Keenan McCardell was one of the last of the original Browns

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Mark Craig, Star Tribune
·3 min read
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Like the rest of us, new Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell is hoping for a return to NFL gameday normalcy after a year of COVID-19 protocols that left stadiums with few to no fans.

During a recent interview, he looked forward to his new home at U.S. Bank Stadium while remembering the far-less-glamorous NFL home stadium he first played in.

"I still tell stories to the young guys about Cleveland Municipal Stadium," said McCardell, who joined the Browns as a free agent in 1992 after spending his rookie season on Washington's injured reserve.

It was a storied old behemoth on the rusty shores of Lake Erie. In its football heyday, it housed an NFL dynasty and Hall of Famers the likes of Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Jim Brown.

By the time McCardell played there as a Brown from 1992 to '95, it was, well, an outdated dump that drove the original Browns to move to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

"We had two locker rooms," said McCardell. "We had one upstairs for the young players and one downstairs for the veterans."

The upstairs locker room was especially cramped. But McCardell and his fellow young guns started calling it "The Penthouse."

"Downstairs had no heat," McCardell said. "Upstairs in the Penthouse is where the heat came in. When it got cold, the vets would come up and hang with us in the Penthouse to stay warm before the game."

On Dec. 17, 1995, McCardell played in the last game ever contested in that building. The Browns beat the Bengals 26-10 before losing the season finale to finishing 5-11.

"We had just been to the playoffs in '94, so Bill [Belichick] was building what he wanted," McCardell said "But '95, it was crazy, man. Crazy."

The Browns were 4-4 when owner Art Modell confirmed he was moving the team to Baltimore after the season. To say there was outrage is putting it mildly.

"It was like pulling the heart and guts and soul out of that city," McCardell said.

The Browns played half a season as a lame duck in Cleveland. Things got ugly.

"We got bomb threats," McCardell said. "We played a game at San Diego and we left early, on a Wednesday after practice. There was a bomb threat while we were on the practice field that day. Bill tried to keep things as normal as he could."

The home finale against the Bengals was surreal.

"Fans were throwing benches onto the field, there was a fire in the stands," McCardell said. "The cops on the field, they told us they didn't know what was going to happen when the game ended."

Fans had brought hammers and hacksaws into the stadium. The fourth quarter sounded like a construction site as people uprooted their seats to carry home with them.

And yet, through it all, when the Browns started winning, the familiar cheers returned.

"After the game, we knew as players we needed to do something," McCardell said. "So we all stayed out there and walked around saying our goodbyes and hugging fans. There were some sad and angry football fans. And rightfully so."

McCardell caught the last touchdown pass ever thrown in that old stadium. He led the Browns with 709 receiving yards that season.

As a free agent, he signed with Jacksonville, where his career really took off in 1996. He lasted 18 seasons with five teams, catching 883 passes before retiring at 37.

"I'll never forget that '95 season," he said. "It was crazy, man."