Browns Perfect Season Parade Browns Perfect Season Parade
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Four and a half minutes and 85 yards is about to determine the next week of Chris McNeil’s life.

Dressed in jeans, a No. 2 jersey (Tim Couch, not Johnny Manziel) and a Browns hat with salt and pepper hair peeking out, McNeil is watching the final game of the 2017 Browns season in a Buffalo Wild Wings on Dressler Road in Canton with other members of the Perfect Season Parade committee.

Generic sports memorabilia hangs on the walls, which are painted with an ominous black and yellow color scheme. Chicken wing carcasses and spent beers litter the table. The waitress has brought the checks, but no one at the table paid her any mind.

The Browns trail the Steelers 28-24 in the fourth quarter when quarterback DeShone Kizer takes the snap from his own 15-yard line. The rookie hands off to running back Isaiah Crowell, who is deposited in the backfield by Pittsburgh defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt for a loss of three yards. McNeil cringes.

He looks more like the guy you’d see in the grocery store on a Sunday night — chin up, proudly sporting brown and orange after another loss — than a Twitter celebrity. In fact, he’s both. His popular @Reflog_18 Twitter account, where he mostly tells dad jokes and brings sarcastic commentary to Cleveland sporting events, has an ever-growing base of more than 60,000 followers.

“During a game like this, I’ll have 100 notifications a minute,” he tells me. “I can’t even scroll to the top.”

Throughout the game, McNeil has been poking at Steelers fans sitting nearby. Pittsburgh has benched most of its starting line up to prevent an injury in a meaningless game before the playoffs. 

Chris McNeil

But the game is anything but meaningless for the Browns and McNeil. A loss means Cleveland will join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to finish a season winless at 0-16. And if that happens, McNeil has to make good on a promise that started with a simple, 140-character joke sent into the ether of the Internet a year and a half ago: “Why don’t we have a parade if the Browns go 0-16?”

“I never thought it would actually happen,” he says. “God, I hope we win so bad.”

After a second quarter score, he sarcastically yells, “We’re turning this season around!” with fists held high. Just as quickly, his head turns to his phone to share the joke before Twitter’s wave of conversation washed ashore. 

When an interception by Kizer midway through the fourth quarter teeters the Browns comeback, McNeil sulks quietly in his chair. “Why you gotta Browns?” he finally says, turning back to Twitter. For someone whose loyalties and motivations have come under intense scrutiny over the past few weeks, he sure looks like the textbook fanatic.

But right now, he’s silent and unblinking as he stares at one of what feels like 700 televisions. Kizer completes a short pass across the middle to Josh Gordon who breaks free and scampers up to Pittsburgh’s 45-yard line before being pulled down by former Brown Joe Haden.  

McNeil shoots out of his seat and passes out stinging high-fives to members of the parade committee Cam Carmen and Matt Allaire, producer and co-host, respectively, of The McNeil Show podcast, Kevin Beard, Josh Ogden, Mike Shaw and comedian Mike Polk Jr. “Polk doesn’t like to do the hard, behind-the-scenes work,” McNeil jokes. 

Three 2-yard gains and the two-minute warning leave the Browns at fourth-and-2 with 1:46 left in the game. As the Browns shift into a different formation, every moment feels like an hour. 

As Kizer takes a shotgun snap, the pocket quickly collapses. He appears to be sacked, but somehow squeaks out the side of the scrum, rolls to his left. He delivers a perfect strike to wide receiver Corey Coleman who stands wide open near the sideline on the 10-yard line. The ball hits Coleman in his hands but goes right through. The pass is incomplete. The Steelers take over on downs. 

I expect McNeil to be happy. After all, talk of a Perfect Season Parade — one in which fans will march in a 0-shaped pattern around FirstEnergy Stadium as a “shot to the bow” of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam — has consumed his popular Twitter feed for a year and a half. He’s done dozens of interviews with media outlets — from fan blogs to ESPN. He’s already put in hours of work. 

Instead, as Coleman puts hands to his head in despair, McNeil does the same. He covers his wide-open mouth. The others try to make jokes, but he remains frozen and silent. As the Steelers line up to run out the clock, his leg shakes uncontrollably. He returns to his iPad to tweet. 

“Who’s ready to stand out in the cold?” he says. “It looks like we’re having a parade.”

“I don’t think they thought it was real at first,” McNeil says of his initial meetings with the city about the parade.  

Before the Browns kicked off against the Steelers, the committee walked through the final plan in case of a loss. What McNeil, whose family has had season tickets since the 1980s, thought was going to be as simple as a $25 parade permit involved NFL-caliber logistics.

To pull off his protest, McNeil would need to hire a security firm ($6,000), order portable toilets (about $1,000), insure the event (about $1,500) and, of course, raise the funds to support it all. The vehicles riding in the parade would need to be registered, carry credentials and be swept for weapons and bombs.

In the days leading up to the parade, the safety protocols began to feel more necessary. Browns fans were passionately split on the parade. Many didn’t want it. Some understood what he was doing but couldn’t get behind it. But another sect thought the parade was designed to celebrate the 0-16 season even while McNeil insisted that this was a tongue-in-cheek protest of the ownership and a chance to make Browns fans smile.

A small group was hostile. “Don’t worry,” tweeted Bill Waldron (@waldron222) from Brookville, Ohio. “He will get his ass beat tomorrow along with a lot of other parade goers from what I am hearing. Gonna be fights everywhere.”

Grown men mocked his children. “They’re losers, too,” one tweeted.

Fellow season ticket holders asked for his section so they could find him and “punch him in the mouth.” He even received death threats, like former Browns owner Art Modell. McNeil says it was a small group of mostly “keyboard warriors.”

“The people who are sending me this stuff are the least likely to do anything,” he says. “It’s only a few people and the reality is every fan base has people like that.

Still, he followed police orders to report the serious ones. After all, this is the city that forced its boy-mayor Dennis Kucinich to wear a Kevlar vest as he threw out a first pitch at the Cleveland Indians’ 1978 home opener. This is a city where, in 2016, local radio personality Tony Rizzo threatened to “mow down” parade goers with his car. 

“I tried to get him a bulletproof vest,” Shaw says. “It fell through, but it would have been nice. Even just for another layer from the cold.”

As sports go, the Browns still reign supreme for many Clevelanders no matter the recent success of the Cavaliers or the Indians. That’s partly because football reigns supreme here. People who don’t understand that, don’t understand Cleveland. 

They don’t understand what it’s like to pick your high school based on the prestige of the football program or to remain best friends at 40 with the same guys who played on those teams. They don’t understand rainy fall weekends that start with a Friday high school game, hit a peak on Saturday with an Ohio State Buckeyes game and end with a Browns game on Sunday. And on the few times in the last two decades where all three of those teams were victorious, they don’t understand the sentiment behind “best weekend ever.”

But for a generation of Browns fans who don’t remember the Kardiac Kids and Bernie Kosar-led teams of the 1980s, that grip is slipping. Our fathers have seen a handful of playoff seasons. Some may recall an NFL Championship. Since the franchise’s return in 1999, it’s been a single, devastating playoff loss and a team disintegrating to 1-31 over the past two seasons.

For years after the Browns returned, my dad built his Sundays around games. The only way he’d miss a game was if I was playing youth football at Shore Junior High in Mentor. If he wasn’t coaching, he’d huddled with the other parents around a Pontiac Trans Sport minivan that someone pulled up so everyone could hear the game.

Even during the Romeo Crennel years when he had relinquished a bit from his Sunday ritual, he would Tivo any game he couldn’t watch from coin flip to post-game interview. Family outings and honey-do errands started to take priority, yet he’d unjustly berate people who spoiled the final score before he could watch and sing “La-la-la-la” to avoid hearing details of games.

On the drive home from that Canton BW3s after the loss, I called my dad. He wasn’t in front of the TV and didn’t have the game recorded. He listened a bit on the radio while helping my cousin move, but he truly couldn’t justify it as a priority in his day. The Browns had broken him.

“I didn’t think it would feel much different than 1-15,” he says. “But seeing 0-16 next to the Browns name, hearing the guys on 92.3 talk about it, it hurts, dude. I never thought this could ever happen.”

No one under 25 remembers the last Browns playoff victory (1994), so it’s difficult for this generation to fully grasp the passion of this fan base. We’ve witnessed it in our fathers, mothers and grandparents, and we followed. Stories about Jim Brown, Red Right 88 and Greg Pruitt’s tear-away jerseys only can impart so much.

Still, I’ve watched hundreds of games with my dad. I’ve drank Miller Lites and heckled out-of-towners in the Muni Lot. I’ve made the procession from the Muni to FirstEnergy Stadium. I’ve even seen them win. In person. More than once.

But I worry about the generation of Browns fans who not only have no memory of successful Cleveland football — the kind my dad knows, the kind I may never see — but who may never experience those seminal moments in my Cleveland upbringing.

Because it all starts with the kind off football you build your Sundays around. Hell, at least the kind worth Tivoing.

My best experience as a Browns fan came when I was 10 years old. The Browns played the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card game Jan. 5, 2003.

When the Browns led 24-14 through three quarters, I was confident we’d win.

But in my first painful lesson of fandom, the Steelers stormed back with 22 points in the fourth quarter to win 36-33.

When it ended, I ripped off my Tim Couch No. 2 jersey. Realizing I had a Browns T-shirt on underneath, I tore that off too. When my parents refused to let me burn them on the deck, I stormed to my room.

I had no idea that would be a high point of my Browns fandom — until Saturday, that is.

Walking to the stadium in temperatures just above 0 degrees Fahrenheit, I am positive no one will show. The cold is unbearable. Having a glove off for more than a minute isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s painful.

But then a sea of brown and orange comes into view from East Ninth Street. Cleveland Police estimated about 3,000 people, but it looks like more. If the temperature was 40 degrees warmer, there might have been 10,000.

More than 80 vehicles are lined up on Al Lerner Way facing Cleveland’s East Side ready to march. Before the parade commences, attendees walk from float to float taking pictures and commending the creators. It feels like a village fair.

For the first time in years, calls of “Here We Go Brownies, Here We Go” are returned with thundering “Woof, Woof” instead of mumbles. No one offers a “Well, at least we have Ohio State.”

Browns Perfect Season Parade

People sing self-written songs and improvise chants. A cover band does a version of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” that replaces the lyrics with slightly vulgar comments about females from Pittsburgh. A funeral home pickup truck carries a casket in the back. A graveyard of Browns quarterbacks follows close behind.

Fans discuss their many reasons for being here. Motivations differ. For Scott Newcomb, of Sheffield Lake, it’s a chance to cheer a team that has given him little reason for celebration.

“I’ve been a Browns fan for over 40 years,” he says. “This is the first parade where we could come and celebrate the history of the Browns.”

Mike Cooper, owner of Cooper Disposal, whose garbage truck has “Cleveland Browns, 0-16” and “Super Bowl 20??” painted on the side, directs his protest at owner Jimmy Haslam.

“The Browns mean everything to me,” Cooper says. “I’ll be back next season rooting for them just like I have all my life. But I want to send a message to the owner that enough is enough.

“And I didn’t get my fuel from Pilot [Flying] J, either,” he adds.

Some are here to observe, not make a statement. “I don’t agree with anyone who is doing this to humiliate the Browns,” says Nick Zeman of Garfield Heights.

Walking through the crowd reminds me of my first Browns game at age 11. In the Muni Lot, I witnessed two guys race across pavement on all fours like hounds toward dog bowls of beer to be chugged. In the middle of the third quarter, a guy vomited on the woman in front of him.

I tell that story to an older fan next to me. He says he’s sorry I never got to experience the electricity of a game at Municipal Stadium. He tells me about the plaques and the cinderblock he took home from the last game there and the seat he bought online years later.

“Oh, that place was just a dump,” he says. “But I loved it.”

Everywhere, fans young and old, are having similar conversations. You can’t take two steps without hearing something like, “Remember that drop by Dennis Northcutt in the playoffs?” — followed by giggles rather than groans. I hear stories from people who were in the Dawg Pound during Bottlegate in 2001 — when fans interrupted the game at the end of the fourth quarter by throwing debris onto the field after a disputed call by officials — and wax nostalgic with others about kicker Phil Dawson booting game winners.

The conversations are cathartic, like a therapy session on Al Lerner Way.  

“It just confirms what everybody knows,” McNeil says later. “We got the best fans in the frickin’ NFL right here in Cleveland, Ohio.”

After about 45 minutes, the parade ends.

As the crowd quickly disperses, McNeil emerges from the background.

 “I didn’t want this to be about me,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t hop on a float or give a speech.”

The media stays for another 20 minutes or so, but scatter once gathering McNeil’s reaction. Soon, it’s back to that same group from six days earlier at BW3.

McNeil and I circle the stadium with trash bags. We pick up beer cans, hand-made signs and toilet paper — lots of toilet paper, which was shot roll-after-roll from a homemade gun crafted from a leaf blower.

“I was a little mad about that at first because I told them not to do it,” McNeil says. “But looking back it was pretty awesome. I was amazed at the creativity and the passion that I saw.”

With all the publicity, McNeil could turn this success into a career or at least profitability a la Mike Polk Jr. But he doesn’t have those desires, McNeil says.

The parade was enough. Donating more than $17,000 and 2,000 food items to the Cleveland Food Bank was even better.

Donations to Cleveland Food Bank

He is eager for his title as parade organizer to change back to dad and manager of Pinnacle Metal Products.

“In the new Star Wars, Luke’s on this abandoned island growing a big beard and just going through his day,” McNeil says. “I picture myself in that situation. After all of this attention, I just wanna go out back to telling stupid dad jokes.” 

“And what about the Browns?” I ask him. “Where do they go from here?”

He pauses for a second, bending over to pick up a piece of trash.

“You know, I obviously have big problems with the ownership,” he says. “But I think the new GM is good. We’ve got all these draft picks. Haslam’s son-in-law tweeted about the parade the other day, so it’s obviously on their radar. If he’s got the right people in place, maybe they really will ... ”

He drifts off and a ray of sun hits his face, revealing the kind of under-eye bags only sleep deprivation can cause. He gazes at the Cleveland skyline, standing tall and proud, before finishing, “I just wanna see them win man. I really do. The next time I’m talking to you, I want it to be the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl. Maybe this could be the start of a rebirth,” he says.

He bends over and picks up another soggy wad of muddy toilet paper. He spikes it in a black garbage bag.

“One thing I know for sure, though, I’m never putting on another one of these again.”

Additional reporting by Isiah Mowery

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