DISCLAIMER: After our third consecutive loss, I've managed to pull myself out of the depression and darkness that has enveloped me of late and turned a critical eye toward the real cause of my misery…me. Now this piece goes off into areas that may not be considered purely football. If off-topic meanderings represent a waste of your time, please continue no further and click your browser's "Back" button now.
I pride myself on being a rational, logical person. I try to make all of my decisions based on fact and probability rather than emotion. That is until it comes to the Cleveland Browns. My passion for and devotion to the Browns represent a complete departure from my ‘normal' personality and my typical no-nonsense approach to things. I am just so out there over the Browns though, that at times their misfortunes can take me to the verge of physical illness and rob my life of joy and purpose for days after a particularly painful event. At other times there is no greater joy than that feeling of overcoming adversity and winning. I am completely manic over the Browns and I harbor a lot of self-loathing over what I see as this weakness in my character. After Sunday's embarrassing performance at Tampa Bay, even though it was a game we obviously should have lost and wasn't so traumatic to me, I started to look at why this team means so much to me and why I let it dictate my emotions in a way that nothing else does. I came to realize that the Browns are at the very core of who and what I am.
I grew up In Youngstown, which is pretty evenly split between Browns and Steelers fans. In my early years I was more concerned with Bugs Bunny than football. I was aware of football as a game, but the ideas of leagues and championships were foreign to me. I was a happy kid playing in the dirt with Tonka trucks.
My father was a large silent man who rarely spoke at home unless something was wrong. When Dad said something, you were well advised to be paying attention. His stoic and businesslike demeanor was at times intimidating, although he never understood why anyone felt that way because he held no malice in his heart. He just didn't say much unless there was a reason to speak and those reasons were usually to address a problem He worked two jobs until I was in High School in order to make sure that his family did not want for anything necessary and never complained about it once. While he was the parent who was more apt to give us a little latitude and permission than my Mother was, once you made him mad enough to participate in the discipline process you were in deep trouble. That's the kind of man my Father was. A responsible hard-working middle-class Husband and Father with the strength of his convictions. A man you could look up to, admire and want to be like.
He was also a Browns fan.
My earliest recollection of the Cleveland Browns has to be from around 1965. One Sunday afternoon my Father and Grandfather were watching a football game on television, as I played on the living room floor, happily oblivious to their fixation on the TV screen. Without warning, my Father jumped to his feet and started yelling. I was startled by this sudden outburst and my first reaction was fear bordering on panic. "Go Milt…GO!" he shouted at the tube at a level normally reserved for only my most severe disciplinary transgressions. I quickly realized that Dad's outburst was not directed at me and I looked to the TV to see a big man with a football lumbering along with a cadre of other big men pursuing him. I later learned that the big man in question was named Milt Morin. He had caught a pass in the open and was running for daylight with my Father cheering him every step of the way. This was impressive stuff.
I don't remember if Milt actually scored on that play. That was not what had captured my attention and it was unimportant to me at the time. Instead I was absolutely fascinated that there was something meaningful enough in this world to make my Father, this stony mountain of a man, stand up and cheer. I didn't understand it, but I knew I wanted a part of it. This had to be something truly important to reach my Dad on a level I had never before witnessed. So from that day I started paying attention to the Cleveland Browns. Not fanatical or obsessive interest but rather the casual interest of a child trying to participate in something ‘adult' with his father. I gradually learned a few things about the Browns and the game of football. For some reason though, the thing that really impressed and stuck with me right out of the gate was Dad's explanation one time that the Browns were ‘our' team, that we lived in Ohio, that this was our home team and you support your home team. In childlike innocence I took it as sort of a hybrid extension of patriotism and family. I didn't really grasp it, but I respected the idea and the power of the emotion it conveyed. After all, anything that could move my Dad like that had to be quite important.
In the months and years to come I learned to recognize names like Leroy Kelly, Fair Hooker and yes, Milt Morin. I even went and stood in line at Sears to get Bill Nelsen's autographed picture once. I learned as I went. Never really digging into football as an art form, but assimilating what I could about my ‘home team', the Cleveland Browns.
I remained interested in the Browns through the next several years. I remember our Browns throwing a scare into
While I never lost my connection to the Browns as my home team, their mediocrity of play and my own adolescence during the late 70's caused my interest in the team to wane. Sure, you had the occasional event like the Turkey Jones spike of Terry Bradshaw to get a little positive attention, but I became somewhat indifferent during that time only to have my fervor rekindled at the start of the 80s by a new group of Browns. Nick Skorich had come and gone. We were now being coached by some touchy-feely guy named Rutigliano who had an easy manner and a contagious enthusiasm. Guys with names like Sipe, Newsome, Sherk, Dieken, Jackson and a couple of Pruitts had made the games exciting and memorable again. Now I was much older and better able to grasp the game than the startled 5 year old on the living room carpet had been. I found a whole new level of passion for the team as well. I finally got it. Now I was the one standing and shouting at the TV. Ultimately, I came to be the one sitting alone in my room staring vacantly at the TV, crushed and without hope for the future as the Oakland Raiders intercepted a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone to squash our first run at a Super Bowl. That was my baptism by fire. It was not a matter of mere interest and simple entertainment any longer. It had gotten into my soul.
Unfortunately, what followed in the next few years was more mediocrity. Sam's Browns were never again able to capture lighting in a bottle. Brian Sipe moved on to the USFL. Still others retired. By 1984 Coach Sam's outgoing manner and friendly demeanor were being viewed by many of the fans as weakness and a lack of discipline. The Kardiac Kids were a memory. Soon Sam would be gone, replaced by some ex-linebacker named Schottenheimer.
And then some kid from my high school made a big splash by orchestrating his coming out of college in Miami so that he could play for his home team, the Browns. I vaguely remembered that Kosar kid playing for Boardman High in the years immediately after I graduated, but I didn't follow college ball and hadn't heard about him since then. Was he actually any good?
Well, the late 80s represented the greatest height of the Browns that I have known in my lifetime. The Dawgs. The Kosar-led teams of that period were the best I have ever supported. During that time, the Browns were the winningest team in the AFC and by rights should have played in at least one Super Bowl. Some of the most exciting and entertaining games I have ever watched took place in that era. The double OT comeback against the Jets remains the greatest finish I have ever seen. I will never forget the feeling of triumph when we came back to win that game. That was the highest of highs. Of course also during that time were some of the biggest heartbreaks I can remember. The Drive. The Fumble. But by now it wasn't even voluntary interest any more. It was beyond my ability to control. I was completely absorbed in this team. So absorbed that I remained actively, passionately interested even as Bud Carson sat by in disinterest as the team fell apart. So absorbed that I followed them while Jim Shofner merely kept the seat warm for the next guy. So absorbed that I watched every game while Bill Belichick mumbled lies through his teeth abut ‘being competitive', ‘making the best football decisions' and ‘diminished skills'.
And then came The Betrayal. So much has already been said about this one event. I need not say more because I cannot say enough. You all know how it felt and what it took to restore our team.
So now, we are in year four of the ‘new' Browns. I have patiently suffered through the growing pains associated with an expansion franchise during the first three years. My hopes have been high, but my expectations have remained realistic, tempered by the pain associated with the previous disappointments. I have seen the league put us on a timeline that gave us no chance of immediate success. I watched us ‘settle' for players and coaches that we knew in our hearts weren't the stuff of champions. I saw us eventually bring in a coach with fire in his belly and a reputation for turning a program around and building a winner. I saw the team start to believe in itself and start winning some football games on attitude as much as skill. And once again I started to feel the fires truly burn.
I also moved away from my lifetime home of
My Father had moved to Florida back in 1981. He had not been to a Browns game since then and we had never in our lives been to a game together. This was very possibly the only chance we would ever have to attend a game together. With Dad and I both being far to deliberate and practical to justify a trip to Ohio for something a frivolous as a football game, this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was able to secure a pair of Club Seats to the game for a ‘mere' $600. This was going to have to be my Dad's Father's Day, Birthday and Christmas presents all rolled up into one but by God we were going to this game.
We got to the stadium about . We had never been to Raymond James Stadium and didn't know what to expect so we wanted to leave plenty of time to get stuck in traffic and get lost. It turns out that we had plenty of time. Now that I am grown, my father and I are both big silent men who intimidate others with our limited outward expression and subdued demeanor. We walked around the food court that they call the club lounge and we each commented on what a departure it was from the steaming restroom floors and noisy crowded concourses at the old Municipal Stadium. There were no peanut shells on the floor here. I'm not even sure you could buy peanuts, but they did have what appeared to be some sort of rice pilaf concoction. We sat around, observed our environment and the goings-on around us. We made eye contact and ‘communicated' but said very little to one another. We didn't need to. I think we were both happy to be in company that didn't demand conversation. Glad to be with one another and excited to finally be able to share a Browns game. It didn't demand conversation. The situation was simply understood. We were adults…peers…friends…a couple of Browns fans who had come to see the game together.
And what a game it turned out to be. There was no standing and shouting, at least not by the two of us. The Browns gave us nothing to cheer for on that day. Dad and I suffered through together as the crowd around us cheered for the very things that were causing us pain. We sat and silently shared our frustrations and feelings as we watched our home team go down in ignominious defeat, glad to be there and glad to be sharing it with one another regardless of the outcome of the game. In those hours, I was never closer to my Father.
By the end of the game when we left I felt a sense of completion and that the whole process had come full circle. My Father had given me the gift of Cleveland Browns Football many years before. I was finally able to share that gift with him as well as giving something back and it gave me some of the greatest satisfaction I have ever felt. The Browns are a part of just a surely as my Father is a part of me. Sure we lost the game, but I'm accustomed to the agony of defeat. I'm a Browns fan. I can take it. Being this close to my Dad though, is a rare experience for me and today I am appreciating just how much I like it.