Popular and outspoken NFL cornerback Hanford Dixon offers an inside look at the turbulent, exciting, and frustrating Cleveland Browns seasons of the 1980s. A three-time Pro Bowler and co-inventor of the Dawg Pound, Dixon recalls both the roller-coaster on-field action and a culture of drug use that permeated the NFL and led to the tragic death of a teammate.
He shares in detail what it was like to be a first-round NFL draft pick fighting for the starting job in training camp . . . What it took, mentally and physically, to play the toughest game at the highest level for a storied franchise . . . The adrenaline rush of whipping up a frenzied crowd of 80,000 rabid fans in Municipal Stadium . . . The thrill of being one game away from the Super Bowlthree times! . . . And the crushing disappointment of losing those big games.
Dixon refers to himself as “a top-notch, speedy, loud-mouth, cocky, shutdown cornerback.” That gives an idea of his outsized personality as well as his willingness to say exactly what he means. He’s not shy about delivering praise or criticism where he thinks it’s dueto teammates, coaches, officials . . . or himself.
This Dawg tells it the way it was.
|Publisher:||Gray & Company, Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Randy Nyerges is a writer, a musician, and a certified tutor in the Cleveland Public Schools. He previously worked in media relations in Washington, D.C, and has held several staff appointments in the United States Senate. He graduated from Kent State University with a degree in journalism.
Read an Excerpt
Dawn of the Dawgs
The heat and humidity were stifling. Who could believe that just five months ago these same Lake Erie breezes, now vainly attempting to spread some relief from the eye-stinging sweat, callously dumped mountains of snow on these very grounds?
It was training camp for the 1984 Cleveland Browns. My fourth year in the NFL already.
We had just missed the playoffs the year before. We slugged out a victory over the goddamn Pittsburgh Steelers in the final game of the 1983 season, featuring a Jack Lambert ejection as he clobbered Brian Sipe on the sideline right in front of our bench. Maybe he was trying to even the score for Joe “Turkey” Jones’s backflip pile-driving of Terry Bradshaw in 1976. While a victory over the Steelers is always sweet, we then got the bad news that we had missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Brian had been lured away by a pile of Donald Trump cash to the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Southern Cal golden boy Paul McDonald, who had patiently caddied for Brian for four years, put down his clipboard, untangled his headset from his Paul McCartney hairdo and took the helm. Terry Nugent and Tom Flick competed for the backup spots. They had some fine wide receivers to throw to as well.
The Browns’ defense over the previous few years had had some issues with pressuring the quarterback. And as we scrimmaged that day, McDonald and company were rifling the ball through the thick August air with ease. I called out to our defensive linemen to get some pressure on them. Of course, we didn’t hit quarterbacks during practice—too many dollars and blow-dried hairstyles were at stake. But we needed to get on those guys. We needed to get into their heads. In the NFL, an ordinary quarterback can look pretty good if he gets enough time to throw. And a good quarterback can become very ordinary if someone like a snarling Mark Gastineau is in his face sucking the air out of the quarterback’s nose.
I quickly flashed back to my boyhood days in Theodore, Alabama. I remembered seeing a dog chase a cat down Simpson Lane, the dirt road that led to my house. “Look, guys,” I told the defensive linemen between plays, “if you can’t get at these guys, then what the hell are Bradshit and Fouts going to do to us? (Never mind that Bradshaw had just retired.) Think of the QB like he’s a cat, and you’re a dog. The dog needs to catch the cat.”
We lined up for another play.
“He’s the cat, you’re the dog. Don’t let him get away,” I shouted as I retreated to my right cornerback position. Then to help them remember, I let out a few barks. We ran the play, and then before the next play, I let out a few more barks. Pretty soon, it was a matter of routine. It was to let the linemen know they were like dogs, and they were to catch the cat.
Fans regularly attend preseason practice there at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, about a half-hour’s drive east of Cleveland. One of the first things I noticed after my arrival in Cleveland in 1981 was how crazy and obsessive Cleveland Browns fans are. Yes, other teams have very strong and loyal fan bases across the country, but here in Cleveland the fans are just sheer nuts. The Browns dominated the local sports scene. They had dominated the NFL in the 1950s, and because of the many lean years by the Cleveland Indians and, later on, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland was a football city first and foremost.
It didn’t take long for the fans attending practice to start barking as well. We’d line up for a play, I’d let out a few barks and the fans, sometimes thousands in attendance, began barking too. This kept on going and going throughout the couple of weeks that practices were open to the public.
Frank Minnifield had come to us from the USFL’s Arizona Wranglers. He missed most of camp as legal entanglements from his transition from the Wranglers to the Browns were worked out. That probably was a good thing, too, since Frank had just played in the USFL title game a few weeks prior and was nursing an arch strain. At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Frank was not a big guy. He blew out his knee during his rookie year in the USFL. But he had guile. Gallons of it. And with his 4.4 speed, he was just a terrific one-on-one defender who could fly with the fleetest.
The barking at practice continued during training camp. The fans were really getting into it. A year passed, and just before the 1985 season, I got word that someone in the Browns’ front office wanted to see me. It’s not unusual to be called into the coach’s office here and there, especially for a smartass troublemaker like me, but rarely do the front office people call you in. I stopped by this administrator’s office, and, being the businessman that he was, he got right down to business.
“Hanford,” he told me, “all this stuff about dogs and barking and everything is a distraction. We’re not the Cleveland Dogs. We’re the Cleveland Browns. We don’t have a logo on our helmets, and we’re not about to. And we already have a mascot.”
Yeah. A sexually ambiguous, pointy-eared fairy in a stocking cap. Over the years, I’m sure it struck terror into the hearts of elf-phobics like Dick Butkus, Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik, and Mean Joe Greene. Even Browns owner Art Modell hated that emblem and actually purged it from official use in the late 1960s. But since there was nothing to replace it, it still was the closest thing the Browns had to a mascot.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s kind of taken off on its own. And hey, the fans like it.”
No one on the coaching staff seemed to have a problem with it. Just the pointy heads in the front office. Why would they consider it an on-field distraction if the coaches had no problem with it?
“I know,” the administrator said. “But we need you to just concentrate on football. That’s what we pay you for, not to lead some dog circus.”
I left the meeting a bit stunned. This barking thing was stirring our defense and giving the fans something to join in with us. I told Frank about the meeting, and he had one of his usual devious solutions.
“Get your ass over to my apartment, Hanford. We’ll take care of this.”
I headed over to Frank’s apartment after practice one day, just before our opening exhibition game of the 1985 season, against the goddamn Steelers. Frank rolled out a long blank banner and grabbed a paintbrush. We painted “Dog Pound.”
“What are we going to do with that?” I asked as Michelangelofield finished his masterpiece.
“We’re going to hang this in front of the bleachers before the Steelers game. We’re going to call it the Dog Pound.” Yes, we originally spelled it correctly, but the “Dawg” moniker evolved in the media. The first mention of the dog (still grammatically proper) phenomenon appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 25, 1984.
Cleveland Stadium was a cavernous, two-deck, 80,000-plus- seat stadium built on a landfill. Originally the stadium was going to hold 100,000 seats, but cost overruns quickly required some changes, and engineers cut out 20,000 seats. Still, it was big. It was built to accommodate almost any event, from football to baseball to track, boxing, you name it. It was once even modified for a motocross event. For baseball, the center-field wall was a steroidious 470 feet away, with lower-deck box seats descending to field level. That might be OK for baseball, but that created many sight obstructions for football. Posts and pillars supported a roof, but again those posts obstructed the view for many otherwise good seats in both decks. On the east end of the stadium was a separate section made up of benches—the bleachers. Even though the view was unobstructed, these were definitely the cheap seats. Well into the 1970s, you could watch a Cleveland Indians game from the bleachers for 50 cents. These seats were often the last to be sold, and in the ’60s and ’70s, you would often find it filled with Steelers fans when they were in town. Can you imagine that now? The Dawg Pound filled with Steelers fans? It was in the bleachers where the most vocal, crazy, and, yes, intoxicated fans could be found.
The locker rooms, especially for the visiting team, were cramped and crude. In the visitors’ locker room, players hung their clothes on rusty nails hammered in the concrete brick wall. The shower, which often featured no hot water, flooded the coaches’ office. Ernest Givins of the Houston Oilers called it a “rat hole.” Yes, but it was our rat hole.
Years later, when proposals were being considered to build a new stadium on the site, some suggested the new digs should have a dome. But that would have turned The Dawg Pound into The Poodle Parlor. That’s not the way we do things in Cleveland. Football wasn’t meant to be played in a sterile, climate-controlled environment on a cushy carpet with tofu and soybeans sold at the concession stand. It was meant to be played on sandy mud painted green, with blinding rain, snow, and razor-like winds whipping in off Lake Erie cutting into your icicle-dripped face.
Before each game, we were like gladiators marching to battle as we clip-clomped almost in unison over rotting floorboards and through the narrow, dank, 50-foot tunnel leading toward the field via the first base dugout used by the Indians during the summer. The same path trod by greats like Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dick Schafrath, Gene Hickerson, among other mighty towering men. If you were claustrophobic, you had a problem. But as you got closer to emerging on the other end, you heard that roar get louder and louder, until everything burst into color and an ear-splitting roar as we ascended the dugout steps. That scene repeated before every game, exhibition or conference championship, good season or bad.
Before that exhibition game against those goddamn Pittsburgh Steelers, Frank and I hung the banner in front of the bleachers. It didn’t take long for the fans in the bleachers to assume the role. They continued the barking, and even though the game was a bust, the Dawg Pound was born. It has outlasted other phenomena of the past, such as the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome or the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters or the Steelers’ Steel Curtain.
“We sic ‘The Dogs’ on the quarterbacks,” safety Al Gross told The Plain Dealer.
“A dog takes very little from anybody when he’s ferocious,” linebacker Eddie Johnson said. “That’s what we wanted to instill in our defensive line. In order for us to be successful, our defensive line has to play like dogs.” Eddie was known as “The Assassin,” but in the locker room, we called him “Bullethead.” His close-shaven head was shaped like a bullet, and he had no neck.
Years later, for some reason I just don’t know, Eddie claimed he was the originator of the Dawg phenomenon. Sadly, Eddie died in January 2003 of colon cancer at the age of 43. More on that later.
As the season progressed, the fans not only barked, they began to dress the part. Every week, there were new dog masks, dog noses, bone-shaped hats, and other crazy costumes. They usually brought in a doghouse, which took three or four guys to carry in but took only one to carry out. The phenomenon kept growing, and even though it was a difficult season for the Browns, the Dawg Pound was now a part, a big part, of this storied franchise.
Around the locker room, we called each other “Dawg.” When the Browns played the Eagles in an exhibition game in London, I remember getting quite an odd look from the doorman of the hotel when I asked him, “Whassup, Dawg?” It was Dawg this, Dawg that. To this day, it has worked its way into the American vernacular. Why do you think Randy Jackson says, “Yo, Dawg” on American Idol? Every night, America would flip on The Arsenio Hall Show to find the Cleveland native fist-pumping to the “Woof, woof, woof” of the audience. Whenever I would return to my parents’ home in Theodore, Alabama, everywhere I would go around town, I’d be greeted with, “Woof, woof, woof.”
Among other business ventures, I’m a real estate broker in the Cleveland area. I got myself into some trouble recently with my dog reference when a real estate agent from another company called me for information on one of the properties I had listed for sale.
Either he wasn’t a Browns fan or I wasn’t thinking or, most likely, both. His name was Muhammad, thus I assume (in hindsight) that he was Muslim.
“Meestor Deexon,” he said in his Apu-like accent. “I would like to show your property to one of my clients.”
“Great, Dawg!” I told him. “Sell it for me.”
An uncomfortable pause ensued.
“Why you call me a dog, Meestor Deexon?” Muhammad said. “I do nothing bad to you, so why you feel you must call me a dog?”
Suddenly realizing that this gentleman was not up to snuff on Cleveland Browns history, I fumbled for a save.
“Ah, oh, sorry, I just call everybody Dawg.”
“Well I appreciate if you not call me a dog,” he admonished me sternly. Apparently, he didn’t realize that in Cleveland, it’s supposed to be an honor to be addressed as “Dawg” by the Top Dawg himself.
The Dawg Pound fans quickly developed a reputation of making life difficult for opposing teams. It was bad enough for opponents to come in and deal with the shitty locker room and shittier weather, and playing on a surface exquisitely landscaped with green-painted mud. Now they also had to deal with the Dawg Pound. The worst of it would come when an opposing team had to huddle up in the end zone. The Dawg Pound was just a few feet behind them, up a small incline. Dog biscuits, batteries, beer cups, snow balls, you name it, would come whirling rapid fire out of the stands, accompanied by the loud, incessant barking.
Ultimately, the dog food and such had to be banned from the stadium, but much contraband would still find its way in. And at least one game was decided by those crazy dawgs.
In October 1989, we were playing the Denver Broncos. John Elway was Public Enemy Number One in Cleveland, having engineered “The Drive” in the 1986 season’s AFC title game, in which he led the Broncos 98 yards to a game-tying touchdown and Denver went on to beat us in overtime. In the fourth quarter of the 1989 game, the Broncos huddled in the end zone in front of the Dawg Pound, and the onslaught began. It got so bad that the referee ordered us to switch ends, resulting in us now getting the wind at our backs. Frank came up with a fumble recovery deep in our territory with two minutes left, and Bernie Kosar engineered a drive of his own to set up a 47-yard field goal by Matt Bahr as time expired. The ball barely cleared the crossbar, and the wind certainly made the winning difference.
In a 1987 Monday night game, the Dawg Pound fans were reveling in the 17-0 lead we had built on the then-Los Angeles Rams. Biscuits came flying out of the Pound, so much so that the officials asked the Browns to make an announcement on the public address system to knock it off. Talk about trying to put out a fire with gasoline! The Browns wisely declined to make such an announcement, fearing it would only egg things on. No shit, Sherlock. Two weeks later, just before a game with the Falcons, the front office people asked me to not rile up the Pound. Sure, yeah, no problem. I’ll get right on that. Did they think that I’d really be able to calm them down? Did they think I even wanted to calm them down?
Even before the bleachers were known as the Dawg Pound, they still got into the act. In a 1979 game against Houston, the officials had to move an extra point attempt to the other end of the field because of the various fodder pelting the Oilers.
Just for kicks, a couple of years ago, I attended a Browns game and sat in the Dawg Pound. It didn’t take more than a minute for the fans to recognize I was in their midst. One by one, they yelled and pointed. “Look, it’s Hanford Dixon! Woof, woof, woof!” They barked, and I barked back at them. They barked louder and became a bit more rowdy. Before the end of the first quarter, I realized that even though they were friendly dawgs, they outnumbered me about 2,000 to 1. Imagine standing in a pen with 2,000 overly friendly mad fans in various states of inebriation starting to swoop down on you. I casually ducked away.
Calvin Hill, the former Cowboys great, finished his career with the Browns. He was the offensive Rookie of the Year way back in 1969, and his final season was my rookie year. Calvin was the consummate businessman. He always wore the nicest suits and carried a briefcase, always looking like the Yale boy he was. After his retirement, he worked for the Browns’ front office. One day, he suggested something to me.
“This Dawg Pound thing has gotten pretty big,” he said. “Did you ever think about trademarking it?”
I figured if Calvin suggested it, it had to be a good idea. (Years later, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis trademarked “The Bus,” and New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Linn filed a trademark application for “Linsanity.”) I picked up the phone and called my agent and attorney, Bud Holmes. I told him about what Calvin had suggested, and Bud agreed it would be a good thing to do, and he would get right on it.
After some time had passed, Bud gave me a call. “I’ve got bad news for you, Hanford,” he said in his Mississippi drawl. “Dawg Pound and Top Dawg have already been trademarked.”
“What? By who?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“Those terms were trademarked by NFL Properties, at the request of the Cleveland Browns.”
WHAT? I couldn’t believe it. The Browns told me to knock off all this dawg pound nonsense, and then they go behind my back and trademark it? I was madder than a southern copperhead tangled in barbed wire. My immediate thought was to sue, but I didn’t have a case. Once it was trademarked, it was trademarked. The Browns didn’t do anything fraudulent, just sleazy.
As an avid hunter and fisherman, I have plenty of stories about how the big one got away. I habitually purchased lottery tickets at a beverage store after practice. There were the occasional two-dollar winners, but of course, most of the time, these lottery tickets would turn out to be worthless. My wife Hikia, a meticulous housekeeper, once tossed out a stack of lottery tickets she assumed were duds. That evening, I find out that a big-dollar lottery ticket had been sold at the beverage store where I bought those tickets. To this day, that prize has gone unclaimed. Another big one that got away.
Tens of millions of dollars have transacted in the name of The Dawgs or Top Dawg. Neither Frank nor I ever received one nickel in royalties. Hell, Paul Brown received royalties for every nearly useless single-bar facemask stamped out in the 1950s. Talk about another big one that got away. Not to mention the three AFC title games with the Broncos. The NFL took in licensing fees all around. Hallmark even put out a Christmas card depicting Santa lounging in a chair watching a Browns game with a dog in a “Browns Dawg Pound” sweatshirt.
When the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995, the Hawaii-Pacific Apparel Group in Honolulu successfully trademarked Top Dawg, the presumption being the Browns, who were now the Ravens, abandoned the trademark. When the expansion Browns set up shop in 1999, they tried to re-establish the trademark, but were turned down because Hawaii-Pacific now held the mark. A court battle lingered on for nearly a decade, with the Browns continuing to use the Top Dawg mark. It ended with a ruling by a U.S. District judge in New York in February 2008 that the Browns and NFL Properties were the rightful owners of the trademark. They might be the lawful owners of the trademark, but we all know who really brought everyone to the bank, only to be locked outside the front door.
In 1989, I put together a calendar featuring several of the Browns in very gentlemanly poses. I, of course, was in that calendar, but I had to refer myself as Dogg. Had I tried to refer to myself as the Top Dawg, I would have had to have paid the NFL $10,000 for the licensing fee.
Top Dawg had been outfoxed.
Table of Contents
Dawn of the Dawgs
Favorite Game #1: Browns vs. Steelers, Dec. 19, 1982
Frank Minnifield, Co-Dawg
I Am Responsible for Donnie Rogers’ Death
Favorite Game #2: Browns vs. Steelers, Oct. 5, 1986
Favorite Game #3: Browns vs. Jets, Jan. 3, 1987
Eddie and Walter
Riverboat Sam, Martyball, and Bud
Favorite Game #4: Browns vs. Bills, Jan. 6, 1990