Old Dirt

The Cleveland Browns, and what I've carried all these years.

It was in the back of the hall closet, tucked behind blankets and old baby toys, buried in the bottom of a box. I went searching for it because I just needed to look at it again. A small glass jar full of dirt, desiccated by the years, crumbling like the reliquary bones of some forgotten minor saint. It’s a silly thing to have all these years later, but it still means something to me. That’s what sports fandom often is, really: a silly thing to hold on to. It’s hard to explain how one can stay emotionally invested in something that gives so little back to you, which is why it’s best not to try to explain it to anyone who doesn’t already know. They’ll never understand. 

At risk of sounding like an old man, though, the Cleveland Browns were far from a joke when I first fell in love with them. 

Growing up in the western suburbs of Cleveland in the 1980s, the Browns were everything: a tough, hard-nosed blue-collar team with a legacy of greatness that held an outsize presence in the local psyche. The local baseball team, who I’m preemptively training myself not to call by their soon-to-be-gone name, was a joke. The Cavs flirted with greatness but never captured the civic imagination in quite the same way.

The Browns? The Browns were Cleveland. 

They taught me heartbreak early: my earliest sports hatred—a formative moment in any young person’s life—was John Elway, the horse-toothed Denver Broncos quarterback who stood in the way of Super Bowl dreams for the Browns three times in four seasons. I would develop sports hatreds both deeper and more nuanced at other times in my life, but few exceeded Elway for the sheer bewilderment of a seven-year-old wondering who is this man and why does he keep doing this to us?

Games at old Municipal Stadium had a mythic quality. The hulking, rusty WPA-era barn on the lakefront wasn’t much to look at, but it was a daunting place for any challenger to enter. As kids, we’d share legends of the Dawg Pound, what was then a proud nickname bestowed on the rowdiest endzone fans by defensive backs Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, and not the corporatized and trademarked team branding exercise it is now. I recall hearing stories like that of a misplaced Steelers fan who’d wandered into the Dawg Pound having his Starter jacket torn off his back and burned in a bleacher bonfire, and I have as little desire to have that proven apocryphal now as I did in grade school. It happened, because I believe it happened, and he shouldn’t have been there if it didn’t want it to happen. 

When I was thirteen years old, I found a new sports hatred that I will probably never let go. Just weeks off the elated civic high of the baseball team making their first World Series appearance in 41 years, Browns owner Art Modell committed an act of betrayal so brazen it still stings me a quarter-century later, announcing the team’s sudden move to Baltimore. He’d throw away one of the best traditions and most passionate fanbases in the sport for little more than a new stadium full of luxury boxes. He never returned to Cleveland and he never deserved to. It speaks to the level of passion, delusion and hatred that the loss of the Browns fostered in the hearts of Clevelanders that in 2014, when a Browns fan was arrested after traveling to Maryland to urinate on Modell’s grave, the general reaction among fans I knew was one of “I’m not saying that I condone it, or that I’d do it myself… but I understand it.” 

Fans fought the move tooth and nail, bombarding the NFL’s offices with angry letters, faxes and phone calls, badgering them until a compromise was struck that has become a model for future franchise relocations across sports: Modell would take the team, but the name and traditions would stay in Cleveland. A new expansion franchise would be given to mollify us, but we’d have to wait three years and build a new stadium.

Shortly before Municipal Stadium was torn down in order to be replaced with the kind of modern arena Modell had lusted after, an open house was held. It was a chance for Clevelanders to walk the stadium once more and say goodbye. My parents took me. It felt like a wake, a funereal air of sadness and loss flapping in the lakefront breeze. I don’t know why, but I felt I needed to take a part of it with me. I used my father’s pocket knife and dug a small square of turf out of the field, right at the 50-yard line. When we got home, I sealed it in a jar and put it on a shelf. The stadium met the wrecking ball, the rubble dumped into the lake as an artificial reef, but I held on to this one small part of it.

The excitement was off the charts when the new team arrived in 1999, ready to make the three-year hiatus of football in Cleveland seem like an aberration, and even a 2-14 opening season couldn’t dampen that enthusiasm. Growing pains. They’d be back. They were back. By the fourth season, they were back in the playoffs, losing a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh after blowing a big lead, but they were back.

Next year, we’d get them. Next year, we’d be better.

And then…

It’s been eighteen years since that last playoff game. An adult’s lifetime has passed, and in that time the Browns have rarely offered more than futility on an almost-incomprehensible scale. Ten head coaches in twenty years, cycling out like Spinal Tap drummers. Chudzinski. Pettine. Shurmur. Kitchens. Countless quarterbacks, to the point of it becoming a tired internet joke. A 10-win season in 2007 felt like a joyous fever dream, but it wasn’t enough for a playoff trip. I can still feel a bump on my chin from where I stumbled and bashed it on a railing after overindulging during a dramatic overtime win against Baltimore.

In that season, quarterback Derek Anderson felt like a folk hero; within two years, he was setting records for incompetence, and the team was back to their losing ways. I have a running email thread with a half-dozen friends, all Browns fans, and over the years our waning enthusiasm slowly curdled into outright hostility, each new coaching change or front-office revamp being met with a “fine, whatever. It won’t help!”

(It’s usually not that clean, to be honest.)

The losing hurt, but the irrelevance stung even more. In a country that, to a fault, treats the NFL like a national institution, the Browns simply did not matter. Our blood-feud rivalry with Pittsburgh no longer registered any interest on a league-wide scale, the Ravens having taken that with them too. There were no prime-time games, no playoff implications, nothing other than an endless series of high draft picks squandered. Thanks to a friend made through our shared Browns fandom, I sat in Radio City Music Hall in 2014 and watched as the Browns staked their future on Johnny Manziel, a headline-grabbing move that would end up as just another bust.

Eighteen years have passed, and the Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs. I was a junior in college when they last made it this far, and now the college juniors interning in my office look like children to me. In that time, I’ve graduated college and moved to the big city in pursuit of big-city dreams, then headed back to the middle-American suburbs and started a family. I’ve had ten different addresses in that time, rattling from apartment to apartment to house to house, boxing up my life every couple of years until finally settling down.

In each move, that little jar of dirt has gone with me, that little part of holding on.

Perhaps the Browns will bow out as quickly next week as they did eighteen years ago. I hope not, and the blind optimism of devoted sports fans requires me to say: they will not. (They might, though.) For nearly the entire adult portion of my life, this team has given me nothing, but I’ve held on in some small way throughout. I’ve carried that dirt with me the same way I’ve carried the identity of a city I haven’t lived in for over 20 years, the same way I still carry hope that one day a Super Bowl title will be brought home to Cleveland, the same way I carry hope that this might be the year.

I could try to explain it, but you just wouldn’t understand.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)