Their previous owner, Art Modell, stole off to Baltimore with the team five years ago. There, as the Ravens, the erstwhile Browns have flourished, and will face the New York Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Although the NFL gave Cleveland another franchise two years ago, the agony continues the Browns have mustered only five wins since their reincarnation, and just fired their first and, until now, only head coach. To many Browns fans, Modell and his Ravens are anathema; the Giants, though bitter rivals of the Browns in the '50s and '60s, will be very popular in Cleveland this weekend.
I will likely remain apathetic. I wish the Ravens no ill, as the players had nothing to do with the move from Cleveland (and the Giants have almost as many former original Browns as the Ravens, who have just two still on the roster), and Modell has been punished plenty for having jilted us. He is universally reviled in the city he once affectionately called home and to which he desperately wanted to deliver a championship.
And for a Browns fan, the Ravens' success comes as no surprise; rather, it is oddly fitting. Supporting the Browns is clearly about more than wins and losses it is about enduring the greatest pain and disappointments and perversions possible in sports fandom. Which, truth be told, is part of why I hold fellow Browns backers in such high regard. Those of us who have offered our souls up to perpetual but lovable losers the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and others have done so clinging to the belief that years of adversity and abuse will pay off double or triple at the window.
I had the chance to take the easiest possible road to fandom: I grew up in San Francisco during the '80s and early '90s, in the age of Walsh, Montana, Rice and Young, and the five championships they brought to their adoring yet capricious faithful. Around age seven I decided that rooting for the Niners was really a waste of time they would win with or without me. On the other hand, the Browns (my dad's team since his youth in Akron, Ohio) would benefit greatly from my psychic energy. It was a weighty decision to make at so young an age, but I've never regretted it.
The Browns have been a strong presence in my life ever since, offering me a chance to bore my teachers with Browns minutiae, and illuminating the vicissitudes of life. The first essay I recall writing in elementary school was a lengthy discussion of their post-WWII creation and exciting 1950 NFL Championship. Then, as an eight-year-old in 1981, I remember crying at school the day after Brian Sipe was intercepted in the end zone when the team was a short field goal from the AFC Championship game. When the 49ers won it all the next year I was jealous, to be sure, but I'm proud that I stuck with my guys.
In 1985 the awkward but cerebral Bernie Kosar joined the team; for the next nine years he proved the value of substance over style, and three times lead the team within a win of the Super Bowl. In the '87 AFC Championship at Denver, as Earnest Byner appeared to be scoring the tying touchdown, my dad and I leapt in unison, elated only to fall to earth and see that Byner had fumbled, and the season was over. Many fathers and sons share triumphant memories, and we too have our share. But we also have the Byner fumble, and though it continues to gall, it is a passionate recollection that binds us.
As the years went by, the Browns continued to discover new and cruel ways of exciting expectation and delivering disappointment. By '93, Kosar's ability had eroded after years of pounding wrought by porous offensive lines and his own immobility. For years Modell had praised his quarterback and team leader, going as far as to liken him to a son. But in what would presage his ultimate act of betrayal, Modell OK'ed Kosar's release; Browns fans were left shocked and hurt. In addition, we had to watch Vinny Testaverde who at that point was best known as a Heisman Trophywinning bust whose affinity for throwing to the wrong team was blamed on color-blindness take control of the team. Modell's decision to move the team to Baltimore was the final insult.
For three years, the Cleveland Browns lay dormant. For a short time I rooted for the ex-Browns who now played for the Ravens, but as their number dwindled, my interest faded. I took a breather from football fandom, although when it was time to write my main application essay for medical school, I looked to the Browns for inspiration. Even while absent, the Brownies were there for me, helping me, through their own battered past, find words to express where I had been and what I wanted to do.
As for this Sunday's contest in Tampa, about all I want is a well-played game, plenty of canned beer and some tasty dip. I'm not sure if Modell's longtime association with the Browns and inarguably rotten karma will jinx the Ravens. But it doesn't really matter to Browns fans like me all we'll see is yet another shade of suffering: Modell and his championship Baltimore Ravens in football ecstasy.