Of 32 teams in the National Football League, four have never made it to the Super Bowl. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans are expansion teams of fairly recent vintage. The Detroit Lions are, well, the Detroit Lions. And then there are the Cleveland Browns, one of the league’s most storied franchises, who haven’t won an NFL championship since 1964.
The Bernie Kosar-led Browns of the eighties made it to three AFC championship games, only to lose to John Elway’s Denver Broncos every time, usually in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable. A few years later, the team moved to Baltimore — leaving the old name and history behind — and promptly won a Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens. An expansion team was christened the Cleveland Browns in 2002, and has made it to the playoffs exactly once.
My Chicago Bears haven’t won it all since 1986, but at least I remember it. I’m also a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Newcastle United, so I know a little something about rooting for tortured teams, but even I have trouble understanding how Clevelanders can put up with this.
The city’s economic decline, and the woes of its other professional sports teams, make the pain even worse. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, but at least Chicago fans could take solace in Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty, or the Blackhawks’ recent Stanley Cup win. The good people of Cleveland, by contrast, got to watch LeBron James take his talents to South Beach on national television.
Still, tens of thousands pack the new Browns’ stadium for every home game, so something must keep the long-suffering fans coming back for more. In Things I’ve Learned From Watching the Browns, Ohio sportswriter Terry Pluto attempts to figure out why.
Pluto shares credit as author with “hundreds of Browns fans,” who sent him their stories about cheering for the team and, if they’re lucky, meeting and befriending the players. They describe watching the games with long-deceased relatives, braving the vicious cold at decrepit old Municipal Stadium, meeting Browns players at church not long after the day’s game ended, joining the most rabid fans in the wild “Dawg Pound,” and in one case, getting married in a Browns-themed ceremony.
(My favorite story was submitted by one Browns fan on vacation in Hawaii, who discussed his team’s perennial woes with an amicable, vaguely familiar tourist. Later, his new friend sent him a drink with a note reading, “Sorry I ruined your childhood — John Elway.”)
Pluto, who has covered the Browns and the NFL for decades, also profiles some of the team’s best-loved players — Kosar, Jim Brown, Clay Matthews — and founder Paul Brown, who lent his own name to the club. He revisits some of the darker moments in team history, and makes a pretty good argument that the ill-fated “Red Right 88″ play was a perfectly understandable call during the Browns’ 1980 playoff loss to the Raiders, and reminds readers that Elway’s storied “Drive” in the 1987 AFC championship game isn’t what cost the Browns a trip to the Super Bowl. (The game went to overtime, and Cleveland had the ball first — and promptly went three-and-out.)
Things I’ve Learned From Watching the Browns will have much more appeal for committed Browns devotees than casual NFL fans, or those who align themselves with other teams. Pluto assumes who already know a lot about the team — I follow the NFL pretty closely, and I wasn’t familiar with many of the players and games featured in the book.
For dedicated Browns fans, however, Things I’ve Learned From Watching the Browns will be like leafing through a family photo album. Through the good times and the much more frequent bad times, they’ve stuck together. If you can make it through your team being hauled off to another city, only to be reborn as a perennially mediocre expansion team, you can get through anything.
One of Pluto’s correspondents gives what might be the best explanation for why he stands by the Browns (and why I stick with the Leafs, despite decades of heartbreak): “I am afraid that if I quit watching them, that will be the year the Browns win it all. I have invested way too much time to chance missing it when they finally do reach the Super Bowl.”