The winless Browns cut him, now he's a Super Bowl champ

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In 2016, Austin Reiter was a center for the Cleveland Browns. The team went 1-15, although, in fairness, Reiter was injured for most of it. 

In 2017, Austin Reiter returned for another season with the Browns, only this time limited to special teams offensive line play. The team went 0-16. That’s the worst two-year stretch (and tied for the worst single season) of any franchise in NFL history.

Before the start of the 2018 season, Cleveland cut him. Arguably the worst team the NFL has ever seen determined that Austin Reiter wasn’t good enough to play for it anymore.

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From the outside, this sort of made sense. You go 1-31 and you might as well clean house. After all, exactly how good could a special teamer who couldn't crack an offensive line rotation that allowed a whopping 50 sacks in 2017 and a league-high 130 quarterback hits actually be? 

Reiter didn’t have much of a pedigree to argue. He was a two-star recruit out of high school before signing with South Florida. Washington drafted him in 2014, but not until the seventh round. He then spent his entire time in Washington on the practice squad. Obviously no one in Cleveland thought much of him. 

Maybe, it was fair to wonder, if having the Browns fire him was a sign his NFL career was over.

“One man’s trash,” Reiter said, smiling, on Sunday night, “is another man’s treasure.”

Patrick Mahomes celebrates with Austin Reiter after the Chiefs' 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. (Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes celebrates with Austin Reiter after the Chiefs' 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. (Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Reiter, 28, was standing in the middle of the celebratory swirl of the Kansas City Chiefs locker room. He was wearing a Super Bowl champion hat on his head and a Super Bowl champion t-shirt over his shoulder pads. He was about to get his hands on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, give it a kiss and pose for a picture. 

The guy who couldn’t make it on one of the worst teams in the league had just been a starter on the best team in the league.

“The NFL is crazy,” Reiter said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways and here I am.”

Fans and media understandably focus on the stars and that was no different when Kansas City defeated San Francisco 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, where quarterback Patrick Mahomes was deservedly the game’s MVP.

The core of every NFL team, however, is made up of guys such as Reiter, somewhat interchangeable talents who are always looking for the right opportunity, the right fit, the right coach to believe in them. Careers are short. Stops on teams are shorter. 

“I’ve been with plenty of guys, two years done and you never get another workout again,” Reiter said. “That is always in the back of my head.”

And when Cleveland got rid of him, it would have been easy for him to give up. Except for two things. One, his support system back in Bradenton, Florida, where he grew up, and at USF. 

“Family, friends, my trainers,” Reiter said. “They always believed in me.”

The second was that it took only one day for Kansas City to claim him off waivers. The Chiefs, a perennial playoff team, had clearly seen something in the 6-3, 300-pounder.

Even then, nothing was guaranteed. He was making the league minimum for a player with his experience ($630,000). He knew he could be cut and replaced at any moment. 

“I just kept working,” Reiter said. He didn’t get into a game until Week 6 and that was only on special teams. It wasn’t until Week 8 of the 2018 season that he finally played with the regular offensive unit. 

Along the way, the Chiefs actually won a game, 45-10 over Cincinnati. The date: Oct. 10, 2018. It was the first game Reiter had played in that his team had won in nearly four years, dating back to when USF defeated SMU 14-13 on Nov. 15, 2014.

He played in every Chiefs game the rest of the year, either on special teams or the offensive line. He even started four times. In December of 2018, Kansas City rewarded him with a two-year guaranteed contract, worth up to $5.5. million. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy noted Reiter had done “a hell of a job.”

By this season, he was entrenched as the starting center — all 16 regular-season games and all three playoff contests. He was the man in the middle of one of the most explosive offenses in the league. And Sunday night, a guy who couldn’t get off the practice squad in Washington and got cut by Cleveland played 73 snaps (No. 62 in the clip below) and was a champion.

“All along I knew I could play,” Reiter said. “I thought it was somewhat political at times. [Expletive] happens. Good players get cut all the time. I had to live by that mentality. So I just worked, I just tried my ass off. You just have to keep your nose to the grindstone.”

He wasn’t calling out Cleveland or pairing his fortune with its misfortune. There appeared to be no hard feelings. The best revenge is a life well lived and it’s hard to live life better than winning a Super Bowl. 

And that’s Austin Reiter, the unlikely Austin Reiter, a Super Bowl winner.

“Sounds great,” he said, laughing. “Doesn’t it?”

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