In the fleeting moments after LeBron James launched a miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer from what was about Ashtabula to defeat the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup in 2009, I had a thought. It was hard to decipher over the jubilant swearing, the man-on-man hugging and the overall ecstasy of everyone around me, but it was there: “Things are going to be different this time.”
That shot felt like it would go down in Cleveland sports lore as legendary, like it would propel the Cavaliers—fresh off blowing back-to-back double-digit leads—to the NBA Finals, and ultimately, a championship. “We have LeBron James,” I said to myself. “He just hit the most insane shot I’ve ever seen. That never happens here. We can’t lose.”
But things didn’t turn out differently after all. Dwight Howard morphed into Godzilla, his teammates, fresh off a PED party in Hedo Turkoglu’s basement, hit more 3’s than Frank Caliendo has impressions (I mean, Rafer Alston, you guys? For real?), and the Cavs were quietly swept under the rug. I immediately grounded myself for a week. How could I have been so stupid? Nothing changes in Cleveland. We had the basketball equivalent of Neo from The Matrix and still went out like Agent Smith.
Outdated movie references aside, that series loss to the Magic was another depressing notch in my Cleveland sports belt which was already sagging from the weight of constant misery. My dad tried to save me early on, giving me a Creamsicle and ushering me off to bed before I could witness the Indians choke away Game 7 to the Marlins in ’97, but it was too late. Since then, I’ve openly rooted for Kelly Holcomb and watched Orlando Brown get hit in the eye by a penalty flag after trying to eat a referee. “Look how tight that spiral is!” is a real thing I’ve said about Derek Anderson. I watched the Indians blow a three-game lead to the Boston Red Sox, alone in my college dorm room, on a ghastly 14-inch television, with only a bag of plain Combos and a weird roommate who wore a trench coat and a top hat to comfort me.
I’ve been conditioned to expect the worst, to believe that Kyrie Irving hates Cleveland and our delicious sandwiches and to accept that anything good, like Danny Salazar’s fastball, is only temporary.
Then, on May 8, 2014, the Cleveland Browns drafted Johnny Manziel.
The one we affectionately call Johnny Football is the antithesis of the typical, blue-collar (whatever that means) Cleveland athlete. Manziel’s collar is made out of pure gold. His stable of women is hotter than that 10 you dated for a week in high school. He outdrank Eli Manning (probably) and then had the gravitas to sleep in the next morning, skipping the Manning Passing Academy and blaming it on his iPhone. He sips white wine on patios with Drake and feigns signing autographs against awful teams like Rice, because he’s better than you and your tiny, irrelevant university. He zig-zags around defensive linemen hell bent on squishing him until he decides “Yeah, I guess I’ll flick a 60 yard touchdown now.” He takes bottles of champagne to the face after getting drafted because it’s every white kid from a small town in Texas’ dream to recreate a rap video. TMZ just isn’t always there to film it.
We’ve never had someone like Manziel in Cleveland before, and it’s safe to say Cleveland could ruin him. It would be right in line with the Cleveland sports narrative for Manziel’s calling card, his improvisational skills that are Second City-esque, to be swallowed up by giant defensive lineman that are bigger and faster than him. It isn’t hard to imagine his throws fluttering through the wintry Cleveland air and landing in the hands of a salivating cornerback as Brian Hoyer slyly grins and high fives himself on the bench. It’s easy to think about Manziel getting hit so hard on a run that he splits in half like that poor sap from Not Another Teen Movie.
But this time, things feel different. I know, I know. It goes against everything I just wrote. But how could it not? The kid essentially texted Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains “Draft me or I’ll fight everyone in your organization, include Jimmy Haslam. JK LOL but please pick me, I’m out of water bottles.” Manziel is such a legend already that the Browns told ESPN’s Bob Holtzman to stand in the parking lot, across the street, in the rain during rookie mini camp, AND HE DID IT. All Manziel has ever done is win, and he hasn’t done it quietly. We need that. The Browns, a team so bad that Teddy Bridgewater would rather spend his winters in Minnesota than play in Cleveland, need that. I hope that when Manziel throws his first touchdown pass in Pittsburgh, he bounds up and down and throws up his patented money sign that makes old men grumble about American values and how we’ve lost our way as a society as angry fans slingshot their Terrible Towels at him. Manziel won’t back down, and neither should we.
As I sat at a coffee shop one weekend morning, the Plain Dealer sports section spread out in front of me with a picture of Manziel on the front page, a man struck up a conversation with me. We chatted about the young quarterback, how exciting he is and how great it is to have him in Cleveland. As he left, he turned to me and said, “Nice talking to you. I’ll see you at the parade.” And then before I could respond, he was gone. What I wanted to say back was “I’ll see you there.” Because things feel different this time, don’t they?
Or maybe I’ll just never learn.
Jordan Zirm is an Assistant Content Director for STACK Media. After earning his BS in Journalism from the University of Missouri, he spent time writing for Cleveland Scene Magazine and Complex Media before joining STACK. You can follow him on Twitter at @CleveZirm.
(Photo: John H Reid III, Cleveland Browns)