When I was a kid, there were two rules in my house: I wasn’t allowed to go to any rock ‘n’ roll concerts until I was 10 and I couldn’t make the trip to the Muni Lot until I was 13.
My first coming-of-age moment came in 2004 when I was 11 and saw Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band at the Gund Arena. I might have smelled something funny, but it was a mostly tame affair.
Two years later, my dad surprised me with tickets to my first Cleveland Browns game. We were die-hard fans, but until then, our Sunday ritual was relegated to the living room, where he still prefers to watch the game. I don’t remember who or how our team played, but I do remember my first trip to the NFL’s most infamous parking lot.
Just after 8 a.m., my stomach fluttered as we walked down East Ninth Street. My dad saved a few bucks by parking on a side street far away from the stadium. Before the downtown renaissance, this was the first of many “Don’t tell your mother” moments.
Downtown grew more hectic as we approached the stadium. Explicit chants and vendors’ T-shirts, which declared “B----, I’m a Dawg” or depicted a little blonde boy pissing on a Pittsburgh Steelers’ helmet, hinted at what was in store for us.
Turning down South Marginal Road, the crowd became an inescapable river of brown and orange. By my dad’s encouragement, I screamed, “Here we go Brownies” at the top of my prepubescent lungs. My fear turned to excitement as, to my surprise, the trees opened to reveal the 15.7-acre festival of fandom that looked like a street market meets Mardi Gras, and a thunderous roar of barks responded in unison.
There was no going back. With that chant, I’d earned my Dawg Pound street cred. I was hooked.
But the chants weren’t my only educational experiences that day. Technically, alcoholic beverages are banned at the Muni Lot. But there’s an unwritten rule that if you put your booze in a cup, the cops won’t hassle you. By mid-morning, trash cans were as overflowed as the porta potties that forced people into the woods. Women lifted their shirts for a radio DJ who tossed them beads from on top of a Jack Daniel’s-sponsored tour bus. Two hefty shirtless men gnawed at raw meat in a dog cage before crawling 20 yards in a race to chug a bowl of beer. I quickly learned fandom was an expulsion of primal, wild and debaucherous feelings from docile beings who spent Monday through Friday sitting quietly in a cubicle or twisting pipes on a jobsite. But there was something deeper going on, more wholesome and utterly welcoming.
It was easy to tell which tailgates were friendly to strangers. There, beers (or pops in my case) flew around like high fives, though my dad advised me against fixing a plate of food at a strangers’ spot. When we finally waded through to our tailgate — though a destination was obviously not a requirement for enjoyment — my dad hugged the man on the grill cooking up burgers and hot dogs and all the things my mom never let me eat. I tossed a football with the running back my dad handed off to as a quarterback in high school. Later, his former best man flanked us in the thousands-strong battle march to the stadium, where we sat with his childhood next door neighbor and joined the chorus of 70,000 fans.
Sure, I saw the aftermath of tailgating in the third quarter when a fan two seats down from me vomited on the guy in front of him. But I also saw my dad become a kid again, watching the game he’s always loved with the guys who made him love it.
These trips were as much about reunion and community as they were about football or revelry. In a world that was growing more divided, my dad explained, Browns fans all had one thing in common (two if you counted the love of a great party): their undying devotion to a team and a city, even if they’ve failed them time and time again. It was a cocktail mixture of irrational love, shared misery, near triumph, loss, the allure of an uncontrollable outcome, pride for a once-great city and, most of all, hope.
For me, that cocktail was more intoxicating than anything anyone could’ve drank that day.
Now, every first home game, I join my high school friends, the guys I played football with and thousands of other Browns fans who make the pilgrimage to the Muni Lot each year. Nearly 20 years after my first experience, the tradition has lived on through cold weather, winless seasons and, now, COVID-19. Thanks to iPhones, social media and society changing for the better, things have tamed quite a bit since those years, but the Muni Lot remains the ultimate expression of fandom, a weekday lakefront eyesore that contains a city’s shared trauma and joy in the cracks of its pavement.
We used to joke about what would come first: a Browns Super Bowl or the end of the world. Doesn’t seem so funny now. Not being able to celebrate 2020’s success might be the post-expansion Browns fans’ most bittersweet moment — an equivalent to the millennial’s “The Drive” or “The Fumble” if you will.
But the world’s not over, and the Browns’ success on the field doesn’t appear to be a fluke. This year, all that loyalty may finally pay off. Then again, it always did.