By: Steve King, Contributor to ClevelandBrowns.com
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When Don Cockroft came into the world, the Browns did not exist.
It would be another year and a half before they played their first game in 1946 in the All-America Football Conference.
But now it’s impossible to study Browns history without thinking about Cockroft, who was born Feb. 6, 1945 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Cockroft, a third-round choice of the Browns in the 1967 NFL Draft out of tiny Adams State, played for the team for 13 seasons (1968-80). He kicked for all of that time, and, until being passed by Phil Dawson in 2011, was the No. 2 career scorer in team history with 1,080 points. He is also third in field goals with 216.
Cockroft had three signature field goals in his career – a 26-yarder with just seconds remaining that edged the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-24, at Cleveland in 1972 and served as the catalyst to the Browns earning the AFC’s lone wild-card playoff berth, while also, according to him, jump-starting his career; a 35-yarder that defeated the New England Patriots 30-27 in 1977 at Cleveland on Monday Night Football in the first overtime game in club history; and a 22-yarder with just over a minute left that provided the deciding points in a 27-24 victory over the Bengals at Cincinnati in the 1980 regular-season finale that clinched the Central Division title and earned the team its first trip to the postseason since that 1972 season.
With his confidence renewed, Cockroft finished 1972 with an NFL-leading 81.5 success rate on his field goals (22-of-27). He also topped the league in 1974 by making 87.5 percent (14-of-16).
He finished his career 216-of-328 (65.9 percent).
In addition, Cockroft served as the team’s punter for nine years (1968-76), with a career average of 40.3 yards per attempt. His best season was in 1972, when he averaged 43.2 yards.
Doing any of this was not easy for Cockroft, simply because he had the immense pressure of trying to fill the huge shoes of Pro Football Hall of Fame kicker Lou “The Toe” Groza, who retired following the 1967 season after having been with the Browns since that inaugural year of 1946.
To put that into perspective, on the day Cockroft was born, Groza was still serving in World War II.
But as an addendum to that, Cockroft was extremely respectful of, but never intimidated by, the aura of Groza, and ended up carving out his own niche in Browns history in the great lineage of the team’s kickers.
Other former Browns born on this date, Feb. 6, include punter/quarterback Tom Tupa (1966 in Cleveland), defensive tackle James Jones (1969 in Davenport, Iowa), guard Houston Hoover (1965 in Yazoo City, Miss.) and cornerback Randy Hilliard (1967 in New Orleans).
Tupa, who played in the Cleveland suburbs at Brecksville High School and then at Ohio State, was signed by the Browns when they released quarterback Bernie Kosar midway through the 1993 season and stayed through 1995, after which the franchise moved to Baltimore.
Despite having played quarterback for the first five years of his career with the Phoenix Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts after having been a third-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 1988, Tupa never played the position in a regular-season game with Cleveland.
He did, however, serve as the team’s punter in 1994 and ’95, having one of the better per-attempt averages in team history at 43.6 in 1995.
Jones, a third-round draft pick of the Browns in 1991 out of Northern Iowa, played with the original franchise for the last five years of its existence. He was a full-time starter for the first two years, and a part-time starter in 1993. He had 13 sacks.
Known for his athleticism, Jones was used in short-yardage situations on offense, scoring one touchdown on a pass reception and another on a run while also serving as a lead blocker.
Hoover was a starter at left guard in his only season with the Browns, 1993, after having signed as a free agent. He spent his first five NFL seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, who drafted him in the sixth round in 1988 out of Jackson State.
Hilliard was slight – even for a defensive back – at just 165 pounds, but he nonetheless played well, mostly as a reserve, for four seasons with the Browns after they took him as a sixth-round draft choice in 1990 out of Northwestern State.
Finally, on Feb. 6, 1983, Browns rookie outside linebacker Chip Banks played in his first Pro Bowl. He made four trips – all in a row — to the Pro Bowl, tied for the most by a linebacker in team history.
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