Nate Owens decided he would become a Cleveland Browns fan just like his dad. Talk about a way for a man to get his heart broken.
One year for Christmas I bought my dad three little figurines. Each was a sculpt of a cute little bear wearing an NFL uniform. I have a memory of seeing them in a store, and asking my mom what teams my dad liked. One of them was the Detroit Lions, which made sense to me because we lived in Michigan. One was from the Dallas Cowboys, a team my dad liked a lot more when Tom Landry was still their coach. The last figurine was from my dad’s favorite team, the Cleveland Browns. In a monument to the unique stupidity of little kids, I made the decision that my favorite team would be the Browns as well.
Being a sports fan is all about having your heart broken. It’s about pain and disappointment that somehow never teaches you to stop caring. We celebrate the winners, but really it’s the losers who make up the bulk of every sports league. I think that’s why so many fans really despise the fans of good teams like the Yankees. It feels like they’re cheating at the whole sports fan thing. You can’t really know what it’s like to be a fan until you’ve been made to suffer.
That suffering comes in two distinct flavors. The first is crushing disappointment, a team that comes close so often, and then falls short every time. The Buffalo Bills experienced this in the early 1990s, and I’ve experienced it as I’ve followed the Cleveland Indians. The Browns were of course notorious for this kind of thing in the 1980s. Phrases like “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” and “Red Right 88” form invisible scars on the hearts of Clevelanders around the world. These were my dad’s Browns, a generation removed from their insane period of dominance in the 1950s.
The second kind of suffering is that grinding type that comes from years upon years of futility, until you finally despair of any success at all. You expect that your heart will be trampled upon every year until they prove otherwise. Teams like this are especially cruel, because every now and then they’ll turn in a season that makes you think things might be improving. Does anyone else remember the 2007 Browns, who mysteriously went 10-6 before missing a playoff spot? I was so sure things were finally looking up, but then they remembered who they were and promptly went 4-12 the next year.
Browns fans have it rough, because until 1995 the team was known for causing suffering of the first kind. And then Art Modell shipped the team off to Baltimore, a hideous punchline to years of cruel jokes. The team came back in 1999, but it’s been a husk of its former self and a classic example of the second kind of suffering. It’s this version of the Browns that is “mine,” for whatever that’s worth. I’m a little too young to remember why I should hate John Elway, but I’m just the perfect age to be an object of pity for every other NFL fan out there.
I’ve often asked myself why I picked this crazy team. It makes more sense (though it hardly would be a better choice) for me to be a Lions fan, since I spent most of my childhood in Michigan. I do love the Browns’ history, which was impressive until the arrival of the Super Bowl. I also must say that I love the brown and orange uniforms. They’ve looked basically the same for the last fifty years, and it puts me in mind of fall and football season. But if history and cool uniforms were the only reason, I could go root for the Packers or the Bears. I think it has something to do with loyalty at this point, which is another way of saying that I’m too stubborn or stupid to root for anyone else. I guess the reason isn’t important. One way or the other, at this point I’m stuck with them.
But as I write this, I just saw the Browns win their second straight game. They’ve actually looked alright for two weeks in a row, not outstanding but definitely competitive. Whenever they win I’m shocked, because I assume it’s the result of the other team getting on the wrong plane and not making it to the stadium, and that just doesn’t seem like it would happen very often. But no, these wins have come on the field against teams with players and uniforms and everything.
I’ve sworn off the Cleveland Browns many times before, including at least twice in the last month. They’ve proven over and over again that they don’t deserve to have fans, and their fans don’t deserve the team they have. But after all these years of crushing disappointment, we must be due for a turnaround. I’m sure there wouldn’t be any harm in getting my hopes up one more time…
Photo: Erik Daniel Drost / flickr