The New Browns

So, NFL season starts next week, and I woke up today thinking about October 19, 1980. No reason. Well, that’s not exactly true -- every so often I wake up thinking about October 19, 1980. It was a pivotal day of my childhood, though I did not realize that for many years. Now, I think about it often.

I remember October 19, 1980, better than almost any other day of my childhood. I remember it better than I remember birthdays. I remember it better than I remember various graduations. I remember it better than the breakfast I had yesterday morning (did I eat breakfast yesterday morning?). I will remember that day for the rest of my life, and the thing that’s crazy about this is that, more or less, NOTHING HAPPENED on October 19, 1980.

Well, that’s not true. Jose Bautista was born on that day (as if I needed THAT to make me feel old) and so was Rajai Davis. Jimmy Carter was at Camp David, and you can read his daily diary if you want to be bored out of your mind. The Grateful Dead performed in New Orleans. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 29 and Magic Johnson 26 as the Lakers started their season 5-0. Barbra Streisand’s rather hideous “Woman In Love” was the No. 1 song in America. None of these are the reasons I remember the day.

I was 13 years old and the most important thing in my life was the Cleveland Browns. There was no close second. If I could create a pie chart of what interested me when I was 13 years old, maybe 3% of it would be school, maybe 10% of it would be food, maybe 7% would be the Cleveland Indians, maybe 5% would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, maybe 1% would be girls and the rest would be the Cleveland Browns. I woke up thinking about the Browns. I went to sleep thinking about the Browns. I wrote countless little stories about the Browns, though calling them “stories” would overstate what they were -- basically they were like game previews that would always have the Browns winning. They were like wishes. Blessedly, I’ve lost all of them -- if I ever saw one I’m sure I would die of shame. in my memory, they looked something like this:

This week: Browns vs. Seahawks

Key matchups: At quarterback, Browns quarterback Brian Sipe is WAY better than Seattle quarterback Jim Zorn. It’s really not close. … I don’t even know who the Seattle running back is, so the Browns a huge edge with the Pruitt boys (Mike and Greg) and the ageless Calvin Hill. (Editor’s note: I can remember writing the phrase “the ageless Calvin Hill” at least 500 times as a child). … The Browns have the better special teams, I think … Seattle’s receiver Steve Largent is good, but Ozzie Newsome is better … The Browns defense will have their hands full but look for Thom Darden to intercept three passes.

Edge in offense: Browns.

Edge in defense: Browns

Edge in special teams: Browns

What to expect: The Browns will fall behind early but will come back because of Brian Sipe and the Browns receivers, especially the amazing Ozzie Newsome.

Prediction: Cleveland 28, Seattle 27.

It’s funny, I never once as a kid -- not one time -- thought about being a sportswriter. Until I was 18 or 19, I was not even entirely clear that it was an option (I seemed to think sportswriters, like Queens and Dukes, were born into the job). But looking back, it now seems clear, I had read so many sports sections and Sporting News’ growing up, that sportswriting was simply a part of my thought process. I had seen countless preview capsules before games and so, very naturally, without even thinking about it, I would scratch out preview capsules, sometimes three or four in a day. I don’t really know if my capsules looked like this, but one thing I do remembers: I ALWAYS picked the Browns to win by one point. I would write these overconfident, self-assured, blustering previews … and then pick the Browns to win by one point.

Anyway, the Browns were my life. If they lost, I would not eat and could not sleep. If they won, I would eat but still could not sleep for worry about next week’s game. I thought more about Clay Matthews than Clay Matthews did. In my backyard, I would practice more as Ozzie Newsome than Ozzie Newsome would practice as himself. I was 9 the first year the Browns mattered to me -- tough old Forrest Gregg was the coach, the Browns won nine games and a dentist named Dave Mays came off the bench to lead them to a victory over the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who I loathed with every fiber of my being. I was entirely hooked.

The next year, Forrest Gregg got canned and the Browns lost their last four games. The world seemed to be falling apart. That was (naturally) also the winter of the Great Blizzard (or The White Hurricane), when Cleveland set some sort of national record for barometric low, when the Ohio Turnpike got shut down and when public schools were closed for the entire month of February.

In 1978, they hired a free-wheeling, fun-loving guy from Brooklyn named Sam Rutigliano, who called victories “pizzas” and decided he wanted the team to throw the ball down the field because, as he said, anything else would be boring as hell. Man oh man, did I love Sam Rutigliano. His first year, the Browns went 8-8, and they threw the ball 442 times, which was a team record (though, to be fair, it was also the first 16-game season).

The next year, the Browns went 9-7 and threw the ball 545 times, and had enough crazy comebacks that people around Cleveland began to call them the “Kardiac Kids.” That was also the year where you could only get gas on certain days and our president told us that we were supposed to keep your house at 68 degrees in the winter and 78 degrees in the summer. That was probably what Jimmy Carter was talking about at Camp David.

In 1980, the Browns -- if possible -- meant even more to me than ever before. There were rumors rumbling around the house that were going to move to North Carolina, leading the wittier of my friends to suggest I just sell my shoes since I wouldn’t need them anymore (yes, those were the wittier ones). It was becoming more apparent, as kids my age started to throw curveballs, that I was not going to play in the Major Leagues. Geometry was entirely baffling. Puberty was not going well (like it ever does). I poured so much of my soul into those Cleveland Browns that -- like the classic sex scene in “Annie Hall” where Diane Keaton’s essence leaver her body -- I’m not even sure how alive I was when the Browns weren’t playing. Brian Sipe … Lyle Alzado … Dave Logan … Ozzie, of course … the bulldozing Mike Pruitt … the straight-on kicker Don Cockroft … the ageless Calvin Hill … the linebacker Stonewall Robert Jackson (I’m not even sure I KNEW that there was a more famous Stonewall Jackson then) … the tiny kick returner Dino Hall … the hard-blocking Cleo Miller … the Heisman winner Charles White … the veteran Clarence Scott … the interception king Thom Darden (who led the league in interceptions in 1978, but is probably better known in Cleveland now for failing to catch the Hail Mary pass that Ahmad Rashad took on deflection in 1980) … these people were much more real to me then than anyone I actually knew.

On October 19, 1980, the Browns were playing the Green Bay Packers at home. The game was not a sellout, so it was not on television -- I hated those days. We had an ancient stereo that my parents had apparently bought at a French Revolution going out of business sale and it would play this comically, Charlie-Brown parents muffled version of the radio. It was on that that I would listen to the smothered voices of Gib Shanley and Jim Mueller … and it seemed like the Browns ALWAYS lost on the radio. That was the real reason I hated those days. I would do all those cliche things -- change sitting positions, leave and come back, change clothes (yes, I did) but nothing ever seemed to work. The Browns were 3-3 going into that game. The needed a victory badly. I was so nervous that I could even eat BEFORE the game, which was unusual. It was usually only after losses that I couldn’t eat.

At precisely 11:44 -- I can remember seeing the clock -- my Mother pronounced that I was going with her to the store after lunch to get an electric typewriter. Apparently this store was having a huge typewriter sale -- practically giving away typewriters, if the paper was the be believed -- and I had been bugging my Mom for years to get me a typewriter. Again, it’s funny: I have no memory at all of ever thinking about being a sportswriter. And yet, looking back, I would write these silly sports previews constantly and the thing I wanted more than anything else on earth was a typewriter (I think so I could TYPE those silly sports previews). I kind of wonder now how I missed the signs.

I told my mother that it was absolutely out of the question -- the Browns were about to play the Packers, and I had unbreakable plans to sit by the radio and panic all afternoon. And my mother said that I had been bugging her for a typewriter for months, and that this sale was the only way we could afford one, and that if I actually wanted a typewriter I would go with her to store. She made it perfectly clear this was the last chance I would ever have in my entire life to get an electric typewriter.

And so, there was my choice. I really wanted that typewriter. But I could not leave the Browns. This was too much for my little brain to handle. Sometimes I see my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, struggling with a difficult choice, and I feel transported to that moment, when everything feels too big and bold and important, and the very future of mankind is resting firmly on your shoulders. Typewriter? Listen to Browns on old stereo? Oh, what John Kennedy must have been feeling during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My father, who tended to understand and work around my obsessions, recommended I go to get the typewriter. After all, he said, the Browns were not on television, so I wouldn’t really miss anything. Plus, the Browns usually lost when I listened on the radio. Fair points.

“Plus,” he said, “if you go now, you can make it back in time for the second half.”

This made some sense to me. We went to get the typewriter. And I remember every single detail of the trip. I remember we got lost going to the store so the trip took, approximately, 847 hours. I remember we stayed in the store for another 847 hours. I do remember how cool those typewriters were -- some of them had this little correction ribbon you could use to fix mistakes (the very cutting edge of technology) -- and that there were a surprising number of people there shopping for typewriters. It must have been quite the sale.

Mostly, though, I remember the way my head was pounding as I thought about the Browns playing a game at that very moment and I had NO IDEA what was happening. I started to hear things, snippets of conversation that might or might not have been about football, updates that might have been about the Browns or about strangers’ nieces, it was like a sports version of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. “It was a low, dull, quick sound -- much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.”

OK, let’s not overstate. We really did stay there for a very long time, too long for me to get back to catch the second half. We finally picked out a typewriter -- and it was the typewriter I used to write the very first story I got paid to write. But forget that! The important thing is that as we approached the cashier, a man who I did not know at all, a complete stranger who I recall being about as old as my father, said to me -- out of the blue, it seemed -- “The Browns won in the last seconds! The Kardiac Kids are back!” I’ve obviously never seen that guy since. He has no idea how important he is to my life.

The Browns had trailed Green Bay 21-20 and it was third down and very long from the 46. There were 25 seconds left in the game. Apparently (I would read later) before the play Sipe turned to look at receiver Dave Logan and their eyes met and something passed between them. Logan determined he would break off his route. Sipe seemed to know he would.

I’ve written often about love of Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome, but I loved Dave Logan too -- there was a Sports Illustrated cover taped to my wall of Logan reaching out to make a one-handed catch against Pittsburgh. I think SI just ran the photo because it was cool looking (there was no story inside on Logan), but I didn’t care. To me, it was Dave Logan making the cover of SI. Logan was this incredible athlete who ws drafted by an NBA team, an MLB team and an NFL team. He was big, kind of plodding, not especially nimble or fast, but he had ridiculously awesome hands. He caught everything. He does a radio show now in Denver (or did last I checked) and I always try to make myself available to do it when it asked because, well, Dave Logan was so cool.

And that day he did break off his route. Sipe did know it and threw the ball as the blitz surrounded him. The ball fluttered through the wind (as Sipe’s passes tended to do), Logan jumped up and caught it around the 20 and ran the rest of the way for the winning touchdown. It was one of the greatest victories of my Cleveland Browns life.

So you may ask: How did I feel hearing that the Browns had won in such dramatic fashion while I was out with my Mom buying a typewriter? It’s weird, but I felt great. I didn’t feel cheated or slighted in the least. Maybe this is why: I have no doubt in my mind, absolutely no doubt, that if I had stayed home and listened to the game on that ominous stereo, the Browns would have lost the game. There was something lucky about being in that store and buying typewriters. I had helped the Browns win somehow. I believed it with all the depth and certainty a 13-year-old boy can muster.

I think about all this now because the NFL season is about to start … and a part of me misses that 13-year-old boy. The Browns are back in Cleveland, of course, but I’ve never felt the way about the new Browns that I did about the old Browns, not even close. I can’t help it. I’ve tried. I love seeing the old uniforms. I love seeing a full football stadium in Cleveland. But, you know, it’s like my Browns died on December 17, 1994 when they played their last home game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Vinny Testaverde was the quarterback, Bill Belichick was the coach, Art Modell was the owner, Ernest Byner was the running back. The Browns won 26-10. Fans threw a bunch of stuff on the field and ripped seats out of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The next week, they played at Jacksonville, but for me they were already dead. Then they went to Baltimore and won Super Bowls.

Four years later, the new Browns opened at beautiful new Cleveland Browns Stadium against Pittsburgh. They lost 43-0. I was thrilled for the city. to have a team called the Browns back. And I should be clear that I hope people love the New Browns as much or more than the Old Browns. It's just never happened for me. By the time they arrived I was in Kansas City, I was writing constantly about the Chiefs, and it just wasn’t the same. I want the Browns to win, and the Chiefs too, but I’ll never care about either of them or any other team the way I cared in 1980.

That victory over the Packers on October 19, 1980 did exactly what I had hoped it would. It sparked the Browns to win eight of nine, and, even though they then lost on that ghastly Ahmad Rashad Hail Mary, they made the playoffs. The town was as wild as I’d ever see it. On the radio, Browns songs played. In stores, everyone wore orange. On our street, our neighbor -- who had no kids of his own -- bought a football and would throw it around with me. At school, Browns talk pretty much overpowered everything, including school itself, and since I was the acknowledged Browns obsessive, I was pretty much center stage even though I could not figure out the basics of the parabola.

You know what happened then. In that playoff game, the Browns played Oakland, and the wind-chill was something like negative-20, and that straight-on kicker Don Cockroft missed two field goals in the howling wind. And so in the final minute, with the Browns trailing by two and at the Oakland 13, that free-wheeling, fun-loving guy from Brooklyn named Sam Rutigliano, who called victories pizza and despised boring football, called the play “Red Right 88” where Brian Sipe was to drop back and try to throw a touchdown pass. He told Sipe to throw the ball into Lake Erie if no one was open, but -- and I have thought about this many times -- there really was no chance Sipe would throw the ball away. Sipe always believed someone was open. It was his defining quality. It led to amazing victories. It led to gruesome defeats. He threw the interception to Mike Davis. As he staggered off the field, Rutigliano told Sipe that he loved him. My heart stopped beating for the better part of an hour. It has never beat quite the same since.