December 17, 1995
It was cold that day. There are no warm days in December. On most trips to Cleveland, the weather is part of the story. In a lot of ways, it defines the trip. On this day, however, it was hardly worth remembering. The Cleveland Browns would play their last game, maybe ever, and I needed to be there.
In 1995, before the Internet, information traveled much slower. I sat at a stoplight and listened to a news break on the radio, hearing the news that would devastate a 16-year-old who’d lived and died with a football team since turning 6, watching Bernie Kosar bring the Browns back from the dead in a playoff victory over the Jets. If that game was living, the next week was dying.
I didn’t believe the news the man on the radio read. There must be some mistake.
The report was wrong.
The Cleveland Browns do not move.
Art Modell would change his mind once he faced the wrath of the fans.
The report was right, however, and no one was changing anyone’s mind, not with the amount of money at stake. The only thing that I ever loved, besides my family, was leaving. I needed to go to the wake.
My friend had family in Cleveland, and they found us tickets in the Dawg Pound, which we requested. Neither of us had sat in the infamous section, and we’d never get another chance. It was important for us to see at least one game from there, if nothing else than to validate our fandom.
Yeah, I’ve sat in the Dawg Pound before. At the last game in the old stadium.
Whether it was as wonderful and sad a day as I remember is debatable, with almost 24 years between now and then to play tricks on my memory. I knew that day I belonged, however. I was a tried-and-true Browns fan, just in time to see them walk out the door.
The Dawg Pound lived up to its reputation. I smelled weed for the first time that day, in the second quarter. A man in the row in front of us argued with another guy 10 rows lower, for what seemed like the entire 1st half. The guy in the lower seat had enough, came up to the row, excused himself through 20 people to challenge the shit talker before getting his ass severely beaten, then having to excuse himself to the same 20 people to get back to his seat, head hung low.
Earnest Byner ran roughshod over the Bengals that day, and by the middle of the third quarter the Browns had the game in hand. For the first time, it set in. A quiet overtook the stadium. We were surrounded by the cold; the reality of the situation combined with the weather as 60 some thousand felt it. This was the end.
Then all hell broke loose.
It began to our right. First, a few seats could be seen passed down the rows, then tossed onto the field. Then entire rows cascaded down. Rows upon rows of seats gathered on the field. What started in one section was now occurring all over the stadium. The game became inconsequential. The Browns were leaving dammit, and we would get our pound of flesh.
The wooden bleacher seats in the Dawg Pound were no longer safe. Our entire row stood on the bench and began to jump. When it broke, we all ended up on our asses. A mad scramble occurred, everyone grasping to secure a piece of the crumbling stadium. The fourth quarter was a blur. We couldn’t stop them from leaving, but we damn well would savor one last moment, together. Browns fans as one, saying goodbye, and tearing shit up.
We’re on the precipice of something. It has taken twenty-five years, but NFL football may truly be back in Cleveland. Other than 2007, no Browns team has given the fans hope that, yes, their Browns will be a factor in the upcoming season.
We know how 2007 turned out. Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow II and Jamal Lewis would wreak havoc on the league, and would dominate the AFC North. It sounds funny now, but when Super Bowl chants broke out during training camp that year, few were laughing.
It’s different this time around, because of Baker Mayfield. While Anderson was coming off a Pro Bowl season, no one projected greatness onto him. Brady Quinn gave more hope to the fans than Anderson, yet both never amounted to more than adequate backups. It is therefore a frivolous exercise, to bestow greatness on one man, to heap the hopes of an entire franchise on the right arm of Baker Mayfield. In a league where the importance of one player, the quarterback, cannot be overstated, we have given Mayfield this responsibility, and he seems to all the world to be up for it.
He inspires hope.
Remember that night in March, when you heard the news? Odell Beckham Jr. was coming to Cleveland. Maybe it flashed across your television screen. Maybe a friend texted you, or an app alerted you. Remember the pure, unadulterated joy you felt, hearing those words for the first time? Odell Beckham, Cleveland Brown. It is all we’ve ever asked for. Never forget that feeling.
It is all we have a right to ask for. Many teams and numerous great players never win championships. It is foolhardy to allow a championship to become the only thing. LeBron came back and won. It was glorious, an unbelievable moment to look up, spread your arms wide, and declare your team a champion; to look in the rafters and see the banner waving. But wasn’t the journey the thing?
Enjoy the wins, and the moments that lead to them. That’s all that will matter. A title may or may not come, but it won’t change your life either way. Savor all the victories, large and small, because damn, this team will be fun as all hell.
Baker has the look of a franchise QB who will dominate for 12-15 years. So before getting swept up in the mania of it all, remember to enjoy the journey. Never forget the long, cold December walks out of First Energy Stadium after another loss to the Steelers. Don’t forget the sea of empty orange seats as another horrid season came to a close. Remember the constant firings and reboots. Remember 0-16.
It can be, and has been, worse. When Baker hits Odell in the numbers on a slant, as he weaves through defenders on his way to the end zone, remember Kevin Johnson. When Myles Garrett lays out Ben Roethlisberger after making another offensive lineman look foolish, remember Jamir Miller. When Denzel Ward reads Lamar Jackson’s eyes for a game saving interception, remember Corey Fuller.
It is time. Everything that Browns fans have hoped for, with every fiber of our being, sits in front of us. The talent is everywhere on the field. In the next few years, the possibilities are endless. It will be more fun than any of us have ever had watching pro football, unless you are old enough to remember Bernie in the ‘80s. It’s about time.
The memories obtained attending games in Cleveland are vivid and awful. Aside from the last game played in old Municipal Stadium, my introduction to the crumbling cathedral was in 1990, as a 12-year-old. My uncle’s friend had season tickets behind the baseball dugout the Browns used to enter and exit the field. Yes, you read that correctly.
After 3 trips to the AFC Championship game in the previous 4 years, ‘90 proved to be a precursor to the future for the team. Bernie Kosar had a bad day, completing less than half of his passes while throwing two interceptions, while Dan Marino, of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective fame, tossed 2 touchdowns in a 30-13 drubbing. Despite being a cold and dreary day, with little to cheer, it was an exciting time for a young fan. Sitting in an NFL stadium, feeling the passion, albeit in a lost season, of the fans in Cleveland will forever remain with me. The energy and atmosphere of the place was indescribable. I’ve been to plenty of sporting events all over the country, indoor and outdoor venues alike. I’m sure I will never experience an atmosphere like it.
You knew you were in Cleveland, and you knew you were at a Browns game. The ambiance suggested more a family gathering than a football game. Watching the team emerge from the dugout, being so close to my heroes I’d only saw before on T.V., allowed me to fall in love all over again. I took it all in, every inch, along with the people.
Whenever the team was entering or exiting the field, a man a few rows above us, inebriated, would stand, cup his hands around his mouth, and yell “You guys suck!”, over and over and over and over again. I will never forget seeing Eric Metcalf staring at the man, wanting to strangle him, yet resigned to agree with him. Family reunion, indeed.
The only thing that made the three years after the Browns left for Baltimore bearable was knowing that they would be back. Would it be the same? No one knew at the time, and most would argue now the answer to that question is no. Football would come back though. Our team, our colors would take the field again, and it would be like they never left. Right?
I knew that I had to be in the stadium for the first game. The rebirth of my childhood, my heroes, my team was not to be missed. I was in the Dawg Pound for the funeral. No way would I miss the christening.
My uncle, cousin, and friend loaded up in my buddy’s Camaro, a car too small for 4 grown men, making the 3 hour trek north to celebrate. Football was back, and this team wouldn’t be a normal expansion squad. Ty Detmer had won a Heisman Trophy. Corey Fuller was a darn good corner. Some other expansion draft picks looked promising. Could this team hit the ground running?
After the fireworks, and the flyover, and Drew Carey leading the crowd in welcoming the Browns back, the excitement ended. The Steelers stifled all hope any fan had that this would be a successful and unprecedented comeback. Detmer was awful. Chris Palmer, defying his steadfast promise that Tim Couch would sit and learn, inserted the rookie in the 4th quarter, looking for a spark. Couch threw a pick. Here we go Brownies, here we go.
We sat in our seats for a long time after the game ended, watching the press conference of Palmer and some players on the big screen above the Dawg Pound. So long, in fact, that ushers came by and asked us to leave.
As bad as the game had been, we were glad to be back. Three years was a long time without football, without the opportunity to see the orange helmets in person. Maybe they would not be good quickly, for a few years even. They were back on the field, however, and that was the thing. Soon enough, winning seasons would begin piling up. They would finish what Bernie Kosar had started. The pain of the move, and the ‘80s playoff heartbreaks, and 2-14 and 3-13 expansion seasons would all be worth it. We were the most loyal fan base in the world. Soon, it would be worth it. It had to be. We deserved it.
Reality, however, has a way of setting in.
I was bound and determined to attend at least one Browns game a year. They robbed me of three NFL seasons, and I would not miss anymore. The ride back to the top would be gratifying, and I would miss none of it.
September 9, 2001
Year 3 season opener against Seattle. 9-6 loss. Perched in the first row of the upper deck, I had a perfect view down the north sideline. Late in the game, Dylan McCutcheon picked off a pass, but the refs ruled he didn’t have both feet in bounds. I will swear to this day that I had a better view of the play, and McCutcheon got both feet in. Irate, I beat my hat against the two foot tall plexiglass barrier in front of our seats until the clasp broke. Browns 0-2 since the return in games I’ve attended.
December 1, 2002
Carolina Panthers. 13-6 loss. Browns are in the middle of the playoff hunt. Carolina was a beatable team at home. December in Cleveland, and the weather is predictable. To keep warm before the game, my pregnant cousin and I stood, watching the coin toss. The older season ticket holders found the coin toss to be a must see event and summoned an usher to let us know that we needed to sit down. The blah game the rest of the day does nothing to lower my blood pressure. 0-3.
December 15, 2002
Indianapolis Colts. 28-23 loss. Still in the playoff hunt. Back in the Dawg Pound. Finally, competent Browns football. Couch is leading the offense in our direction for a last second victory. A timeout was taken, and Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ blares on the in stadium speakers as the teams retake the field. The stadium is bedlam. Everything we’ve wanted as fans is upon us. Couch is about to take down Peyton Manning, already a legend.
Drive stalls at the Colts 9. Turnover on downs. 0-4
September 7, 2003
Opener vs. Indianapolis Colts 9-6 loss. The playoff loss stung, but we’re back. The AFC North would be ours this year. Openers are always exciting, but this is now the 2nd 9-6 stinking opener I’ve sat through. 0-5
December 5, 2004
New England Patriots 42-15 loss. Before we reach our seats, Bethel Johnson takes the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. Most of our party leaves before halftime. 0-5
September 11, 2005
Cincinnati Bengals 27-13 loss. Another home opener, another defeat. A large group of us spent Friday and Saturday night at Put-in-Bay for a bachelor party, before driving to Cleveland to sit in the Dawg Pound on Sunday. While only 83 degrees, it seemed like 100 in the sun. Bad decisions all around that weekend. 0-6
November 19, 2006
Pittsburgh Steelers 24-20 loss. Josh Cribbs returned one kickoff for a touchdown and another deep into Pittsburgh territory. He proved to be the only offense on this day, as we sat in the middle of a busload of Steeler fans from Pittsburgh. 0-7
Eight years in, and I reached my limit. Each disheartening walk out of the stadium kept getting worse. Staring at another three hour, boring drive home down I-71, I vowed that I wasn’t making the journey again, not until something changed. I could watch on television. I would always love this team, but this was too much. What were we seeing on the field each Sunday? How was this possible, to be this inept year after year? Did ownership even care? They were handed the greatest fan base on earth and were sapping its strength. How long before the stadium was half empty on Sundays?
The losing streak ended on December 16, 2007 against the Buffalo Bills. Before Baker Mayfield entered the Thursday Night game against the Jets and led the franchise to their first victory in 19 games, this one may have been the most memorable of the last 12 years. A storm was rolling in, so rather than driving the three hours to Cleveland on Sunday morning, our group began the trek Saturday afternoon. The blizzard conditions that would overtake the northern part of the state on Sunday got a head start down south, and our journey was tedious, taking over 4 hours, snow blowing sideways and ice building on and along I-71 throughout the trip.
Cleveland was spared to that point; only a trace amount of snow settled along the lake. Upon rising Sunday morning, the weather again was no worse for wear. High 30’s, dreary, but no precipitation and little wind greeting us as we set up our tailgate in the Muni Lot. By 10:30, we thought the storm would hold off. For once, the winter weather would spare us.
At 11:00, like a bolt of lightning, Mother Nature snapped.
The wind howled.
Ice and snow smothered the streets. As thousands made their way toward the stadium, an ice rink formed. Hundreds ended up on their asses. Cleveland struck again. If the Browns lost today and were booted out of the playoff race….
Jamal Lewis and Phil Dawson had different plans. The former plowed for 163 yards, while the latter made two field goals that had no business leaving the frozen turf, let alone sailing through the uprights. The second, from 49 yards, was and will remain the greatest kick I will ever witness. Wind and snow blowing sideways throughout the stadium, the fans, at least the ones in our section, stood the entire game for warmth. No ushers would pretend to tell anyone to sit on the icy seats today. Beers became slushies in mere moments. I remarked to everyone around me that Dawson had no business being on the field at that moment. Hell, they would be better off throwing a Hail Mary on 4th down. Never had I been more excited to be wrong. Dawson’s legend as a Brown was cemented that day, and he will always be adored for those kicks, and his pride and preservation of living through some of the darkest days in the franchise’s history.
After all the misery, I witnessed a Browns victory. They would pound the lowly Bengals the next week, stamping a berth into the playoffs. Right?
That season was the last time the team sniffed a playoff berth. Strings of 5-11 seasons should have been the bottom until 1-15 and 0-16. As a Browns fan, living through the last two decades has been tough. Another cliff to tumble over waited around the next corner.
Still, many of us have persisted. Not without doubt, mind you. Like many, I’ve sworn off the team, and the Haslam’s, more times than I care to admit. I’ve rooted for losses for better draft positioning. It was always in the hopes of better days. Like today.
When I was 6, I threw pillows at the T.V. as Mark Moseley missed kick after kick before drilling a 27 yarder to beat the Jets in the Divisional Playoff Round.
I cried watching John Elway.
I cried when Earnest Byner fumbled.
I was grounded when I was 11, my punishment being that I could not watch the first 2 Browns games of the season on T.V.
I’ve loved and hated the Cleveland Browns more throughout my lifetime than any reasonable person should. No matter where they were in the standings, though, they’ve always been the bond that brings family and friends closer. They’re a constant that, albeit for a brief time, has always been there. Watching them lose, week after week, year after year, has been excruciating. It is seeing a loved one fail, over and over. No matter what you do or say, you can’t help them. You can only hope that one day, they’ll figure it out.
I don’t know for sure if that day is here, but I believe that it is. The pain, the misery; it may be worth it. When the lights of Sunday and Monday night football shine down on those orange helmets, we will be there.
Nerves tied in knots.
Yelling at the television.
Hoping, praying for one more completion. One more stop.
It is time. The Cleveland Browns are back.