Living life in the shadow of the Cleveland Browns

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images   Photo by Getty Images   Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images   Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports   Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images Photo by Getty Images Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports Photo by Elsa/Getty Images /

Growing up as a Cleveland Browns fan can shape your life and in ways that aren’t always easy to recognize.

At the time of the 2001 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns had just finished their second year of re-existence after the previous incarnation of the franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. These new Browns were, like most expansion teams, very bad. They had gone 5-27 and possessed the NFL’s worst offense each of their first two seasons. Cleveland needed better players at every position, yet their running game was particularly abysmal. The year before, Travis Prentice had been the team’s leading rusher with 512 yards and, as a whole, the team gained only 1,085 yards on the ground. One would then think that it should have been an easy decision when they found themselves picking third with LaDanian Tomlinson, a transcendent running back from TCU, still available. Instead, the Browns selected Gerard Warren, a defensive tackle out of Florida best known to Browns fans today for not being Tomlinson.

Three months before this draft, my family moved to Northeast Ohio. I was 10 years old and I did not know how bad the Browns running game had been the year before. I did not then know that only 23 yards kept them from being the worst running team in modern NFL history. And I did not know that taking a running back so early in the draft was usually a bad decision. What I did know was that I loved seeing LaDanian Tomlinson play when he was at TCU and that I wanted to be able to keep watching him every week. I tell you this not to act like my 10-year-old self was a brilliant draft analyst — my whole criteria for preferring Tomlinson to Warren rested upon the fact that one was more exciting than the other — but to say that the first time I ever decided to care about the Cleveland Browns, they let me down.


Like many high schoolers growing up in the suburbs, I spent much of my time fantasizing about leaving my hometown. I did not feel much fondness for Ohio and went to college in Indiana. In terms of excitement, it was a bit of a lateral move, but it was new. As time passed though, I grew, if not homesick, deeply attached to the city I had left behind. The things that felt so normal to me growing up now felt special, like something I had been privileged to have such ready access to. Every pizza place paled in comparison to Luigi’s as did every burger joint in light of Swenson’s. No cramped concert venue was quite as appealing as the Lime Spider or the Musica; no park as alluring to me as the Gorge with its transfixing rock formations. If the conversation was lagging, it was not unusual for me to even tell friends about how good our public library system was and how the art museum is “better than you would expect for a city our size.” I talked about Akron so much that one weekend my junior year, several friends went on a trip back home with me, partly in the hopes that I would finally stop. If that was indeed their goal, it did not work.

Indiana is known as a state obsessed with basketball. This is true, but not when it comes to professional sports. This was compounded by the fact that I entered college five years after the Malice at the Palace, when the Pacers had yet to recover and casual fans had yet to forgive. Instead, practically everyone was obsessed with the Colts, still led by Peyton Manning and only a few years removed from the city’s first Super Bowl. On Sunday afternoons in the fall, the campus emptied as everyone found the nearest TV to watch that week’s game.

While growing up, I had followed the Browns and generally rooted for them but I was not invested in their success. I was much more of a college football fan and mostly watched the NFL to continue seeing my favorite college players do cool stuff. But watching these games with my friends week after week, and with so many of them identifying themselves by their love for a hometown team, I, newly allegiant to my own erstwhile home, developed an affinity for the Browns I had never possessed before. Cheering for the Browns was a way for me to feel connected to a region and a state that I missed so much, even though I was a mere 300 miles away. Whenever I met other Browns fans on campus, we immediately gravitated towards each other even if that was the only thing we had in common. As I moved back and forth across the country in the years to come, I carried my love for the Browns with me. It, and their tendency to let me down year after year, have been two of the few constants in my life over the last decade.

When you come to care deeply about a team, its history becomes your own. There’s a number of pains and joys that you are bequeathed, a particular vocabulary that you learn, a series of shibboleths that prove something intangible yet still forceful in this ad hoc community. I was not yet born when Sam Rutigliano called “Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay 88” but I can still close my eyes and picture Mike Davis intercepting Brian Sipe in the end zone. I can see Ozzie Newsome futilely tacking Davis after failing to strip the ball, burying his face in the grass. I think of the way John Elway, on that 98-yard drive, killed the Browns with the proverbial thousand papercuts. I can also see Earnest Byner fumbling the ball at the two-yard line instead of bringing it with him into the end zone, and the way he looks back at the lost football then looks up as if to say a quick prayer before falling backward onto the turf.

Even if the Browns had won those games, I would not have known that joy in the moment but I would have inherited portions of it. I would be able to watch highlights and celebrate the fact that my team did indeed make it to the Super Bowl, and was once deserving of the unconditional love so many millions bestow upon it. Yes, there is much in the past to celebrate. The Browns fielded Hall of Famers like Otto Graham, Frank Warfield, and the legendary Jim Brown. They won four NFL Championships and four in the AAFC before joining the NFL. These triumphs have not been erased, but there is a heartbreak in between that supplants and nullifies them in the hearts of fans. The pain feels truer to the team we have known. Of course, the sad corollary of this is that no matter what victories may come in the future, those losses won’t be erased. Davis will still intercept Sipe; Elway will still throw the game-winning touchdown; the team will still move.

Sometimes I think of Earnest Byner and how, after The Fumble, he played for Washington and won a championship with them, scoring the team’s first touchdown in Super Bowl XXVI. I think of how he ran for over 8,000 yards in his career and was named to two Pro Bowls. I think of how all three teams he played for have honored him as one of their franchise’s best players and how he won a second Super Bowl with the Ravens as a member of their front office. And I think again of how many years I knew about The Fumble before I knew any of this and how whatever glories may follow never erase the pain that preceded them.

The Cleveland Browns and their fans have survived literal annhilation

Worse than all the on-the-field indignities that befell the Browns after their 1964 Championship, was The Move. Browns owner Art Modell had essentially taken over ownership of Cleveland Stadium in the 1970s, where both the Browns and Cleveland’s baseball team played. However, when Jacobs Field was built to house the baseball team in the 1990s, Modell’s revenue plummeted. Also, the stadium, which had been built in 1931, was no longer suited for housing a modern football team: “its wooden pilings had petrified” and “cement chunks were falling off.” It was never a great place to watch a football game, and now it wasn’t even a safe one.

Modell was never an especially wealthy man, at least not compared to other NFL owners. When he bought the Browns, he only put down $250,000 of his own money and most of his subsequent wealth was tied up in the franchise itself. To fund renovations of the stadium, Cleveland had a referendum that, if passed, would provide the team $175 million in tax revenue. However, when the city voted on it on Nov. 7 — extending the sin tax with over 70 percent of votes — Modell had already announced his agreement to move the team to Baltimore. It was already over.

What made the move harder to bear was that the Baltimore Ravens, the team the Browns became, were actually good. Mere months after moving to Baltimore, the Ravens began building the team that would win Super Bowl XXXV when they drafted two future Hall of Famers in the first round: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis. The Browns had never made it to a Super Bowl; the Ravens made it, and won it, in their fifth year of existence. Of the 44 games the two have played since the Browns were resurrected, the Ravens have won 33 of them. There’s something strange about seeing the ghost of your former self outshine you year after year. Many of us reflect on our past failures and wonder what could have been, how things may have been different, what joys might have awaited us if only we had acted differently, made a different decision, or if fate had been kinder. Those of us who are Browns fans have never had to wonder.

Art Modell died on Sep. 6, 2012, four days before the season was set to start. The team then dedicated their season to him, wearing an “Art” patch on their jerseys. It was a storybook season for Ravens fans as they won their second championship. The night they defeated the 49ers in New Orleans, my college roommates and I hosted a small Super Bowl party and as time wound down in the Superdome, I was pacing around the living room saying, “That should be ours, that should be Cleveland’s!” And I can remember overhearing one friend ask another, “What is he talking about? The Browns were awful this year.”

Cleveland fans never forgave Art Modell. When he died, the Browns were the only team not to recognize his passing the following Sunday. Though their team had returned 13 years ago, the wounds from its initial leaving had yet to scab over. When the past is all you have, you never forget it.

The Hue Jackson era didn’t bother me that much. Honestly, I found it liberating. In 2017, he led the Browns to the second 0-16 record in NFL history, capping a 1-31 start to his tenure. It was bleak and I derived scant pleasure from watching them play, but at that point, there was no use hoping for anything. We had finally bottomed out and I found genuine solace knowing that it couldn’t get any worse.

Much worse for me was the 2019 season. Following a 7-8-1 year where Baker Mayfield looked like a franchise cornerstone as a rookie, the team traded for Odell Beckham Jr., signifying that they were serious about immediately ending their playoff drought. The season began with a home game against the Titans. Many of my oldest friends were at the game and I saw their joy deflate in real-time through their posts and text messages. The Browns kept it close through the first half, entering halftime down just 12-6, but everything fell apart in the second with Mayfield throwing three interceptions and the defense giving up 31 points on their way to a 43-13 loss. Yet the most maddening part of the game was not the turnovers or the lack of defense, but the 18 penalties which lost the team 182 yards. Oh well, it’s just the first week we told ourselves.

After defeating the Jets, there was the week three, nationally televised loss to the Rams, which featured the team attempting a game-winning drive and making it to the opponents’ four-yard line, before throwing three incompletions and an interception. Things did not improve from there. The team ended the season 6-10 and Freddie Kitchens, a man who gazed upon the playsheet like he was looking at a takeout menu written in an unfamiliar language, was promptly fired. Throughout Northeast Ohio, disappointed fans all echoed the same sentiment: “Same Old Browns.”

The promise that looked so certain to continue a year prior had evaporated. That’s the problem with having concrete expectations; it’s easier to be let down. Hope is more amorphous, more flexible, something that inherently acknowledges the reasons that success is not inevitable. Hope expects nothing, it only dreams of a day when its long unfulfilled pining may be rewarded. There are no guarantees, no promises that one can consider unmet. It may be easy to lose oneself in such dreams, but as long as they never transform into expectations, one can only be so let down. This is why I, and so many other Browns fans, tend to be fatalistic about the team’s prospects. It’s easy to convince yourself that if you expect the worst already, if you watch the game expecting to lose, then you can’t be hurt when it happens. Yet the heartbreak we feel so often shows that this is a faulty assumption.

I am not foolish enough to claim that being a Browns fan is why I tend to be a man so easily drawn to simultaneous depths of despair and outsized hope, but what I will say is that for someone who tends to expect the worst while also believing that things can and should be better — even if they are not actually likely to be — that no other team could fit my outlook quite like the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns have been blown out a lot, as bad teams are bound to be, but what is harder to accept are the wins that were taken away at the last minute. These are the games where your hope and persistent faith seems certain to be rewarded, only for the fatalistic part of you to be reinforced yet again. They toy with you, make you believe, then make you feel stupid for doing so. There’s the time in 2002 when Dwayne Rudd thought the game was over and threw his helmet, only to grant the Chiefs an extra play which they used to kick a game-winning field goal.

There was also the 2009 game against the Lions, where cornerback Hank Poteat pushed a Detroit receiver out the back of the end zone on a last-second Hail Mary. This allowed the Lions to advance the ball to the one-yard line for an untimed down during which they, like the Chiefs seven years prior, utilized to score the game-winning points. One may not remember the specific details of the week 16 shutouts at the hands of Baltimore in 2003 and Pittsburgh in 2005, but I will never forget seeing Kansas City lineman John Tate running upfield as Dwayne Rudd foolishly and exultantly throws his helmet in the foreground.

The NFL prides itself on its parity, and yet for over 20 years, the Browns have almost always been bad. They squandered their high draft picks and hired the wrong executives and coaches again and again. These are understandable mistakes: there are draft busts every year and head coaches that stay with a team for more than a few seasons are the exception. You see, it is not that the Browns made the same mistakes as other teams, only on a more frequent basis, but that they invented a series of new ones as well.

In 2003, apparently feeling very good about themselves after making the postseason, the Browns decided to draft a long-snapper higher than any other team before or since. In 2007, after an offseason quarterback battle that ended with Charlie Frye beating out Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, the Browns decided to bench Frye in their first game of the season before trading him two days later. Six players contracted staph infections in four years. They drafted a 28-year-old in the first round. Owner Jimmy Haslam hired a general manager without interviewing him for the position, a general manager who was soon suspended for texting coaches in the middle of the game to express his dissatisfaction with their decisions. The state of the organization was such that in 2015 offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was so desperate to get out of his contract that he gave head coach Mike Pettine a 32-point presentation, arguing why the team should let him coach elsewhere. I know that many fans have wished that they too could extricate themselves this easily.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the Browns’ terrible decision-making process like the selection of draft bust Johnny Manziel. I must concede that I was excited when the Browns selected Manziel in the 2014 NFL Draft. I loved watching him at Texas A&M and my draft analysis never progressed much beyond what it was as a child and I wanted the team to pick Tomlinson: I liked it when the Browns got players who were thrilling college athletes. And if your favorite team is not likely to ever be good — and what reason did I have to expect the Browns to be that? — you can at least hope for them to be fun. However, it’s not ideal if that’s the same strategy that the front office is using.

Before the 2014 Draft, the Browns spent over $100,000 on a study to determine which quarterback they should select. After taking all the disparate data into account, the results said the Browns should pick Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. Instead, Haslam decided that the team should select Manziel and traded up to do so. Why did they ignore the information they had paid so much to collect? In part, because a homeless man recognized Haslam and shouted at him, “Draft Manziel.” Also, Haslam reportedly was not a fan of Bridgewater’s handshake. I tell you all these anecdotes to ask you this: if these moves evince a stupidity on the part of the team’s leadership, what does it make those of us who stick around?

The Browns are supposed to be good this year. Last season, they went 11-5 and won their first playoff game since becoming a franchise again in 1999. It didn’t look like a fluke. They were legitimately competitive last year and this offseason GM Andrew Berry did what appears to be a terrific job fixing the team’s weak points from 2020. It’s very easy for me to talk myself into another 11-win season, maybe even a division title, maybe even a Super Bowl berth. When you want something as badly as I want the Browns to win the Super Bowl, the faintest glimmer of possibility appears impossibly tantalizing. Letting go of it is hardly possible.

I do not expect the Browns to win a Super Bowl this year, though that’s because I refuse to ever expect anything from this team apart from the worst. All I ever do is hope for better than that and oh my friends how deeply I am hoping. I am hoping that Baker Mayfield takes another step forward as a quarterback; that Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward and Grant Delpit all stay healthy and that Odell Beckham Jr. is back to his old self; that we get the right dose of talent and luck to transcend whatever terrible twists of fate have seemed to haunt this franchise for so long. I do not claim to know anything about what lies ahead for this season or the years beyond but there is one thing I do know. If the Cleveland Browns ever do win the Super Bowl, it won’t be a title; it will be an exorcism.