Why do we do it? Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to this? What does it mean to be a Cleveland Browns fan?
I am writing this dispatch from deep in the heart of Ravens country. I am sitting in my home office, or if you care about accuracy, a basement storage room with Cleveland sports memorabilia on the walls my wife won’t let me hang up in the house proper. She is from Cleveland herself, but has long since moved on to more mental health-friendly interests.
One of those memorabilia is a Browns flag signed by the 2008 team that the fan relations folks were kind enough to send me while I was in Iraq. You may remember that team — who the owner was, who the coach was, the QB, a WR, anything — but I do not. It doesn’t really matter.
Another of those memories is my ticket stub from the first home game the new-Browns played at FirstEnergy, a preseason bout with the Minnesota Vikings. I do not remember who won and have not looked it up. I have fond memories of that game, which I attended with my father and brothers. I remember looking down at the field, feeling the energy in the air. At the time I had only the vaguest notion of what the Browns meant to Cleveland and my father.
My father was a diehard old-Browns fan. In the late eighties, my mother brought us to a birthday party at a family friend’s house that my father refused to attend because the Browns were on television, and he and a buddy watched the game at our house. When we returned home, there was a large hole in the ceiling as the team had done something well and as he jumped up in excitement, raising his fist in celebration, he broke the ceiling. My father is a large man.
After a few seasons of new-Browns ineptitude, my father gave up the ghost. Sure, he still watched them if nothing else was going on, but he stopped caring. Great if they won, but who cares if they lost, was his new operating principle. If only we all could find such peace.
I still wear a Browns t-shirt from 1993 that my father put away with the rest of his cherished memories in the basement, which I found when I was home from college one summer. Along with the rest of his childhood mementos that he no longer cared to look at but could not bring himself to dispose of, the shirt stands as a testament of sorts to what once was. Before steel died, before the Browns left, before the river burned, before the heroin epidemic. I’m not 100 percent sure of the chronology here, but you get the idea.
I didn’t come into my own Browns fandom until well after college. I never cared that much for football growing up. I was like my father is now — great if they won, but didn’t care if they lost. I played a year in middle school, but my brothers and I were soccer and baseball players first. The Indians were the team that held my interest. Then I went to Ohio State, and my concept of football fandom changed forever.
I caught the bug at OSU. I became part of a football culture with expectations and actual success. It was exhilarating. After college I joined the Army and was stationed in places far from home. After the Army we moved around a lot, but never back to Ohio. I found myself missing Cleveland. As a newly minted serious football fan, it seemed the obvious choice to solve that problem was to start caring about the Browns. I could say that is regrettable, but that is too easy. I was too young to understand the hole the old-Browns left in my hometown and lucky enough to avoid the draw of the new-Browns and their now-legendary ineptitude, so why would I voluntarily subject myself to inevitable disappointment?
Most people feel the draw of their past, to their hometown, especially if they left there on good terms. Nothing is special about Cleveland in that regard. What is unique is the tendency of Clevelanders to not give up, even with the crushing weight of generations of loss and historic folly dragging us down at every turn. Cleveland was the bombing capital of the country in the 1970s. The Cuyahoga River actually caught fire because of pollution. Lake Erie used to be swim-at-your-own-risk-only — my mother swam there once in the 60’s and had to be rushed to the hospital. The murderer’s row of terrible mayors. The Browns.
When the Cavaliers made it to the finals this winter, I was very excited, but inside I was worried what a championship would do to us.
Which is all my highfalutin way of justifying how stupid I feel after the start of last season, when the Browns squandered a 7-4 record and division lead and I got all worked up about the new direction of the franchise, good decision making, and seemingly basic competency. I feel like I was conned. But that was merely the organization reverting to its true character, so I should not have been surprised.
When the Cavaliers made it to the finals this winter, I was very excited. A Cleveland team made good decisions regarding competent players and it was coming to fruition. But inside I was worried what a championship would do to us. Our collective character is so tied to being the honorable, tenacious, perpetual underdogs I was afraid a ring would break us. Would we become as insufferable as Boston fans? However, they did not prevail, leaving our character intact and sparing me from the inevitable soul searching.
The Browns are not showing anything this year to challenge that character either. One game does not a season make, but man, the season opener was a spectacular plane crash. It takes some real moxie to fail that remarkably. It makes you think it’s purposeful, like the fear of success I had during the NBA finals is also present in Berea. I can respect that. I know how that goes — I’m from Cleveland.
After that game, if you told me a Manziel-led Browns would competently beat the Titans, especially after the game Mariotta had in week one, I would not believe you. If you told me after a well-played win by a Manziel-led Browns that McCown would be named the starter, I would not believe you. Both these things happened this week. Even in success the absurd, bizarre world nature of the franchise come through. It’s bewildering.
The Browns are a perpetual Dirty Dozen-like collection of rejects, scoundrels, retreads, scallywags, has-beens, nincompoops and criminals. But like the Dirty Dozen, they fight for us. Every game feels like a suicide mission you have to use a collection of your worst for, because who else will do it? There’s no one else. Suicide Squad on the turf.
There is honor in not succumbing to perpetual disappointment, in keeping hope alive against inevitability, in holding your chin up and facing the world with all your sins and failures out in the open. That’s what it means to be a Browns fan. That’s what it means to be from Cleveland. That’s what we’ve got. It’s enough for now. It will get us by. That and the booze; the booze helps.