BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Josh Cribbs opened his eyes and was surprised to see his teammates huddling around him on their knees. He got up and was approached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who shook Cribbs' hand.
It felt like a dream.
"I was like, 'What is Michael Irvin doing on the field?' " Cribbs said. "I thought I was seeing stuff."
Fortunately, Cribbs can joke now about the vicious hit he absorbed last week in Baltimore, a crushing blow to the side of his head that knocked him unconscious, sent his helmet flying and left his family in tears.
Cribbs was cleared to return to practice on Wednesday, less than a week after taking a hit that silenced an entire stadium and dazed a national TV audience. He remembers very little of the shot he took from Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on a kickoff return in the first quarter. As Cribbs was being wrapped up by Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox, Ellerbe came in from the side and lowered his shoulder and forearm into Cribbs' helmet, a legal but lethal shot.
Cribbs' arms flew back impulsively and his dreadlocks flipped back before his head smashed into the synthetic turf. As Cribbs lay motionless, another Baltimore player accidentally kicked him in the face as players for both teams fought for the fumble. Cribbs, who has only watched one replay of the tackle, said he has little memory of what happened.
"I don't remember much about the hit, but after I came up I was ready to play again," Cribbs said. "They had to take my helmet and everything for me not play and had to keep tabs on me in the locker room so I wouldn't run back out there. I was ready to play and I'm ready to play this week."
Cribbs has been knocked out on the field before, but never for as long as he was last week. After being helped to his feet, Cribbs noticed that many of his teammates — and most of the Ravens — had been kneeling in prayer as he was being treated by Cleveland's medical staff. That's also when he saw Irvin, who was broadcasting the game and came onto the field out of concern.
In the aftermath of the hit, Cribbs said his wife and other family members have urged him to retire.
"Everybody was calling. They couldn't stop crying," he said. "My brother wants me to stop. Everybody was talking to me like they were talking to my dad. He's a police officer in (Washington) D.C. and when he was reaching retirement, they wanted him to get behind a desk. Right now, they're doing the same thing to me. They're telling me, 'I know you love the game.' They're trying to get me out of playing. They're like 'man, you're family's more important. You've got so many years of your life.'
"They're basically telling me, whenever I'm ready, they won't be mad."
His fearlessness has helped Cribbs become one of the best kickoff returners in NFL history. He holds the league record with eight returns for touchdowns. However, he also knows that the brutal contact comes with a price.
Cribbs has seen the effects head injuries have had on players and he has been moved by the medical condition of former Browns teammate Jerome Harrison, who continues to recover from surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Cribbs knows the risks. But he's not going to change the way he plays — head first and full throttle.
"I'm not scared," he said. "I love the game. I signed up for this. If I have an injury or something long term, that would be my story. I'd be like, turn on the film, you want to know why I'm like this? Watch this. It'd be a lot of highlights and a lot of tragedy. I've gotten knocked out this and that but I have a lot of film. That's my legacy."
Cribbs missed Monday's practice, but was allowed back on the field Wednesday after his tests were checked by an independent doctor as required by the NFL's policy on head injuries.
"I'm cleared to play," he said. "I passed all the tests — even the balance test during the game. I'm blessed with a kill switch. The doctor said that was a good thing that happened, some guys don't get up after that and recover as fast as I have. I got someone looking out for me."
Cribbs was touched by an outpouring of support after he got hurt. He received over 2,500 messages on Twitter, other fans have offered prayers and one had a gift delivered.
"My mother-in-law sent me a get-well-soon cake," he said.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had an unobstructed view of the nasty hit on Cribbs. He was stunned to see his tough teammate flattened.
"Anytime you see a guy's helmet fly off and the way he reacted after he got hit, it scares you," Weeden said. "Even if it was one of their guys, it's just scary. You don't want to see it on anybody. He's a tough cat. I mean he's Josh Cribbs. I'm glad No. 16's on our team 'cause there's not many guys in the league that bounce back up and kind of respond the way he did. That's pretty impressive."
Cribbs was a major part of Cleveland's game plan last week, and without him the Browns lost 23-16 and dropped to 0-4. Cribbs could have a big role again this Sunday when the Browns visit the New York Giants. Cleveland is short-handed at wide receiver with Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin battling hamstring injuries.
Cribbs has been campaigning to be more involved in Cleveland's offense, and may get the chance.
"I always tell the QBs, 'If you want to get those stats up, keep giving me the ball. I'm here for y'all.' I just want to play," he said . "I want to be of good use to my team."
NOTES: Browns S T.J. Ward didn't practice because of a broken thumb. Ward had surgery earlier this week and may be kept out of this week's game. ... Browns DT Ahtyba Rubin was chosen as the fourth honorary captain for Sunday's game by the three regular captains. .... Browns coach Pat Shurmur had high praise for K Phil Dawson, who has made 11 field goals of 50 yards or longer in his last 17 games. "I can't imagine there's really a better kicker anywhere else," Shurmur said. "We're really blessed to have him."
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