Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Born Loser - The sorry life of a Cleveland Browns fan

Welcome to Cleveland! (photo by Sports Illustrated)

There’s not a whole lot you can do about heredity. Like it or not, you may grow up to be short and fat, or skinny and bald. It’s possible you could go your whole life eating nothing more than grass and bark and still have high cholesterol. Genetics determine quite a bit about our future as we plow through our lives – and there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.

But what about where we grow up; geography instead of genealogy - does that have any impact?

Is it possible our lives are destined to be better or worse because of where we’re born? I’m not talking about the Congo … or Uganda … or anything obvious like that. I’m talking about Pittsburgh, Chicago, or, God forbid, Cleveland.

Could being born in Cleveland, Ohio, specifically in July of 1965, actually lead to a life of misery, disappointment, mistrust, angst, and severe depression? I’m no anthropologist, but I do know my life has been riddled with all of the above thanks to Cleveland, Ohio, and more specifically, its football Browns.

It’s silly, I know. How on Earth can a stupid football team lead to such a lousy existence?

I’m not sure I can answer that question. I only know that it does.

It’s funnier still when I think about the sport. I don’t like the football mentality; in fact, I despise it. I hate the macho behavior, the references to battle, the clichés, the thanking God, and just about everything else that goes hand in hand with professional football – but I love the Cleveland Browns.

As best as I can remember, I’ve loved them my whole life. And that’s unfortunate really, because no professional team in all of professional sports has dealt their fans more heartache than the Cleveland Browns.

Oh, it wasn’t always like that. The Cleveland Browns of the 1940’s and 50’s were the most successful franchise in all of professional sports. They dominated their competition, winning seven titles in ten years. They continued their winning ways into the 60’s, winning the NFL Championship in 1964 behind the powerful running of the legendary Jim Brown.

Jim Brown (photo by Sports Illustrated)

My dad must have been in heaven. His childhood was filled with championship after championship. He was only 23 when the Browns won the title in ’64. I’m sure he was excited when his first son (me) was born in 1965. Certainly, he must have daydreamed about taking me to games with him. What could be better than sharing the future glory of the Browns with his own son?

But the Browns went dry after that ’64 championship - dry as a popcorn fart!

After 1964, the Cleveland Browns began a 45-year journey of gut-wrenching losses and horrible luck. It was tough to watch at times, but it was all I knew and I still loved it.

My dad? Not so much.

I remember one particular Sunday afternoon; must have been about 1976 - the Browns were in the midst of blowing a huge lead against Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium; a venue they’d never tasted victory up to that time. The Steelers tied the game and sent it into overtime. Of course, the Browns promptly fumbled away the opening kick, sending my poor dad out of the living room and up to the bathroom where he promptly threw up.

My 4th grade class photo - note the awesome Browns-helmet shirt.

The rest of that season he wouldn’t let me watch the Browns on TV. If he caught me sneaking a peek, he would yell at me. Usually something along the line of, “Turn those damned bums off, you don’t need to be watching that $#*t!”

My old man was a real maestro with the English language, but his self-imposed blackout didn’t bother me much; I knew he’d sneak off to the Patio Tavern around halftime to watch the rest of the game. After that, I had the TV to myself. Of course, around 4:30 he’d be home again - usually in a crappy mood after another Brown’s loss.

It never dawned on me that my dad wasn’t used to losing. It never crossed my mind how easy it was for him to keep track of the number of years since the Browns last championship - because it was my age! To me, even as an 11-year-old, the Jim Brown-era was ancient history, but to my dad, it was “just yesterday.”

Everything Cleveland, everything Browns! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Despite their horrid play, I still loved everything about the Cleveland Browns. I loved the Mike Phipps jersey I got for Christmas one year. I loved the plainness of their orange helmet - no logo, just one white stripe running down the middle surrounded by two brown ones. I loved the fact the Browns played outside - in the cold - by Lake Erie - on a field that usually was muddy.

The Browns were, and still are, what football should be …ugly!

But in 1980, the Browns actually were good for the first time in my life - not only good, but exciting too. So exciting, they were dubbed the “Kardiac Kids” because of all their come-from-behind victories. Even when they were down, they somehow found a way to win. Luckily, I was far too young to worry about having a heart attack, but I'm pretty sure my poor dad nearly had a haymaker or two watching them squeeze out win after win in the waning moments.

It was a foregone conclusion, at least to me, that the Browns would be going to their first Super Bowl that year. I was absolutely giddy, as were most of the kids in my school. The Browns were the talk of the town, and rightfully so. When my dad burst through the door one morning announcing he had two tickets for their playoff game versus the Oakland Raiders, I nearly peed my pants. Unfortunately, my glee turned to despair when he told me the other ticket was for my grandfather. It took me a while to get over the snub (I’ll let you know when I do) but the Browns were in the playoffs, and that was all that mattered.

When game day arrived, so too, did a blast of arctic air, plummeting temperatures well below zero - 39 below with the wind chill, in fact. At that point, it was the second coldest game in NFL history. Because of the extreme cold, nobody gave a warm-weather team like Oakland a chance, but in truth, it was the Browns who should have been the underdogs.

The Browns kicker, Don Cockroft, was one of the few straight-on kickers left in a league full of imported European soccer-style kickers with names like Stenerud and Yepremian. It was painfully apparent on the opening kickoff that Cockroft may as well have been kicking bricks instead of footballs, because that’s about as far as the frozen ball traveled off his frozen foot.

Cleveland kicker, Don Cockroft. (football card photo)

In the end, Cockroft’s lack of kicking ability in the cold, led to the first of several crushing losses for Browns fans born after 1964. The Browns trailed 14-12 late in the game, but they were driving down the field, just like they'd done so many times that season, for what appeared to be the winning score. But rather than attempt a game-winning field goal from close range, the Browns instead tried for a game-winning pass in the end zone, which, of course, was intercepted by the Raiders. I was only 15, but my life felt like it was over. This time I went upstairs to the bathroom and promptly threw up, but I’m pretty sure, somewhere in the bowels of Cleveland Municipal Stadium; my dad was doing the same.

After that game, I was jaded. The Browns were my first love, and like all first loves, I always would remember them fondly. But my first love also had burned me. I may have loved the Browns, but never again would I trust them.

Chip Banks feels the sting of another Browns loss. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

More disappointment would follow. In 1986 it was “The Drive.” In 1987, it was “The Fumble.” It seemed only the Browns could come up with ways to lose a football game so painfully, that it got turned into a proper noun.

As I got older, in my 30’s, I realized it’s tough to love a team that doesn’t love you back. I realized brown and orange are tough colors, in a fashion sense, to wear anywhere else except to a Browns game. I realized that professional football was nothing more than big business – still, I loved them.

Never was that love put more to the test than in 1995, when their owner, Art Modell, did the unthinkable and pulled the Browns out of Cleveland. He wanted to move them to Baltimore where they were willing to build him a new stadium. In a testament to Browns fans, the NFL granted the move, but wouldn’t let Modell take the team’s name, or colors with him. The NFL also guaranteed the Browns would return to the league in 1999 with a new stadium - but with the same name, the same colors, the same plain helmets, and, unfortunately the same uncanny knack for being a mostly horrible team.

Browns center Steve Everitt in 1995, their last year in Cleveland - at least for a while. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

And that's exactly what they've been. The new Browns have lost, and lost, and lost. They’ve taken losing to new heights – made it an art form even. Even when it looks as if they might actually win a game or two, they’ll find a way to lose. They've lost games in ways I never thought possible.

Like to the Bears a few years back, despite leading by 14 points with only 34 seconds left in the game. Or to the Chiefs in their 2002 season opener, when the Brown’s Dwayne Rudd took off his helmet to celebrate what he thought was a game-ending sack. Wrong! Rudd was penalized for removing his helmet, the ball was moved into field goal range, and the Chiefs kicked a field goal with no time on the clock to beat Cleveland by a point.

I grew tired of losing, and yet, oddly proud of how creative the Browns were when they lost. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, they’d prove me wrong. When Boston fans pissed and moaned about their poor Red Sox never winning the World Series, I didn’t feel sorry for them. When Philadelphia fans whined about how rough it is to be a sports fan in the city of brotherly love, I just rolled by eyes.

Boston? Philly? Are you kidding? What a bunch of wimps! They’ve won plenty, even in my lifetime. Cleveland carries the true torch for losing. It’s something we’ve insanely started to boast about with a misplaced, perverted sense of pride. We’re the kings of crap - the best at being the worst. Nobody, and I mean nobody, even comes close.

When the Browns were defunct from 1995-1999, I actually led a normal life. I got married, had three kids, none of them affected by the curse of the brown and orange.

“Maybe their lives will be different.” I thought to myself. “Maybe they’ll be winners.”

It’s true; my kids aren’t saddled with the stigma of the Cleveland Browns. My eldest daughter cares little about football; my middle daughter likes the Miami Dolphins, my son, the Seattle Seahawks.

As luck would have it, the Browns actually played the Seahawks three years ago in Cleveland and I took my son to Cleveland Browns Stadium for his very first game. The Seahawks raced out to a huge lead. My son was ecstatic. But then the Browns clawed back and tied the game. It didn’t matter; I knew they somehow would blow it in the end and my son would remain happy. But they didn’t blow it; they actually won the game in overtime. My son was crushed. It was a great game and I should have been happy, but I was crushed too.

Was my son also a born loser? I was used to losing, no big deal to me, but somehow my Browns actually had beaten his favorite team. Not only beaten them, but come back from a big deficit to do it. The Seahawks, dare I say it, looked a lot like the Browns in that game – they’d choked.

A horrible thing has happened since that game. The Seahawks are now terrible and my son has become a Browns fan like his dad. That's not what I wanted for my only born son.

The legacy of losing. The Browns bench circa 1985. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

This past Sunday I took him, and my younger brother, to go see the 1-8, Browns play the 1-8, Detroit Lions at Detroit's Ford Field. Going in, I thought it could potentially be the most God-awful game in the history of the NFL. The two worst teams battling it out in what I dubbed the “Suck Bowl.” A 0-0 tie wasn’t out of the question.

But an amazing thing happened - it was a great game!

The Browns raced out to a huge 24-3 lead in the first quarter. Of course, none of the Cleveland fans where I was sitting were too excited, we’d see this all before. Sure enough, the game was tied less than 15-minutes later. A seesaw battle ensued. The game truly was exciting, especially when the Browns scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

With less than two minutes to go in the game, Lions fans began to leave Ford Field (where the Lions play). The Lions were out of timeouts, trapped deep in their territory, and apparently, their fans had given up hope.

“Where are you people going?” I asked.

“It’s over,” They answered, "we're leaving."

“Against any other team in the NFL, I’d say you’re right,” I said, “but this is the Cleveland Browns – trust me, stick around.”

The Lions fans ignored the advice and left anyway. It looked as if they'd made the right choice when it came down to one last Hail Mary pass near midfield. Cleveland intercepted the pass and it looked as if the Browns actually had won. But this is the Browns. Within seconds of what looked like a win, the flags came raining down on the field, and for probably the first time ever in the history of the game, a defensive interference call was made on a Hail Mary pass.

The ball was put on the 1-yard-line, and, of course, the lowly Lions scored on the next play. Game over - Lions 38, Browns 37.

It stung.

I know what it’s like to lose. It’s all too familiar for me – almost comfortable even. Losing never lets you down because it always lets you down. But watching the Browns lose is like watching a loved one die from a terminal illness. You already know the outcome, yet, you still feel shocked when it happens.

As I walked back to the car with my son and my brother, I began to wonder if maybe it’s just the city itself. I mean players come and go over the years; they only have to carry the torch of losing for a few seasons, then they’re either cut, traded or retire. It's we, the fans, who have to carry the burden of losing forever.

But how can it be that year after year, no matter who puts on the ugly brown uniform, or straps on the plain orange helmet, they still lose? I bet my brother that if the Steelers and Browns swapped uniforms for one game, the Browns would beat the Steelers because they’d be the Steelers.

"If you want to win, go to Pittsburgh." I said. "If you want to lose, come to Cleveland."

Just once I’d like to taste the fruits of victory; to know what it’s like to be the best of the best; to walk the streets proudly - head held a little higher - chest puffed out a little further.

What could that be like? Would it change my life?

I’ll probably never know. Sure, it’s possible I may taste a winner one of these days; it’s just not likely. Maybe my poor son will live long enough and be lucky enough to feel, what I assume, is the sweetness of victory. Only time will tell.

My dad has given up on the Browns. Too many losing seasons have beaten him down following those successful early years. Now he feels compelled to be disappointed by the Ohio State Buckeyes every January instead.

But not me, despite all the heartaches; the wasted Sunday afternoons; the deep depression from which I have yet to emerge - win or lose ... and lose ... and lose - I still love the Cleveland Browns!


  1. I am a Chicago Cubs and Bears fan, I share your pain :o)

  2. LOL at you being snubbed for Granddad!

    Uh, let's get it right about the Buckeyes ... they have consistently beaten Michigan and did actually win a BCS title. They don't deserve to be on this list.

    Thing about Pittsburgh ... they were horrible for a long time before they finally turned it around ... you don't think that a brilliant mind can come in and work magic with the Browns? It has occured to me that there is a twenty year old Red Wing fan who doesn't have any idea of how bad they once were ...

    ... maybe that will be what your son grows up with regarding the Browns!

  3. Lon, the Browns didn't look to bad this week.

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