That moment in the end zone in the Superdome is not something I will soon forget. The scene was at once a classic ending to a game and the beginning of my personal journey as a fan of the Cleveland Browns.
First, some background information. I have lived in the southern United States my entire life. At the tender age of ten I loved football more than breathing and sought to find out everything I could about the game. Living in Birmingham, Alabama at the time and being properly raised a fan of the Crimson Tide, I was unaware that Alabama had ever lost a game. Bear Bryant was undefeated every season and the Tide was annually crowned the national champion. Ah, the beauty of childhood ignorance. The year was 1980. Alabama was good, but showed their fallibility losing to lowly Mississippi State 6-3. At the time I honestly believed that it was the first time they had lost . . . ever. While the season was a success (Bama beat Auburn and Tennessee that year), the third consecutive national championship would never come.
While the kids in the neighborhood were either Bama or Auburn fans, allegiance to the pros was a different matter altogether. You can chose whoever you want to follow if you live in a non-NFL city. The neighboring Atlanta Falcons were good with Bartkowski and company that year, but no self-respecting person liked the Falcons. That is still true today. Despite the close proximity, I have never met a die-hard Falcons fan. The only one I know of who came close was this freaky gothic chick I met later in life who listened to too much Bauhaus and liked that "wicked bird" on the black helmet.
While most kids were making the easy, yet annoying choice among the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins, I decided to go with the brown and orange because of Alabama alum Ozzie Newsome. Unfortunately, I was forced to follow the Kardiac Kids through the newspaper since the local NBC affiliate never carried the Browns game. The 1980 playoffs arrived and the Browns faced the Raiders in the divisional playoff. Finally, I get to see my first Browns game. You know the rest. For whatever reason, be it stubborn youthful defiance or the fact that I never had seen a team play in the snow before, Cupid's cruel arrow stuck deep.
Ever since, I have loved the Browns more than even the blessed Crimson Tide.
Awkward photos of my formative years show me proudly displaying my latest Brian Sipe or Dave Logan jersey and holding up my index finger in the "we're number one" pose because I was sure that that year would see Rickey Feacher catch the Super Bowl winning pass or Clay Matthews make that game saving tackle to bring us that daily-dreamed-of world championship.
Fast Forward to 1995. Three AFC Championship heartbreaks and a three game sweep by the evil Steelers in 1994 under my belt, we enter the 1995 season with more hope than we have had in years. A preseason demolition of the Bears on national television sets us up for the fall we could never have seen coming. Our death sentence is announced mid-season and I go home early to cry like I had lost a close relative. Because I had.
The three empty NFL seasons that followed were filled with watching other teams, playing hollow seasons of Tecmo Bowl with a computerized Kosar bringing the championship home each season and reading hopeful words in the pages of Browns News Illustrated by some guy named Futterer who talked of how the Browns would be back and that the NFL is still worthy of our trust. I almost became an NBA fan out of boredom, but decided quilt making would be more interesting and wisely chose neither.
Next thing you know this "internet thingy" catches on and suddenly information becomes more available and a sense of community builds for fans that live in distant lands. Message boards at Cleveland Live and the brilliant commentary of
"I am the Brownie Dammit" evolves into Art Bietz and the fantastic BTNG website. (I ask yet again where are you Brownie? Your unique perspective is missed.) An expansion draft that yields little talent, a coaching search that is done seemingly over a weekend or two and results in a no-name, followed by a rudderless draft and hit-and-miss free agency led by some ex-jock dork named Dwight. Suddenly Browns football begins again.
Another whipping by the evil Steelers greets us in the beginning and whittles down our first-year playoff goal into more tenable hopes for nothing more than an offensive drive that lasts more than two first downs. Week 2 arrives in 1999 and I visit new Adelphia Stadium in Nashville to see Couch's first start and see our first points of this new era. Nice to see my boys in person for the first time since Atlanta in 1993, when half the stadium was chanting "Bill must go." God, it is great to see Browns fans travel to away games. They were in force that day in Nashville, too, in yet another defeat.
Five weeks later the Browns are still winless as they prepare to face the 1-5 Saints. This time I have sorry end zone seats as I attend with my best buddy who happens to love the Saints as much as I love the Browns. Much to my pleasure the Browns show early on that they can hang with the Saints, as their entire 1999 draft (Ricky Williams) fumbles a few times and the Browns convert the turnovers into scores. We have the lead late, and I'm getting emotional thinking about that first win. With less than thirty seconds to go the Saints attempt and make a long field goal. My buddy heaves a sigh of relief and kindly pats me on the shoulder and saying, "Good game buddy, you guys gave us a real scare." Consumed with frustration that that first win is slipping away and that we probably can't score a touchdown with 16 second to go I respond harshly and irrationally, "F*ck you! The game is not over yet." My buddy smiles kindly back like a knowing parent, and we say no more.
After a quick succession of plays yielding short gains the scene is set and we are in position for the Hail Mary with the ball 56 yards away and 2 seconds left on the clock. I look over at my buddy and he is looking slightly uncomfortable, but not too worried. With the Browns coming in our direction, the ball is snapped. Couch rolls to his right to buy time and unleashes the highest, "fartherest", most arching, parabola of a throw that I have ever personally witnessed. It stays in flight for centuries and seems to be coming straight for us in our end zone seats. Meanwhile the Saint defenders and Browns wideouts clamor for position. Everything slows like a car wreck and the ball finally descends, bounces haphazardly and ultimately falls into KJ's outstretched hands as he falls out of bounds - with both feet down and in.
My mind is involuntarily thrust into a slide show of seasons past going back to 1980 and then forward. Rutgiliano, Sipe, Cokcroft, snow, Ozzie, Mike Davis (ugh), C