CLEVELAND — While Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel has spent most of his time over the past several days preparing his team for Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Cleveland Browns, he did take a moment to harken back to where his football journey started: Northeast Ohio.
Vrabel grew up in Akron, Ohio, and before a standout career at The Ohio State University, and later, in the National Football League with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, he starred at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls.
“I appreciate the education, the discipline and how it prepared me to move on and to go to college,” Vrabel said in a conference call with the Cleveland media Wednesday.
“I am thankful for guys like Gerry Rardin, the football coach there who up until a few years ago, was still coaching. He had the opportunity to come down here and visit with us at Tennessee. I am proud to say that I went to Walsh and proud to say that I was coached by Gerry Rardin.”
Vrabel’s memories of growing up as a football fan in Cleveland go back to the days of the original team, who called home Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which was on the same site that Sunday’s game will be played on, FirstEnergy Stadium.
“It is always unique when you go back home as a player, and now, as a coach to see things kind of come full circle,” Vrabel said. “I lived 18 years in Akron and grew up there as a Browns fan. I was at the last game at (the) Stadium, and then, started a career as a professional football player and a coach.
“There will be a lot of people at the game. It will be an opportunity for me to see some people that I have not seen in a while, but it will be about the players and it will be about those guys on the field. It is not about me heading back into Northeast Ohio.”
That final Browns game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-10, in front of more than 55,000 fans, left an indelible mark on Vrabel, as he watched the city mourn the loss of their beloved team ahead of the move to Baltimore.
“I love how they took off the bleachers,” Vrabel said. “You rip them off 12 at a time, carry them all way the down and dump them into the end zone and on the sideline.
“I think they ended up having to switch fields because I think all the stuff was piling up in the end zone. They were pulling the row of chairs off and everybody would start cheering in the 12th, eighth row and everybody would go crazy when it finally got dumped over onto the field.”
Vrabel contends that neither he nor his friend took anything from Cleveland Municipal Stadium during that final game other than memories, but instead of letting nostalgia take over, he is ready to take on his hometown team in the 2019 regular-season opener.
“Every week in this league is a difficult challenge, and this will be another one for us to be able to cover their skill players -- (Jarvis) Landry, (David) Njoku; (Nick) Chubb is a very good runner. (Rashard) Higgins has had success, has caught balls and is somebody that Baker (Mayfield) is comfortable with. It is always something and this week, we are zeroing in on those guys.”