CLEVELAND (AP) — With a handoff from Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and a few nudges from running back Trent Richardson, 5-year-old cancer survivor Ryan Encinas covered the 40 yards as fast as he could.
The Browns have had longer touchdown runs in their history, never one so sweet.
Encinas, who recently celebrated two years in remission after being diagnosed with lung cancer, concluded Cleveland’s “Family Night” practice at FirstEnergy Stadium on Saturday by running for a TD while being escorted by all the Browns. Once he reached the end zone, Encinas was lifted in the air by linebacker Craig Robertson and all the Browns huddled as the youngster soared above them and the crowd cheered.
“That was cool,” Weeden said. “The kid’s been through a lot. I do a lot of stuff back home with Children’s Hospital, so every time something like that happens, it brings a lump to your throat.”
The touching moment was similar to the one that took place earlier this year at Nebraska, when the Cornhuskers let 7-year-old Jack Hoffman, fighting brain cancer, run for a TD during their spring game.
“How ’bout that first-round draft pick there?” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said of Encinas, who wore a No. 1 Browns jersey and helmet for his magical run.
The Browns drew 24,131 fans for their stadium workout, which broke up the monotony of training camp for the players and allowed eager Cleveland fans who can’t wait for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener to get their first glimpse of a team with higher expectations than Browns squads in recent years.
Weeden threw a few nice passes and had one picked off by cornerback Joe Haden as Cleveland’s defense dominated the 2 ½-hour workout. Richardson missed his second straight practice with a shin injury, and rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo showed why the Browns selected him in the first round with a few strong moves rushing the quarterback.
But the night’s unquestioned star was Encinas, whose family believed he was fighting a cold when a football-sized tumor was discovered in his left lung. Encinas had to endure weeks of chemotherapy while his mom, Angela, had to drop out of school to take care of her son.
Chudzinski said his son, Kaelan, came up with the idea of doing something for Encinas, who got some tips on a celebration dance from Richardson during a visit to Browns practice earlier this week.
Many of the players were visibly moved by the tribute to Encinas, who will be a kindergartner this fall.
“He couldn’t do the things he wanted to do growing up, but to have this moment in front of these fans in this stadium, I’m getting chills right now,” Mingo said. “I’m sure it meant a lot to that little kid.”
The Littlest Heroes, a program that supports families with young cancer patients, worked with the Browns to arrange the once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
“This is one of the highest highs we’ve had during this entire ordeal,” said Encinas’ father, Robert Bozic, whose family lives in Cuyahoga Falls. “To see him out there running with the Cleveland Browns is one of the greatest experiences of our lives.”
The Browns were thrilled by the crowd, which was double what they drew for the same event two years ago.
Weeden said he had trouble hearing the first play being called in his helmet transistor, and the stadium was only about one-third filled. Weeden can only imagine what kind of home-field advantage the Browns would have if they started winning consistently at home. Cleveland is just 41-71 in its lakefront stadium since 1999.
“Oh, man, this place would be electric,” Weeden said. “I would not want to come here as a visitor. I was talking to (backup QB) Brian Hoyer (a Cleveland native) about it the other day. I said, man, if we can win some games this place right here will be one of the most electric atmospheres in the league. The Dawg Pound and everybody else, it’s great to begin with, and if we win some games the roof will blow off this thing.”
Mingo, too, was dazzled by the crowd.
“We had the first tier (filled), and it was still loud,” said Mingo, who is working with the second-team defense. “I’m like, ‘this is going to be fun to play in.’ I’m really looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to seeing the field, though. I want to see the field.”
NOTES: Chudzinski said no decision has been made whether Richardson will play in the exhibition opener against St. Louis. The second-year back sat out the preseason last year as he recovered from knee surgery. He was kicked in the shin during practice Thursday. … Weeden looked confident while stepping into many passes. However, WR Josh Gordon dropped a couple and Haden picked off the QB, who feels like he’s making progress. “I’m moving in the right direction,” he said, “my comprehension of the offense, my feel, my understanding of where to go with the football is getting there. I’ve got a long ways to go but I’ve got to keep working and these guys are going to rely on me.” … Browns owner Jimmy Haslam watched from the sideline along with CEO Joe Banner. .. Safety T.J. Ward sat out the session with a sore hamstring, but said earlier in the day he “definitely” expects to play in the exhibition opener. … The Browns re-signed guard Dominic Alford and waived linebacker Adrian Moten. Alford was on Cleveland’s practice squad in 2011.