted window of just how serious the Steelers fans can be. A couple of thousand fans—standing shoulder to shoulder and six or seven deep—raised quite a ruckus as our caravan approached under police escort. Most were yelling stuff that would have earned me a washing-my-mouth-with-soap episode if I had said them in my mother’s presence when I was a kid. Burly guys wearing Roethlisberger jerseys wadded up balls of trash and threw them in our direction, but most didn’t have Big Ben’s good aim. The occasional beer bottle or aluminum can struck our bus, and gray-haired grandmas flipped us the bird.
The only time I’d witnessed a similar scene was when I was in college and we were bused to the Cotton Bowl in downtown Dallas for the Red River Rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma. Sooners fans exhibited crude behavior and took great delight in yelling obscene chants.
I was surprised how calm I felt—or maybe I should say how calm I felt given the circumstances. I well understood the game’s implications for my future as well as the microscope I was under. Mentally, I felt ready to play because I had studied the quarterback position so hard since my first minicamp. Physically, however, I hadn’t gotten the “reps”—the repetitions—with our offense all season long, so I knew I would be playing catch-up.
If I was going to play well against the Steelers, then I’d have to adjust to something called “NFL game speed” right from the first snap.
Dick and I wanted to get to the stadium good and early so we could take in the NFL pregame atmosphere. We didn’t live close to Dallas, so I hadn’t attended too many professional games over the years, but we were big fans of “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. One of Colt’s favorite players growing up was Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman.
We had learned just a few days earlier that Colt would be starting, so we had to scramble for tickets. Colt said the few seats allotted to the Browns organization weren’t very good, so I made a phone call to the Pittsburgh Steelers front office and explained my situation. They were very accommodating and sold us four excellent field level seats located at the 45-yard line, about twenty rows up. Dick’s seat was in another section.
We reached our seats about an hour before game time, just as both teams came onto the field to warm up. My eyes trained on Colt, who was wearing a white No. 12 jersey—the same number he wore at Texas—as he loosened up. I have to admit that the whole scene was surreal. As I watched my son in an NFL uniform making warm-up tosses to his receivers, I thought how he looked extremely focused.
About twenty minutes before kickoff, my cell phone chirped. Debra and the girls were waiting at the pass gate for their tickets, which I had picked up at will-call. Dick went off to find his seat, and I went to get everyone into the stadium.
Upon our return, our section was filling with Pittsburgh fans, many dressed in the black-and-gold jerseys of their favorite players. They also clutched their Terrible Towels.
As we squeezed into our seats, a jeering voice rose in the air.
“Hey, you from Texas?”
I wondered how he knew—but then I remembered I was wearing a soiled white hat with a burnt orange Longhorn on the front. Only one of the most recognizable mascots in the nation.
“Yeah,” I said, tugging on the bill of my cap.
Another guy—who had probably tailgated a bit too much already—entered the fray. “Nothing but steers and queers in Texas!” he yelled.
I looked at Debra, who rolled her eyes. It was going to be a long afternoon. This fellow obviously wasn’t a Longhorn lover or a Cleveland fan.
“Whaddya doin’ here?” asked another fan.
“My son is playing for Cleveland—”
“You must be Colt McCoy’s dad.”
The Pittsburgh fan had put two and two together rather quickly. “That would be me,” I said.
The fan turned to his buddies in our section. “Hey, did you hear that? Colt McCoy’s father is sitting with us today.”
“And his mom and his wife,” I said. Debra was seated to my left and next to Rachel.
Well, volunteering that information was like throwing meat to hungry lions. As word spread through our section that the McCoy family was in the Steelers fans’ midst, we heard more trash talk.
“Polamalu is going to kill your son. I wouldn’t watch if I was you,” yelled one yahoo.
“You better hope Colt’s life insurance is paid up today,” jeered another.
We heard meaner taunts, but there were also Pittsburgh fans in our vicinity who were respectful and complimentary of Colt. Some wished us good luck, and obviously, we appreciated that. As for the trash talk, we shrugged that off. A security guard dropped by at one point and asked us if we were having any trouble with the fans, but we told him we were fine. Compared with what went on at a Texas-Oklahoma game, this was child’s play.
Besides, what were our options? These were our seats, and we happened to be surrounded by Steelers fans. As the cliché goes, we were in their house—although I made a mental note to leave my Texas ball cap at home for future road games.
I felt good warming up and was eager for the opening kickoff. The Steelers chose to have their starting offense introduced before the game, giving their fans a chance to loudly cheer the return of Ben Roethlisberger. He ran out on the field wearing a Steelers “throwback” uniform from the 1960s—yellow helmet with a black stripe, a black No. 7 jersey with his number, name, and stripes all in yellow, and white pants with a single yellow stripe running down the length.
We won the toss and elected to receive. One of the big differences between college football and the pros, at least for quarterbacks, is how we receive the play calls from our coaches. At Texas, I looked to the sidelines, where three different players contorted their arms in various positions to signal in the play; only one player was “hot”—meaning he alone was signaling in the play.
In the NFL, it’s entirely different. Quarterbacks have headsets in their helmets so they can listen for the plays called in from the sidelines. We don’t have a microphone in our helmets, so we can’t answer, but we do hear the play the head coach or the offensive coordinator calls in.
With the Browns, Coach Daboll relayed the plays into my helmet. Starting from our 35-yard line, I heard the first play call— a rollout pass. Instead of a tame handoff for my baptismal play from scrimmage, Coach wanted me to go at them. He wasn’t sending me into the ring and telling me to clinch and cover up. Coach wanted to come out swinging and get an early completion. He had told me on the bus drive to Pittsburgh that he wanted to get the ball out of my hands so that I could get into rhythm early in the game. We were going to throw it around, not sit back and hand off.
I assumed my position under center, took the snap, rolled out to my right, and spotted receiver Brian Robiskie in the flat. We played pitch and catch for an eight-yard gain. Two plays after we earned a first down, we faced a third-and-10 from our 45-yard line, a passing situation. Even though blitzing linebacker James Harrison steamrolled me in the pocket as I got off the pass, I found our backup tight end, Evan Moore, for 19 yards, taking us down to the Pittsburgh 36-yard line. Our offense ran back to the huddle with extra spring in its step.
The Steelers responded by ratcheting up the pressure. On the seventh play of the drive, Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley sacked me. Even though that created a second-and-19 passing situation, we stayed in aggressive mode. I threw to my right into triple coverage, but the pass bounced off the shoulder pads of my tight end, Ben Watson, and sprung into the air. With so many defenders around, the ball was easy pickings for Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark.
Usually, a rookie quarterback crumbles after a setback like that. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times. And the Pittsburgh fans in our section, who had been pretty quiet after Colt’s 19-yard pass on third down, loved their change of fortune. They rubbed it in pretty good.
I know how an early interception can set the tone for the game. That thought flashed through my mind, but I knew I had to find a way to let it go. I focused on the positives. Before the interception, we had moved the ball down the field, so I knew we could do it again.
Then our No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, cornerback Joe Haden, returned the favor and made his first NFL interception. Better yet, he ran the ball back 62 yards into Pittsburgh territory. When our drive stalled, Phil Dawson booted a field goal, and we took a 3–0 lead. The score stayed that way until the second quarter, when the Pittsburgh offense came to life and scored a touchdown. It was still a game at halftime; we went into the locker room trailing 7–3.
As a coach, I was looking at the Steelers’ defensive schemes. The Browns were missing some key players due to injury, and I wondered if the guys taking their places would hold their own. Meanwhile, I watched Colt run the offense. I wondered: Is he doing things right? Is he making good reads? Is he throwing to the right part of the field? The dad part of me overshadowed a lot of that though. Inside, I rooted for my son to be successful, to complete passes, to not get hit, and to stay off the ground. I was emotionally hanging on every play.
I had good reason to be concerned because what unfolded was an unusually violent contest, even by NFL standards. James Harrison knocked wide receiver Joshua Cribbs out of the game after he replaced Colt at quarterback for one of those “wildcat” plays where a running back or receiver lines up in the shotgun formation to take the snap. After taking a snap, Joshua rolled to the right and then was nailed with a helmet-to-helmet hit from Harrison. Later Harrison sent shock waves throughout the stadium— and the NFL, I later learned—when he flattened Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with another devastating, helmet-to helmet hit. Mohamed was really laid out on that play and suffered a concussion from the bone-crunching collision. There were no flags on either play, which infuriated the Cleveland bench. (Several days later, Harrison’s on-the-field violence prompted Commissioner Goodell to impose a $75,000 fine as part of a league-wide crackdown on high hits to the head and neck.)
Even though Colt had lost his two top receivers, he continued to handle the pressure well, even after taking some good shots himself. Meanwhile, the fans around us egged on Harrison and company. Normally, fans yell, “Sack the quarterback!” but in Pittsburgh, it was “Kill the quarterback!” They wanted knockout shots.
To Debra and me, though, they were talking about knockout shots on our son. As a coach, I’d been around those types of fans, but as a mom, Debra hadn’t sat with a boisterous crowd like that. At one point, she whispered to me that she had never seen such bloodthirsty people in her life.
Rachel was quiet, too, and kept her emotions in check. She and Deb comforted each other, and all three of us were encouraged to see Colt play pretty well, especially because the Browns often started with poor field position. It seemed like Colt began each offensive series around the Browns’ 15- or 20-yard line, and then he would take the offense inside Pittsburgh territory to the 45- or 40-yard line, where the drive would stall and the Browns would be forced to punt. The game didn’t get away from Cleveland until the fourth quarter, when Big Ben found his rhythm and led the Steelers to a big 21–3 lead.
Colt then engineered a six-play, 70-yard drive that was a thing of beauty. He hit receivers for 23 yards and 28 yards before tossing his first NFL touchdown. Even the Pittsburgh fans in our section gave us high fives and congratulatory wishes.
“No rookie has ever come in here and done this!” said one Pittsburgh supporter.
“Your son is unbelievable!” exclaimed another. They could afford to be cordial because there were only four minutes left on the clock and the Steelers led comfortably. Obviously, if Colt’s team had been in a position to win the game, they wouldn’t have been so complimentary.
After time ran out in our 28–10 defeat, I walked onto the field to congratulate the winners. The protocol is for the starting quarterbacks to look for each other and exchange a handshake and a word or two. Big Ben found me first. With a white towel draped around his neck and a turned-around ball cap atop his head, he drew me close. “Great job,” he said. “I thought you played well today. Keep your head up. You’re going to be a great player.”
I appreciated his words and jogged off the field. Soon it was time to face the media in the locker room. A reporter asked me what I thought of my play that day, and I replied that we didn’t like the final result but that no one guy is going to win or lose a game for us. The credit had to go to the Pittsburgh defense because every time we got into the Steelers’ half of the field, they stiffened. “Do you feel ready to be a full-time quarterback in the NFL?” asked one reporter.
“I’m ready to do what this teams needs,” I replied. “We’ll move on week to week and evaluate Jake and Seneca. But, yeah, I feel really good.” Brad
We waited nearly an hour outside the fence between the fans and the team buses. One by one, the Browns players came out, and Colt was one of the last to emerge from the locker room.
Since we didn’t have passes, Colt came outside the fence and hugged Rachel, then his mom.
“What did you think about the game?” he asked me. “I thought you did great.” Although the Browns lost decisively, the team had handled itself well in a tough environment, and Colt had led the offense up and down the field pretty well. (I learned after the game that he’d completed 23 of his 33 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown.)
“Yeah, but I wish I could have those two turnovers back.”
“You were going for it. They were tipped balls. Happens to the best of them.”
“I could have done some things better. I’m going to be better next week.”
“And you will.”
More hugs—and photo ops—were exchanged, and then Colt had to get on the team bus. We waved good-bye as the buses pulled away and headed toward Cleveland.
On the flight back to Texas, I looked out the window and let my thoughts wander. Wow! That really happened—my son played an NFL game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That had been Colt’s lifelong goal. When he was in junior high and high school, he had told me he wanted to play quarterback at a Division I school and then play in the NFL. Dad, I’m going to do this. I’m going to win a national championship in college. I’m going to play in the NFL someday. This is what I want to do.
And he worked incredibly hard to make it happen.
In the days that followed, I went online and read some of the “reviews”—as well as what some of Colt’s teammates had said about his first start.
James Walker of ESPN.go.com, wrote: “I’ve seen a lot of quarterback debuts up close as a former Cleveland Browns beat writer, and Colt McCoy’s first NFL start was the best of the group. McCoy, Cleveland’s 16th starting quarterback since 1999, threw for 281 yards and one touchdown . . . . McCoy took a pounding and made rookie mistakes, but he also showed toughness, leadership and good accuracy.”
That was nice to read, but what stood out even more to me were some of the things Colt’s teammates said after the game.
“He’s taken on the leadership role and is not afraid to direct the huddle, get control of it,” said Browns’ guard Eric Steinbach.
“That’s what a quarterback has to do.”
“It was hard to even tell this was his first game,” tight end Evan Moore said after the game. “He has a way about him. He has a presence. He’s a natural-born leader.”
And then I read about the “hay’s in the barn” speech Colt delivered before the team on Saturday night—how he wasn’t scared to play against the Steelers and that he couldn’t wait to get out on the field with his teammates.
I shook my head in admiration. There was nothing cocky about what he said; he was just letting his teammates know they didn’t have to worry about him and that he would be ready to play. In other words, he showed incredible leadership when most rookies would have been scared spitless.
Where did he get the idea to say those things? He certainly hadn’t talked to me before the team bus left for Pittsburgh. And then I smiled.
You see, I knew Debra and I had been preparing him for that moment since the day he was born. For us, the hay was in the barn.