Sweet 16

We've had bad luck with our recent sports darlings. So how is it that our new flame has been under our noses all along?

The ghosts of Cleveland sports heroes past surround the hero of our present.

There is a kid in a Brady Quinn jersey. Behind him stands someone in a Braylon Edwards T-shirt. There is a guy wearing Kellen Winslow's No. 80, even an Eric Metcalf jersey on display. Each person is hoping for an autograph from Josh Cribbs on the first weekend of training camp.

No LeBron James jerseys have made it to Berea today. If someone had worn one and survived, Cribbs would still sign an autograph for him. After all, when James took his talents to South Beach, it left the sixth-year Brown as the dreadlock-framed face of Cleveland sports.

Don't worry, Cleveland fans. It's safe to fall in love again. Josh Cribbs understands us. "If our stadium was in Antarctica, they'd be taking canoes there every game," he says.

Maybe we're on the rebound after our last sports relationship ended with LeBron dumping us on national television in his own version of LeBachelor. It was a nasty blow to a city plagued with low self-esteem.

Rest assured, Cribbs is a good choice for us. Undrafted out of Kent State, the quarterback turned return specialist has always been here for us. While sports bullies shook us down for our best players, Cribbs spent the past five years hurtling his body into — and around — defenders coming at him with a 30-yard head start.

Some people will say, "But he's just a kick returner. The best athlete in Cleveland is a kick returner!" Because Cribbs doesn't play a glamour position, because he wasn't picked in the first round (or at all), because he is our best special teams tackler, he's more like us. Josh Cribbs is our sweet 16. He's positively Cleveland.

Cribbs isn't just a kick returner. He's the best kick returner ever: Eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, an NFL record. Last season his role grew when he rushed for 381 yards and caught 20 passes. He•s also the only player on the current Browns squad who has thrown a touchdown pass for the team.

We wouldn't be embarrassed to take Cribbs to a high school reunion. Sure, it wouldn't be like taking LeBron, whom a billion people in China actually do care about. Maybe it wouldn't be like showing off Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez and their 550-plus home runs, or even CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee and their Cy Young awards.

And for this, Josh Cribbs loves us.

Last season the Washington, D.C., native expressed his desire to stay in Cleveland because of the fans. He navigated a contract dispute and inked a new three-year deal without turning us off. When talking to the national media, such as during a July appearance on ESPN's Rome is Burning, Cribbs says the reason any athlete should want to play in Cleveland is fan support.

"I told someone on a plane, they were moving here from California, the people are No. 1," Cribbs said. "Blue-collar people. You're going to have a great time enjoying yourself with the people."

Over the summer a fan sent a Photoshopped picture to Cribbs, who shared it over his Twitter account. It showed a billboard of Cribbs replacing the famous LeBron James sign near Quicken Loans Arena.

"True to my word," was written on the picture.

Exactly what we need to hear to exorcise the ghosts.

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