Things I've Learned from Watching the Browns

Things I've Learned from Watching the Browns

by Terry Pluto

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“For dedicated Browns fans [the book is] like leafing through an old family photo album.” —

Here's a question for any Browns fan: Why?

Why, more than four long decades after your team’s last championship . . . despite a relentless pattern of heartbreak, teasing, and more heartbreak . . . capped with a


“For dedicated Browns fans [the book is] like leafing through an old family photo album.” —

Here's a question for any Browns fan: Why?

Why, more than four long decades after your team’s last championship . . . despite a relentless pattern of heartbreak, teasing, and more heartbreak . . . capped with a decade of utter futility . . . do you still stick with the Cleveland Browns?

Veteran sportswriter Terry Pluto gets a daily barrage of email from fans letting their hearts bleed out orange and brown. So he decided to ask his readers: Just what is it about this team that makes you love them, hate them, and still keep coming back for more?

A thousand fans responded—in detail. Their stories—along with interviews with former players and Pluto’s own expert analysis—deliver the answer. Answers, actually. Because like any intense relationship, it’s a little complicated . . .

Covering the Browns from 1964 through present day, this book does for Cleveland football what Pluto’s classic about the Indians, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, did for Cleveland baseball: It won’t make the pain go away, but it might help you remember why it’s worth enduring.

Editorial Reviews

Award-winning Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter has more than twenty books to his credit, several of them about his beloved Cleveland Browns. In his latest tome, he bares his chest about why C-Town's football faithful can't give up on their hometown favorites. (P.S. Not to rub it in, but over the last seven seasons, the Brownies record has been 38-74. Now that's true fan love.)

Ashtabula Star Beacon
A must-read for any fan.
Record Publishing - Mike Lesko
Full of information that even longtime Cleveland Browns fans may not have known. - Damian Penny
Pluto shares credit as author with “hundreds of Browns fans,” who sent him their stories about cheering for the team and, if they’re lucky, meeting and befriending the players . . . For dedicated Browns fans [the book is] like leafing through an old family photo album.
Pluto shares credit as author with “hundreds of Browns fans,” who sent him their stories about cheering for the team and, if they’re lucky, meeting and befriending the players . . . For dedicated Browns fans [the book is] like leafing through an old family photo album.
— Damian Penny
Record Publishing
Full of information that even longtime Cleveland Browns fans may not have known.
— Mike Lesko

Product Details

Gray & Company, Publishers
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Being a Browns fan is completely, utterly irrational. But you already know that.

If you were born after 1960, you know that being a Browns fan makes no sense. None. Zero. That's because the team's most recent championship was in 1964.

OK, maybe some of you born in 1960 actually believe you remember that stunning 27-0 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1964 championship game. I'll simply remind you that in 1964, you would have been 4 years old. What else do you remember from the age of 4?

Here's how it works ...

I remember seeing Paul Brown coach the Browns. I really do remember seeing him coach, only I know I didn't. I was born in 1955. Brown's last season was 1962. I know that my father never took me to a Browns game until the late 1960s. He couldn't get tickets. I know I never saw Paul Brown coach the Browns on television, because at that age, I was not about to spend three hours on a Sunday staring at a black-and-white TV, watching the Browns.

So I know I never saw Paul Brown coach the Browns.

Only I know I did see him, because my father talked about how Paul Brown always wore a hat but seldom a smile. How he and Otto Graham won all those titles, seven in 10 years. How Brown had messenger guards bringing in plays from the sidelines. I know I saw all that, only I didn't see any of it. I just heard about it from my father. We weren't a football family. Baseball was our game, the Indians our team. But I still remember Paul Brown, thanks to my father.

Just as many of you heard about Otto Graham, Paul Brown, Jim Brown and Gary Collins. Just as many of you insist you remember the 1964 championship game, even though you were born in 1968. It's the football version of the repressed memory syndrome. Do we really remember it, or do we just want to?

I asked fans who read The Plain Dealer to send me e-mails for this book, to try to explain why they still follow the team and what it means to them.

Remember, this isn't just a team that never has played in a Super Bowl. It's not just a team that loses more than it wins. It's not just a team that is best known for two games--The Drive and The Fumble. (Both of which make grown men cry ... 20 years later!)

It's not only that the Browns have won a grand total of one playoff game since 1990. Or that the team has had only three winning seasons between 1990 and 2009.

The dawg-gone team up and moved!

Gone to Baltimore after the 1995 season. Gone for no good reason other than Art Modell was a rotten businessman who could not figure out how to make money in a league where nearly every other owner--and most of these guys will not be confused with Warren Buffett--turns a profit. The point of this is not to rehash the move or to pile on Modell. It's to state the fact that the team MOVED. After the move was announced in the middle of the 1995 season, the Browns still had four more home games. Here are the attendance figures for those games with a lame duck team, an unpopular coach and a hated owner: 57,881 ... 55,388 ... 67,269 ... 55,875. Those were fans in the seats, not tickets sold. The Browns even sold 600 tickets in the first 24 hours after the team announced it was moving.

Does any of this make any sense?

As Gay Snyder e-mailed, Browns fans have "The Drive ... The Fumble ... The Move."

And no other NFL fans can (or would want to) claim that terrible trifecta.

• *

Despite being born in Cleveland, spending all but four years of my life in Northeast Ohio and having covered sports here since 1980, not even I can fully understand the power the Browns have over their fans.

This is why I wanted to write a book about what I've learned from watching the Browns. Some of this is history. Some of it is catching up with former Browns such as Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Sam Rutigliano and Brian Sipe. Even Bill Belichick couldn't wait to write an e-mail about the influence Paul Brown had on him and pro football.

But I also wanted to hear from you, the Browns fans. I wanted to know what the team means to you, why you still care about a franchise with the NFL's second-worst record (thank you, Detroit Lions) since the Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999. I asked for input ... just once ... in The Plain Dealer.

More than 1,000 overwhelmed me with e-mails. Some were short; many went on for thousands of words. Some fans kept sending in more e-mails as they thought of something else to add.

As Kevin Robison e-mailed: "The Browns are in our DNA.... They have become family to many of us. The names and faces of the players change, but the orange and brown are always present. They are passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes and male-pattern baldness. We just can't help our chemical predispositions."

Justin Zawaly took it down to the street when he e-mailed: "Being a Browns fan is much like being an alcoholic or a drug addict. It's an addiction with no cure."

But like many Browns fans who start out angry or frustrated with their favorite team, Zawaly turned sentimental: "My grandfather was a season ticket holder back in the days of Otto Graham. My grandmother won't let him watch the games anymore because he gets too emotional. At 89 years old ... the Browns can be a health issue! My Mom and Dad were Kardiac Kids.... I do think there is something extra when you are born into it. It is in my blood.... Now, I have three kids, and they have the Browns addiction as well. You know what they say ... 'Misery loves company'!"

None of this is rational, and the fans know it.

Jeff Biletnikoff e-mailed: "When the news broke that Art Modell was moving the Browns, no matter where you went in Cleveland, there was silence and disbelief. It's like the whole town froze. I'll never forget how the city felt to me. The Sports Illustrated cover that had a cartoon of Art Modell sucker-punching a 'dawg' in the stomach captured that day perfectly."

If ever there were a time for fans to turn their backs on a franchise and a professional league, it was when the NFL brought back the Browns as an expansion team that truly was set up for failure. I wrote an entire book about it, False Start. I thought it would be too depressing for most fans. It was extremely grim, but it became a local bestseller.

As Biletnikoff's e-mail continued: "I can't explain it, but the Cleveland Browns are in my DNA. Something about seeing those orange helmets come on to the field is exciting. Some people who aren't Browns fans say Cleveland's helmets are among the ugliest in sports, and I could not disagree more. Cleveland has the best helmets in all of football. That helmet (and uniform in general) stands for Excellence, even though they are temporarily down. That is such a Browns fan reaction, isn't it? They're 'temporarily down' after 20-plus years! I know it makes no sense ... ."

• *

It makes no sense, but Browns fans are proud of their team's history, even if they weren't around to see the best of it. As Greg Johnson e-mailed: "No logos on the helmet. No dancing girls (cheerleaders). No climate-controlled dome.... Even the name 'Browns' lacks glitz.... It's just honest, down-home, Ohio football. There is no better stage than the Super Bowl to showcase our city, and no better team to represent it. The simplest and most humble uniform, the simplest and most humble name."

Greg, did you say ... Super Bowl?

And did you suggest the Super Bowl be played in Cleveland ... with the Browns in it?

Greg, great points about no logos, no cheerleaders and orange helmets. But you really kicked the ball between the literary goal posts with the "humble" part. If any franchise has been humbled, it's this one.

Of course, you are not alone in this sports delusion. You have lots of company: millions of Browns fans across the globe.

And the word "globe" inspired Mike Olszewski to turn poetic: "Two words: the helmets. Eleven globes of sunshine breaking through the often bleak and blustery late-fall Cleveland afternoons, melting away the snow for a few brief hours. The jerseys and pants may change from brown to white, solid or striped, but there is nothing like those bright orange icons of Cleveland football. Some say they are ugly and boring. I say they exude power and tradition."

Lindsay Dudas knows being a Browns fan is strange, sort of like being trapped in a dysfunctional family. As Lindsay e-mailed: "Say that your child went to prison but you would not embarrass him because of that embarrassment and failure. The Browns have been in prison for most of the last 10 years. I have not given up on them and still visit them every fall and winter on the shores of Lake Erie."

Lindsay, it's more like they've been locked into losing for the past 20 years ... except when they were in solitary confinement for three seasons during The Move.

Then again, as Mike Griffin e-mailed: "We watch games surrounded by people wearing dog masks, throwing dog bones and barking. It's great fun!"

Griffin doesn't mean at the Stadium, he means at a Browns Backers meeting in Denver. And he drives 70 miles each way to meet with other Browns fans in Colorado. As he explained, they are "Pilgrims in an Unholy Land!"

Aaron Funke tried to explain this irrational exuberance about the Browns: "I was born near Cleveland and grew up watching the team during the 1980s. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Chicago. It was tough to find the games on TV. So on Sundays, we'd get in our Chevy Astro van after church and just start driving east into Indiana to try and pick up a radio signal. I remember how excited we would get when we could finally hear it come in. Then we would just sit in some gas station parking lot or rest area for the duration of the game."

This guy hasn't lived in Cleveland since the fourth grade but remains hooked on the Browns in Chicago.

"We wised up and found a bowling alley where the Browns Backers of Chicago met, and we started going there to watch the games," explained Funke.

Dale McCombs wrote: "I first became a Browns fan in 1968 at the age of 10. Bill Nelsen with his bad knees, well, he signed a picture of himself that I still have buried in the attic. Back in those days, the signings were for free."

So far, so good.

Bill Nelsen was one of my favorite players, too. He was the Brian Sipe of my youth, although Sipe was a much better player.

McCombs continued: "You should definitely write about old Municipal Stadium and those awful poles that always seemed to block the view. My most memorable game was in the dog pound in 1978 against Houston when the bleachers broke out in a riot where fans were throwing bottles onto the end zone. I was in Row 2, and all the drunks up in row 40 with the weak arms were not getting the bottles onto the field. They were whizzing by me. I was on the front page of The Plain Dealer the next day. Stupid me, I never saved the paper, and it still haunts me to this day."

Ah, the memories of drunks throwing bottles! And the old stadium, where parts of it smelled like an animal died years ago, but no one could find the carcass.

• *

"I was raised on Cleveland Browns football," e-mailed John Greg Jr. "My bedroom was plastered, floor to ceiling, in Browns posters and paraphernalia. If I wasn't wearing an article of clothing with the Browns' logo on it, it was only because I was in the bathtub at that moment. I was the only kid in kindergarten who didn't associate The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland and the Wicked Witch of the West. At 7 years of age, the first song I learned the complete lyrics to, beginning to end, was Messenger's The Kardiac Kids."

Greg added, "It's impossible to walk away or turn my back from them, although I'd admit to covering my eyes in horror a time or two."

A time or two? How about for a decade or two?

But it is the memories that are the cement. It could be when Bernie Kosar made Browns fans proud. Or when Brian Sipe pulled off another impossible win. Or when Jim Brown kicked off the arms of tacklers with his piston-like legs. Or when it was Graham-to-Lavelli, passes so beautiful they almost made Paul Brown smile.

"I still see Webster Slaughter streaking down the left sideline taking a perfect pass from Kosar for a winning touchdown," e-mailed Tony Vallo. "It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I was too hoarse from yelling that I couldn't even talk on Thanksgiving Day."

More memories ...

Dan Lind e-mailed: "Every Sunday home game from 1989 to 1995 was the same for me. I'd drive down to old Municipal Stadium with my big brother and pour my heart and soul into the Brownies. We'd go early, cruise down Carnegie and stop for ribs at Hot Sauce Williams on the way. We'd listen to WKNR pre-game and chuckle at 'Mike from Brunswick,' who'd always call in and swear this was his FINAL year buying season tickets.... My love affair for the franchise started right there and continues to this day.... Win or lose, the sights and sounds make the NFL an extraordinary product. Each game was a story, and every play was important. Watching Joshua Cribbs and Phil Dawson today gets my heart pounding just like cheering for Eric Metcalf and Matt Stover in the 1990s. I grew up on the Browns, and despite their lack of success this past decade, I will loyally support that franchise till the day I die."

You have a feeling that Lind really means it.

Consider how McCombs--who lovingly recalls those days of beer bottles whipping by his head--ended his e-mail: "The most important reason to write the book is to show how the Browns and their fans unite together and bond over our misery.... My grandfather passed away in 2006 at the age of 96. For nearly 40 years, we commiserated each week over the Browns. I last talked to him three days before his death. He was in and out of consciousness. I said, 'Grandpa, I don't know if you know who I am, but you know how sucky those Cleveland Browns are.' He raised his head in a near-comatose state, looked at me and smiled.... It was his last smile."

It is a family thing.

"Some fathers and sons work on cars or go fishing," e-mailed Nicholas Allburn. "We watch, read and wring our hands about the Browns.... Most of all, it's strengthened my bond with my father."

Or as Willard Stanley e-mailed: "No matter how often they disappoint us, I'll always love and be grateful to this football team for bringing my family closer together. There aren't many topics that will keep the attention and provide common ground for a computer programming father and his three sons: One a graduate student in Vietnamese history, another a biologist and the last a student of European history."

Mike Lebowitz e-mailed about his military service in Iraq, "where I'd hope the combat mission would end in time so we could return to the base and watch the Browns.... I'd wake up at 4 a.m. to catch a Browns game (in Iraq).... No matter where I've lived, it finally dawned on me: The Browns, good and bad, equate to home."

And it goes on. That's the reason for this book, and for ending this chapter with this e-mail from Aimee Andrich.

"My best day at Cleveland Browns Stadium was September 16, 2007--the first game my husband and I took our (30-month-old) son Max to see," she explained. "We had discussed for weeks whether he should attend only the game, or if we should give him the full experience by taking him to the Muni Lot to tailgate. We decided that it must be all or nothing.

"We dressed him in all of his Browns gear and painted his hair to match the Browns' helmet. On our walk into the lot, fellow fans were giving him high-fives and cheering for him from the parking garages. He even ended up on the Channel 19 tailgate show holding his "This is my first Browns game" sign. The smile on his face was matched only by the final score of the game: Browns 51, Bengals 45.... After the last TD pass, I remember telling Max to never forget this day because the Browns may never put up 51 offensive points again!

"Fast-forward to the 2009 season. After a particularly ugly loss, I was listening to my regular sports talk radio show when frustration over the continued poor performance had gotten the best of me. As embarrassing as it is, I stood in my kitchen and shed a few tears. Max caught me at this low moment. He asked why I was so sad. I told him that I was sick and tired of losing.

"I then proceeded to tell him that he should pick another team to root for because there was still time for him to find a winner. He looked up at me and said, 'Mommy, the Browns are my team because they are your team.' The tears flowed again, but this time it wasn't over the losing."

[Excerpted from Things I've Learned from Watching the Browns, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]

Meet the Author

Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine-time winner of the Ohio Sports Writer of the Year award and has received more than 50 state and local writing awards. In 2005 he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. He is the author of 23 books, including The Curse of Rocky Colavito (selected by the New York Times as one of the five notable sports books of 1989), and Loose Balls, which was ranked number 13 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 sports books of all time. He was called “Perhaps the best American writer of sports books,” by the Chicago Tribune in 1997.

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