Cleveland Browns safety Donte Whitner and quarterback Brian Hoyer grew up in Cleveland and supported the team they now play for while representing Glenville and St. Ignatius high schools, respectively, on Friday and Saturday nights more than a decade ago.
When they entered FirstEnergy Stadium prior to Saturday night's preseason home opener against the St. Louis Rams, both players were filled with joy, but for different reasons.
Saturday's game was a homecoming for Whitner, who signed with the Browns in free agency after spending the first five years of his career in Buffalo and the next three with the San Francisco 49ers. And Whitner celebrated the occasion by kissing the ground as he exited the tunnel during pregame introductions.
"This is where I'm from," Whitner said. "This is what my heart is, what I love. I think that's what I'm going to do every time I come out and I'm called because I kiss the land. This is where I'm from, Cleveland.
"It was good. I was taking it all in before the game, sat out here for a while, but after the first kickoff and first hit, it was back to normal football. We made a couple mistakes. We've got to start earlier than what we did."
The return to FirstEnergy Stadium for Hoyer was the culmination of 10 months of pain, which came both from a missed opportunity as well as rehabilitation after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the very same field against the Buffalo Bills last October.
Prior to the injury, Hoyer led the Browns to back-to-back victories at the Minnesota Vikings and then, against the Cincinnati Bengals. Hoyer tossed a seven-yard game-winning touchdown to tight end Jordan Cameron in Minnesota, and threw for another two scores in a 17-6 win over the Bengals a week later.
"It's good," Hoyer said of being back on the field. "It hit me when I ran out of the tunnel that a lot of hard work was put into getting back on this field because last time I was on this field was not a good night, so (I have to) put the work in and just got to keep improving."
Since the Browns last played at FirstEnergy Stadium, a 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears on December 15, 2013, the team conducted phase one of a two-year, $120 million renovation project, which saw the installation of new video boards and ribbon boards around the stadium, as well as a new audio system and an increased seating capacity in the lower bowl.
While the stadium offers fans a new, upgraded game day experience, Hoyer is working hard to make sure that improvement is what they see on the playing field.
"It's great," Hoyer said of the changes. "The scoreboards look great. The music is loud. The Dawg Pound is rocking. Our fans deserve better, and we'll give that to them."