Remaining the loyal, invested Cleveland Browns fan has been difficult in recent years, I can’t lie to you. Well, that is sort of a lie, in that it’s hardly ever been easy, and for the past few years, it’s nigh been impossible.
This is coming from a guy who’s been a Browns fan since early childhood. I remember playing backyard football with other third- or fourth-grade friends in Lexington, Ohio, each of us pretending like we were Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield, Bill Glass, Ernie Green, or of course, Jim Brown (we apparently weren’t aware the Browns had a defense back then).
But since then, my relationship with the Browns has been marked by wild ups and downs, careening extremes of love and hate.
In recent years, though, with the Browns at the very bottom of the NFL heap, the going has been easier. When your team seldom provides any reason for hope, false or otherwise, it’s simple enough to just forget about them. When they went 1-15 two years ago and 0-16 last season, I happily went about my life, only occasionally glancing at game results.
This season is starting to look different (sigh). With the Browns drafting some promising players and making what seem like positive trades and free-agent signings – along with being featured last month in what’s been heralded as the best season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series – these developments have found fuel in the gray ashes of my flagging interest and sparked it back to life. It’s not exactly a raging fire just yet, but I’m afraid it’s heading in that direction.
Sunday, when the Browns managed a wild fourth-quarter comeback and ultimately tied the despised Pittsburgh Steelers after overtime in a game that had just about everything (final score: 21-21), the trap was sprung. My pleasant four or five years of laidback Browns apathy had come to an end. Once again, following this stupid team will result in hundreds of hours of wasted time, tons of interest that by all rights should be invested elsewhere, and repeat-play rolling eyes from my long-suffering spouse, Melanie.
I know that, but will do it anyway.
The reason I know is how I responded Sunday afternoon when the Browns looked their typically inept selves well into the fourth quarter. I followed the first two or three quarters the way I usually do, from my office desk in the newsroom directly above Athens’ premier Browns bar, the Cat’s Eye Saloon. I keep track of 1 p.m. Browns games during The A-NEWS production process for Monday’s issue by assessing the noise I hear below. When Cleveland scores, the bar erupts, and usually (but sadly not this past Sunday), a big dog (“dawg”) starts woofing in a deep baritone. Otherwise, the crowd is comparatively quiet, with only an occasional eruption of cheering after a positive play. The groans don’t transmit as well through the ceiling. Typically, around the end of halftime, we’ll finish Monday’s paper, and I’ll head home and turn on the TV.
That’s what happened Sunday, and midway through the fourth quarter with the Browns down 14 points to the Steelers with no reasonable hope for a comeback, true to form, I shut off the game with a shouted expletive.
But it wasn’t over.
About a half hour later, my daughter in Cincinnati texted me, declaring, “Go Browns!” I thought she was being ironic, so I texted back, “I hate them.”
I immediately checked my ESPN app and found that the score was now tied at 21-21. I turned it back on, and watched, heart thumping, mouth woofing, as the Browns came within a botched field goal of winning in OT.
A win would have been incredible, but a tie was OK, considering the Browns’ record against the Steelers in recent years (5-32-1 since 2000). Cleveland’s competitive performance, more to the point, rejuvenated my dormant interest as a longtime fan. I’ll try to watch them as much as possible if they can continue playing like that.
To more devoted sports fans (aka suckers), turning off a game when your team is losing badly might seem like the damning mark of a fair-weather fan. But I can live with that. If my team doesn’t reward me with competent, occasionally winning play, then screw them.
But I do pay a price. While shutting off a game that seems out of reach for my team usually turns out to be the right decision, every once in a while, I end up missing an incredible comeback.
This nearly happened on Sunday (well, I did miss most of the comeback), and it definitely happened 31 years ago, on Jan. 3, 1987. That afternoon I missed one of the great comeback victories in Cleveland Browns history, a 23-20 double-overtime win over the New York Jets in a divisional playoff game.
That day, when it appeared the Browns had no chance of winning, behind 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, I angrily shut down the TV and told Mel, “The hell with them; let’s go shopping.”
But before heading out the door, I asked her to write down the following message on a yellow notepad: “‘The season’s over. I ain’t watchin’ no more f***ing games.’ Quoted by Terry A. Smith, 1/3/87, 3:35 p.m.” Underneath was my pigeon-scrawled signature.
Then we headed out toward the Far East Side commercial district, and a half hour later, while glancing through the front window of the Sears outlet store, I was stunned to see that the Browns had tied the Jets (and ended up beating them in double overtime, 23-20, with quarterback Bernie Kosar passing for 489 yards). This went down in Browns legend as among their greatest victories… AND I WAS SHOPPING!
The next weekend, embarrassed by my lack of faith and having paid for that dearth of constancy in spades, I was back at it, riveted to the TV as the Browns lost in catastrophic fashion to the Denver Broncos in the AFC conference final. As much as the win over the Jets went down in Cleveland sports history as an iconic victory, the Denver playoff loss was gouged in infamy, Bronco John Elway’s stake-through-the-heart winning “Drive” forever emblematic of how sad-sack Cleveland sports teams fare when push comes to shove.
Ever since that day, I’ve asked myself, why didn’t I turn off that game in the fourth quarter!