PORT HURON, Mich. -- There are precious few things on this Earth that I love and am more devoted to than the Cleveland Browns. Almost no one outside Northeast Ohio can understand the painful dedication, the zealous loyalty and fanatic allegiance the Browns inspire.
It flows from the same fount of fidelity that drives men to defend their native soil. The Browns are more than football; they're a physical manifestation of home for we expatriate Clevelanders. Émigré Ohioans who are scattered to the wind may be the fiercest in our ardor for the team - and the Buckeye State Diaspora is worldwide.
Trying as they might be, the Browns were my first love. The Cleveland teams of the 1970s, both pathetic and electrifying, dominate my earliest memories. I've seen those orange helmets take the field in four different decades, and they've never failed to make my heart race. Kickoff, though I know it heralds hours of gut-wrenching football, gives me the same child-like joy as a snowy Christmas morning long ago. They represent home and the memories of what was, and what could be again.
What could compete with that maudlin, syrupy Hallmark-esque love?
Very little. In fact, you can count them on one hand, and have fingers left over.
For a couple of years now, the No. 1 love on my list has been Melissa.
And last Friday, dear readers, she agreed (enthusiastically, surprisingly) to become Mrs. Gonzo.
Whoa. (You should see the ring. It's a big honker)
Even the most boneheaded third-down play call by Bruce Arian couldn't dampen my happiness.
Getting to that moment, however, was not without its trying times. Two ex-wives, for example. A kidney stone. A pair of blown knees. All Clash albums since "Combat Rock." My sister's death. Horrible bosses. The move to baltimore (note the now-trademarked lack of capitalization). Getting pneumonia, twice. A broken rib. Spergon Wynn.
Oh, the suffering. But it's all past now, like snorting rhino of a bad dream lanced by the coming of a new day.
How did I do it? We closed the deal on our first house on Friday, Dec. 5. Afterwards, we went over to see it as its owners. She made a joke about taking the next step, so I asked her, "So I guess you need one of these, then?"
Being something of a traditionalist, I had to first let her parents know of my intentions. I managed that on Thanksgiving Day, while she was elsewhere in the house. Naturally, it wouldn't have been a proper Gonzo experience if I hadn't first had to ask them if they had a toilet plunger.
Actually, I lie. I had her ask about the plunger for me. But you get the picture. It wouldn't be my kind of experience without a little Monty Python and National Lampoon in the mix: "Excuse me, might you have a plunger around? Oh, and d'ya mind if I marry your daughter?"
What sort of crude beast must I have come off as?
Lord, oh, Lord. In the end, I had to soldier on because love trumps awkwardness.
The good news is she's germinating into a Browns fan. While I'll likely never cure her sad affection for Michigan State, she's shown signs of appreciation for Cleveland's alleged pro football team. For example, she's now attended six games with me since 2001. During the Browns-Cardinals game this year, she was out of her seat at the stadium cheering more than me.
She also embarked on a year-long quest to find Cleveland Brown pajama pants for me. Why, you may ask, but you don't really want to know. We're not going there. But I can say there was much joy when she found not one, but two different pair of said pants recently near Cleveland (there's none to be found where we live in Michigan, not even for the Lions).
She's also quickly learning about the evil karma that lurks around the Cleveland Browns. She briefly got excited when the Browns took the lead over the Broncos on Sunday with under a minute remaining.
I, however, knew better. Just wait, I said. They can find a way to lose this.
Sure as a death and taxes, they did. I was almost relieved.
And that, dear reader, is an alarming way to be a fan. No one should be relieved when their team loses, especially in overtime. Of course, I have the last 30 years of football in Cleveland to blame. Unlike Chicago and Boston, with their gauche curses, Cleveland just is outright unlucky. It's glory faded with the advent of television and as the NFL supplanted baseball as America's game.
Today, Cleveland is a pro sports wasteland where the never-will-be's lope along, and the faded stars play out their sad, pathetic final days.
Hope, a theme to which I often return, is always there. Call me the optimistic cynic, but I forever predict sunny days ahead while the storms rage about us. Of course, I'm eager to point fingers, cast blame and demand various heads, but that's because the black rage inside me is the insidious byproduct of frustration wrought by inept men who desire gold above winning.
Even in the wake of this seemingly endless string of defeats, there remains hope. The false god, the devil's idol, Kelly Holcomb, has been cast down. While the team is in a shambles, it's managed to keep the scores within reason in defeat. And that's been because Tim Couch has led the way. Sure, he's still Tim Couch, but when painted into a corner, he has something magical about him.
Did you see him briefly hug Butch Davis on Sunday after a touchdown? That has to mean something. Is the relationship not so poisoned as we thought? Could Couch and Davis yet lead this franchise back to where it belongs?
Of course, I have no answer. Just feelings. Davis still worries me. It's his first NFL head coaching job, and his team has regressed in its third year. There were warning sounds from the team prior to the season, but in today's NFL, losing is never OK.
Davis is a control freak. There are constant stories coming out of Berea that Davis is feuding with this or that assistant coach. True or not, Davis is the final authority with the Browns. He has the most power of any head coach in Cleveland since Paul Brown was in charge.
Davis is not Paul Brown, at least not yet.
What he may be is Col. Kurtz. After defeats, Davis is known for saying things that don't match well with reality. His perpetual optimism was amusing for a while, but he comes across now as either foolish or crazy. Maybe both.
Personally, I couldn't care less if he was nuttier than a $3 bill. All I want him to do is win. He won more than experts thought he could in 2001 and 2002. Now, his team has collapsed and he's issuing statements not unlike those bold pronouncements that came out of Baghdad, Berlin and Saigon before they fell.
"In this war, things get confused out there. With the natives, it must be a temptation to be God. 'Cause there's a conflict between the rational and irrational... between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Seems rather apt, eh? Because if you've read anyone of Davis' foolish comments in the public prints last after the loss to Seattle there's no doubt he's gone through the looking glass. Need evidence? He told reporters that the Browns are ahead of schedule in his master plan to return the franchise to glory.
Last time I checked, the team was 4-8 at the time and spiraling out of control. Pure madness.
He later qualified his comments, but only after taking a beating for them.
Chris Palmeritis will get him fired eventually. He's lost touch with reality and babbles gibberish about building a long-term contender for the future.
Thus far, all he's built is a grubby trailer park outhouse on a foundation of quicksand.
Here are two Davis gems from recent weeks:
"Clearly, I think expectations have had to be somewhat readjusted."
Translation: "We suck."
You can win a Super Bowl with some of these guys, and more than you think."
Translation: "A Leigh Bodden will get us to the Super Bowl faster than a Kevin Johnson. Hi, I'm Butch Davis and I've farted my brain out through my ass."
It's more and more obvious that Davis is suffering from a bunker-mentality psychosis. By the end of the season, I expect Davis to be pulled out of a spider hole like Saddam, bearded and disheveled looking, a lost and broken man.
What needs to happen so he can he be brought back into the fold? Cleveland needs a general manager and new offensive coordinator, not to mention new, healthy players. Will Butch acknowledge that?
Apologists will blame Cleveland's woes on the injuries. The Browns are crippled. So are the Patriots, and they're playoff-bound. Or does New England have more of those players you can win Super Bowls with?
Besides, Cleveland was crappy before most of the injuries. True, Davis didn't make William Green get high and drunk, but he did draft him (and not Clinton Portis).
Like the Great War, the 2003 campaign began with bright August promise of glories to be had. By December, it had bogged down into a muddy, ugly slaughter that couldn't end soon enough.
The defense can't stop the run. The offense can't score. What more can you say?
And that, according to the Logic of Butch, is progress.
So, who's the deranged renegade operating in the farthest reaches of the mental jungle now, Col. Kurtz or Butch Davis?
We have two more weeks to find out, then we call in the air strike.
Unless, of course, the better angels of Butch's nature can play outside linebacker.
FINAL NOTE: "Return of the King" opens Wednesday. That's the future Mrs. Gonzo's birthday, and she's no Tolkein fan. That means I have to miss it. Arrrgh. The things we do for love. No one tell me how its ends (I read the book, funny guy, but I meant the movie version). I'm sure once I see it, there'll be lessons we can take and apply to the Cleveland Browns, the hobbits of the NFL.
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He recently asked his longtime better half to marry his sorry self, and unlike the Cleveland Browns, found success. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can e-mail the future Mrs. Gonzo (to warn her off!) at email@example.com. Don't tell her I sent you!