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How Joel Bitonio helps to symbolize the Browns' rise

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To understand Cleveland Browns guard Joel Bitonio, quite possibly the most talented rookie of the 2014 draft class, you must first stare into the eyes of Bart Vale.

Vale is 6-foot-4 and weighs 260 pounds. He has a handlebar mustache that covers parts of his broken plaster face and wears American flag trunks like Rocky Balboa. He is the Shootfighting champion of the world, a sport that molded kickboxing and wrestling long before Mixed Martial Arts went mainstream. He claims to have never been seriously injured in a sport that incorporates bareknuckle hand-to-hand combat. He is a seventh-degree black belt.

Now look at the man climbing into the ring to fight him. Mike Bitonio, Joel's father, is 45 pounds lighter and three inches shorter. His plain black trunks match a modest black T-shirt that he wears into the cage. In a pre-fight interview, the carpet-layer from Southern California is asked what he would do if he won the World Combat Championships.

His response?

"I'm gonna pay some bills."

The fight lasts so much longer than it should. One of Mike's eyes has a hematoma above, just one more collision away from a full, bloody burst. His nose is a steady stream of red. Vale straddles him, crushing down with all his weight and the announcers beg Mike's corner to throw in the towel.

He endures the choke holds and forehead smashes into his face for almost six minutes but doesn't quit. He flips from underneath Vale and plants him on his back. He connects on a few punches before Vale digs his arm underneath Mike's neck and chokes him out.

Afterward, the two men hugged and talked about a lingering soreness that would stretch for weeks.

"The fight was devastating," Vale tells NFL.com in a phone interview almost 19 years to the day. He says the brutality of that match alone changed the sport. Head-butting, hair-pulling and eye-gouging were all eliminated from the rules in order to preserve the health of its participants -- all the stuff he did to Mike to try and get him to quit.

"But everything I tried, nothing seemed to bother him at all," Vale said.

* * *

Joel has been without Mike for four years now. He passed away at the age of 45 after an afternoon working in the family garage. He suffered a massive heart attack on the ambulance ride to the hospital. Joel was just a freshman at Nevada, an under-recruited, two-star prospect who spoke to his father on the phone every single night.

He found out after practice and felt that baseball bat to the gut. His hero, the man who lived every day for everyone else, was gone.

"It's like 'Why? Why did my dad have to go?'" Joel's mother, Debbie, said in a recent conversation. "Why did this have to happen to us? That puts a little bit more fire in your soul. A little more 'I can't waste any more moments, because look what can happen.' Looking at it that way probably changed what his thinking is. I have to go for this because I can't waste any time."

He was four when his father changed professional fighting. Joel's memories back then are spotty, but he knows that the first thing dad did when he got off the plane was cash his check and drive the family to Disney World. His face still black and blue, he stopped to sign autographs.

Joel first saw the Bart Vale fight a few years later when he was in middle school. Mike had some time between two jobs laying custom tile and carpeting and wanted Joel to understand who he was, and who his son was supposed to be.

From time to time, when he needs motivation, he'll pull the fight up on YouTube.

When Mike flew to tournaments around the country, he would always be matched up with the most difficult fighters. It was a process that Vale described as "railroading," because so many of the other established names wouldn't want Mike to wear them down. Before his matchup with Vale, he was undefeated in bareknuckle contests. His reputation to never tap out frightened people.

"He's the hardest working, toughest S.O.B. I've ever met," Joel told NFL.com. "He laid carpet and did tile. He couldn't do MMA full time because it didn't pay like it does now. But he never complained. The way he attacked things and the desire he had to take care of his family -- I hope when I have a family I can be close to what he was to this family."

After Mike passed away, Joel was different -- the whole family was. There was a fire ignited; a natural ability mixed with a sense of urgency. He came out of Nevada knowing how to play every spot on the offensive line despite having four different position coaches in four seasons. He started every game between his sophomore and senior season -- 39 straight -- and was pegged by some analysts as the best interior offensive lineman in the draft.

Scouts drooled over his potential. Agents clamored to sign him.

"If Bitonio stays healthy and continues to develop, he should be a perennial All-Pro in a couple of years," NFL Media's Mike Mayock said. "He should play in the league for 10 or 12 years, he can start at all five positions, but inside, he's got Pro Bowl potential."

* * *

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In some ways, Joel's rise parallels that of the Browns: Imperfect but endearing. They head into Thursday Night Football against the Bengals this week (8:25 PM ET, NFL Network) very much alive in what might be the nastiest division in football. A win would give them three straight and six overall, the same total number as the Eagles, Cowboys, Steelers and Broncos.

When Mike Pettine took over as head coach, his immediate tenure was marked by the addition of a lightning-rod quarterback that has yet to play significant snaps. But the rest of his roster is taking on a different attitude.

Pettine has had the best start for a new Browns coach through eight games since Blanton Collier in 1963. He has the best home start at FirstEnergy Stadium since 2007. He has Nick McDonald, a center who, as a child, was abandoned by his father after his mother died of cancer. McDonald and three other siblings ages 18 and under found a way to survive together.

He has Karlos Dansby, a powerful linebacker who, with the help of his preacher father, overcame a crippling fear of football to become one of the league's most feared defenders. He has Brian Hoyer, the local kid from Saint Ignatius who wants nothing more than to bear the weight of his city. He has Joe Haden, a franchise cornerback who saved his younger brother's life as a child. Joe's brother has a cognitive disorder, and Joe serves as his inspiration to this day.

And he has Bitonio, now the fifth-ranked guard in football by the analytic site Pro Football Focus. He has yet to give up a single sack, and has played every offensive snap for the Browns this season.

"Everybody that comes to our football team, it's not based on talent," Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer said on Tuesday. "It's can you fit in to what we wanted to do, short term and long-term."

They all carry pieces of their past with them when they play, and Joel resembles his father on the field more than he would care to admit.

* * *

Now, look at Mike's son. It's his first NFL start and the Browns are losing by 21 points midway through the second quarter.

The play call is a stretch run to the left side and the running back will cut off Joel's inside hip.

Look at him burst off the ball and slug his helmet right into Cameron Heyward's shoulder. Heyward, a former first-round pick, is quicker and stronger. He is the son of a former NFL running back and in three professional seasons, he's never missed a game.

The two are still tangled eight yards down field and Cleveland's running back, Ben Tate, is about to make his move.

Heyward rips his left arm violently across Bitonio's body in an attempt to shed the block but Joel counters with a hard right elbow, spinning Heyward around in time to see Tate breaking off a 25-yard run. The Browns are going to come all the way back and tie the game before losing on a last-second field goal. Less than a month later, in what will be looked at as Joel's best NFL game, Cleveland will set an NFL record for the largest road comeback in league history in a 29-28 win over the Titans.

It all seems so familiar, the punching and the shoving. The endless push.

No fear, no matter what. Never any fear.

"I want to be the best, that's what drives me," Joel said. "I want to be great."

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