Return of the Montage

For years, my favorite part of going to Browns games was the montage. Clips and photos of icons of yesteryear, accompanied in 128-point font by the values they were meant to embody: TRADITION. DEDICATION. LOYALTY. The soundtrack was straight out of the NFL Films playbook, sober orchestral numbers meant to evoke the weight of the memories. A football guy’s idea of arthouse cinema.

This, I thought while watching Gene Hickerson pulling in front of Jim Brown; This, I thought while watching Leroy Kelly run over a 180-pound linebacker; This, I thought while watching Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli on the sidelines planning their attack, cigarettes just out of frame, This is what being a Browns fan is all about.

As one might expect, the impact of the montage diminished with each passing year. With precious few new color TV–era heroes to celebrate, the images of the past looked increasingly ancient, distant to the point of fuzziness. I’m old enough to have grown up hearing stories of Kosar and Sipe, Dixon and Minnifield, Warfield and Collins, but surely there were younger fans, those who came of age while the Browns didn’t exist at all, whose ears were deaf to these sepia memories.

Year after year, every terrible Browns season was an opportunity wasted, a chance for the franchise to fall down the pecking order behind the Cavs or Indians or, worst of all, the Steelers. The Browns risked going from embarrassing to irrelevant. It seems impossible given the team’s status in the city, but consider General Electric. With enough mismanagement, even the most towering titan can fall.

Last Sunday I attended my first Browns game in two years. The stadium I walked into bore little resemblance to that of Christmas Eve 2016, when the Browns notched that season’s lone win. The 2018 version was full of energy, optimism, buzz. It wasn’t the sort of ironic mock-hope that has been the dominant mode for so long. The walk from the tailgate to the stadium carried earnest winning expectations.

The place was actually full, all the way to the corners of the upper deck. I’m sure I’ve seen the stadium like that before, but I struggle to remember when. Everyone was just so…happy. Hands hurt from so much clapping. Cheeks were sore from all the smiles. People were so thrilled by the action on the field that they were actually invested in the timeout entertainment, yelling which helmet the football was under and hollering the answers to trivia questions.

There were a million little things suggesting that this experience was different, that these weren’t the same old Browns—that the Factory of Sadness had pivoted its business model. Winning changes everything, I’d heard for years, and on this day it was palpable. Even the sausages smelled of victory.

There were a million little things suggesting that this experience was different—that the Factory of Sadness had pivoted its business model.

The one thing that most illuminated the difference to me was, of course, a montage. The defense, which dominated Cincinnati much of the day, which the crowd was so thrilled to support, was getting set to take the field. The video was cued up on the jumbotrons. The opening bar set the tone:


As “Mama Said Knock You Out” came blaring from the speakers, Browns defenders of past and present were shown pulverizing foes on screen. In hazy standard definition you saw the likes of Eric Turner and Clay Matthews, and then came roaring Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward in brilliant HD. The hits were synced up with the music, with Jabrill Peppers’s thunderous goal-line stop against the Falcons punctuated by LL Cool J’s bass going BOOM.

The choice of music was spot on. Its message is recognizable even if you’ve spent a lifetime listening to 95.5 The Fish. It connotes swagger, toughness, a sense that you’re going to reckon with me because I’m too good to be ignored. It’s hardly a contemporary tune, having been released in 1990, but that very fact acted as a throughline between the Dawg Pound’s halcyon days and the 2018 Browns’ resurgence.

It was relatively garden-variety fare, standard pump-up-the-crowd stuff. Every stadium ops team in America probably has two dozen videos like it in their library. But this one really worked. It struck the proper tone. It honored the Dawgs of yore without over-exploiting them. It reinvigorated the notion that the Browns are no treat to play against, that a game in Cleveland is something to be feared.

It was cool, which is something the Browns haven’t been for a long time.

Whoever produced the montage deserves kudos, but it wouldn’t have been possible without today’s Browns being worth a damn. The franchise’s history, in montages and in general, has always been a focal point, and rightly so. (Often, necessarily so. Think you could fill up 60 seconds with Charlie Frye highlights?)

But look back too much and you forget how to look forward. The past can feel more like an exhibit in a museum than something to which you are connected, long-dead ancestors rather than elder relatives. That became the issue with the montages I described at the top. Those black-and-white warhorses were something, sure, but did they actually relate to the Browns of today? The old Browns and new were technically the same franchise—but were they really?

That, as much as anything, is the gift of the 2018 Browns. They’re good enough, capable enough, and, maybe one day, iconic enough, to be juxtaposed against the old stars without it seeming absurd. Their success breathes life into team lore, retrofitting new import onto the feats of the past. They keep alive the idea that the Cleveland Browns were and are one of sports’ great entities.

We’re living in a hell of a moment, Browns fans. No matter what happens in Week 17 in Baltimore, the Browns will be darlings in 2019. Barring Baker Mayfield’s right arm falling off or Jimmy Haslam hiring Pee-wee Herman as head coach, they’ll be such a trendy playoff pick that it won’t be trendy at all.

I suppose what I’m saying is: Savor this. Remember this feeling, as well as those that preceded it. Think about what it was like to go to a game in 2017 and consider what it’s like going to one now. (You actually have to pay for tickets!) Let these visions of all these good Browns players permeate your memory.

Embrace it. Relish it. Because one day you might take your kids to their first Browns game. And when they watch the montage, and ask you about the guy who wore No. 6 (or maybe No. 24 or No. 95) in your day, you can teach them all about him—and all the greats who came before.