On that January afternoon in 1988, I was sitting on a ratty college-house couch with a bunch of friends when Earnest Byner fumbled at the heavenly gate of the Denver Broncos’ goal line. Our collective recoil caused the couch to spontaneously roll over backward. When I clawed myself up and out of the stunned tangle of bodies, I charged straight to the bathroom and threw up.
I cared too much. I’d probably screamed too much and drank too much cheap beer and eaten too much cheap pizza, but mostly I’d just given too much of my insides over to a football team that seemed essential. It all had to come out somehow.
I was young. Passionate and dumb. I wasn’t really even that much of a football fan, at least not relative to my peers, some of whom had road-tripped to Denver. But I was a Cleveland Browns fan. The team was part of who I was: a born and bred Northeast Ohioan, part of my family, of my friendships, of my general nature. Nev Chandler and Pete Franklin lived easily in my ears alongside the Smiths and the Bangles. My reading ranged, without discernment, from Tony Grossi to Sylvia Plath to Dan Coughlin to Classics Illustrated.
Bernie Kosar and I were born just four months and 50 miles apart. I felt a connection, one I can’t explain completely. There was just a whole lot of there there. The Browns were a base element of my coming of age. I still can’t hear “The 12 Days of Christmas” without that internal echo: “…and a Rutigliano Super Bowl team!”
I have a son now, who’s nearly the age I was then. He was born in a far different moment — six months and 40 miles away from Art Modell’s pronouncement that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. For the first four years of his life, the Browns didn’t exist. When they returned in 1999 and I finally had the opportunity to buy him a jersey, it was a Tim Couch model. No. 2: a euphemism for poop.
In his lifetime — in our lifetime together — the Browns have been the most ineffectual and irrelevant franchise not only in the NFL, but also arguably all of professional sports. It would seem there’s nothing for him to care about.
My son and I have spent the past two decades sitting on a sofa watching the games. But if that couch ever were to roll over backward, it could only be a result of our uninhibited laughter at the fiasco on the television screen.
Instead of barking, we have a tradition of sharing the cartoon “wah, wah, wah, wahhhh” downslide trombone sound effect, code for madcap failure.
Brandon Weeden gets trapped under the giant flag during the national anthem. Dawg Pound fans get their sign pieces out of order, displaying a massive orange “GPODAWUND.” The 2017 season-opening drive goes: busted play, run for loss, holding penalty, blocked punt returned for a Pittsburgh Steelers touchdown.
Wah, wah, wah, wahhhh. Johnny Manziel’s Symphony in Brown.
And so you might think that our experiences have been radically different, that I have a pure, hope-filled, soul-deep connection to the Browns of my youth, one that isn’t available to my son. And you might think there’s a cultural devolution vis-à-vis the Browns, and he’s the unfortunate beneficiary. But that’s like saying a teenager who loved Bruce Springsteen a generation ago has a superior cultural experience to a teenager who loves Taylor Swift now. Those experiences are different and exactly the same.
There’s been talk over the past few years, hand-wringing even, as some wonder whether the Browns will lose their stronghold on the local consciousness. They continue to spiral down a toilet of their own flushing while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Indians reach the peaks of new Everests. There’s talk, too, of the whole NFL losing currency, as its TV ratings decline and scandal, hypocrisy and brain damage cause many to question whether it will go the way of the old Friday Night Fights.
I asked my son recently to take a poll of his friends and ask them: Do you care about the Browns as much as your parents did? The group-text results are obviously unscientific, but it’s worth noting that, to a one, the answer was “yes.” They all care, at least as much as the Kosar generation.
Said one: “I’m a die-hard fan of a consistently losing team to the point where a six-win season feels like we won a Super Bowl. Realistically, my dad has seen the Browns be a very successful team, which I have yet to see. But I continue to be a full-on fan either way. I want to see them be the team my dad witnessed them be so badly that, in an aspect, I think I’m a bigger fan than he was, even when they were a legitimate contender.”
Said another: “Growing up, I’ve always watched the games with my dad and get just as excited, if not more excited, when things actually do go right for the Browns. I might actually care more about the Browns than my father, because I’ve seen them be so bad my whole life, it makes me root for them even more to be better.”
When I think about the experience my son and I had watching this generation of the team, I realize that as a shared ritual, it’s no different than the way my brother and I would shout-sing “Mister Cody Risien!” over the top of Jim Morrison’s “mojo risin’” line in “L.A. Woman,” invoking the Browns offensive tackle. No different than the pregame “shots for Schotty” we used to drink in honor of coach Marty Schottenheimer. No different than our buddy who gave his own son the middle name “Byner” in homage to his hero. (Well, maybe a little different. But not much.)
It doesn’t matter that the connection I made happened when the team was close to glory, while my son’s connection happened when it was closer to gory.
Mostly, I remember the first Browns game we went to together. We got there early and climbed to our nosebleed seats and settled in under a cool, sunny Sunday sky. Soon, we heard a sound — loud, metallic, like broken machinery. Just like that we were being pelted by a hailstorm from out of nowhere, rushing for cover. We spent the rest of the afternoon cold and wet, surrounded by loud drunks, far outnumbered by fans of the visiting Buffalo Bills, who embarrassed a Browns team that made a habit of rising week after week to the call of embarrassment.
I think I enjoyed that game as much as any I’d ever seen, just the two of us being miserable together. I think he did too.
The older I get, the more memories of my worst days and my best days feel alike, infused with equal degrees of heat and light, far more illuminated than the rest. Shared loss doesn’t seem all that different from shared victory. Young or old, even on a sunny Cleveland Sunday, the hail still falls.