You could hear the emotion in Kevin Johnson’s voice —even over the telephone — just how much the play still means to him.
The game happened 19 years ago, but for Johnson — a rookie receiver with the Cleveland Browns at the time — the moment seems more like 19 minutes ago.
“We were winning, then all of a sudden we were losing,” Johnson said. “Next thing I know we were calling for a Hail Mary and I catch it and everybody’s on top of me.”
Johnson’s 56-yard reception off the desperation heave from Tim Couch set off all types of emotions.
Mike Ditka, the Saints head coach at the time, lay face down on the Superdome turf, stunned just like the other 48,817 folks who watched on that Halloween Day in 1999.
Final score: Browns 21, Saints 16.
It was the Browns’ first win in the franchise’s return.
The city of Cleveland had been without football the previous three seasons after owner Art Modell relocated the team to Baltimore.
The Browns lost their first seven games before Johnson answered Couch’s prayer as the clock struck zero.
“It was pretty amazing when you look back at all the things we had went through,” said Johnson, who now owns a fitness center in Trenton, New Jersey. “To win our first game in that fashion was pretty amazing. It’s one of those moments that I look back at almost 20 years later and say ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’ ”
On Sunday, the Saints try to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
A Saints’ loss would be even more devastating than that one in 1999.
It would mean a fifth straight 0-2 start. Bad on any year. Worse yet for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Back-to-back home losses to the Bucs and Browns, with trips to Atlanta and New York upcoming, would also mean it’s time to start looking for the panic button, even if it’s still too soon to actually push it.
Cleveland, just like almost two decades ago, limps into the Dome desperate for a win. They have gone 18 consecutive games without one, although last week’s tie against Pittsburgh had to feel like a win in The Land. Hey, at least it wasn’t a loss.
Cleveland hasn’t won a game since Christmas Eve 2016, when they beat the Chargers, who have migrated from San Diego to L.A. since then.
Current Saints linebacker Demario Davis was on that Browns’ team. It’s hard for him to believe they haven’t won since then.
“They have a good team with good players and good coaches,” Davis said. “And they play hard. So, yeah, it is kinda shocking. They have been in a lot of games, but for whatever reason they haven’t been able to come out on top.”
Except, of course, when they play the Saints, who have proved to be the cure to the Browns’ ailments over the years.
The Saints are a dismal 4-13 all-time against the Browns, including 2-8 in games played in New Orleans. They are 1-2 against Cleveland in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era. (Brees and Payton’s first win together was against the Browns in the 2006 season opener.)
The Browns won the first eight games in the series that started back in 1967 and have won five of the past six.
The Saints’ 23.5 winning percentage against the Browns is the team’s third worst mark against any team in the league. The Saints have fared only worse against the Ravens (1-5, 16.6 percent) and the Broncos (2-9, 18.2 percent).
The Browns have won the past two games against the Saints but haven’t had much else to boast about in recent years. They’ve had just two winning seasons since 1999, which explains why Saints cornerback Justin Hardee (one of three Saints players from Cleveland) was stumped when asked about his favorite Browns moment. Hardee, who grew up a Browns’ fan, pondered the question before coming up empty.
“They didn’t win much when I was watching them, but I’ve always been a diehard fan because that’s my hometown,” Hardee said. “It’s going to be crazy playing against them. It’s personal for me, and I’m sure the same for Marshon (Lattimore) and Ted (Ginn Jr.).”
Ginn considers himself a diehard Browns fan, too. He still uses the words “we” and “our” when referring to the team he’s rooted for his whole life and the one he wishes could have turned a tie into a win a week ago.
“You see the potential,” Ginn said. “It’s another stepping stone for the organization, and it’s a great start. I hope they turn it around for the city.”
He just doesn’t want to see them turn things around this week.
After all, after last week’s debacle against Tampa Bay, the Saints find themselves trying to turn things around, too.
A team that hasn’t won a game in almost two years would seem like the perfect solution.
But history — including a 1999 Hail Mary — says this one won’t be easy.
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