50 Years Later, Still Waiting for the Gift of a Cleveland Browns Title
December 27, 1964 is a holy day. Holy, that is, if you live in Northeastern Ohio or, like me, long ago made the exodus to join the large diaspora of Clevelanders now wandering the nation in search of a championship in any sport. That's right. Fifty years ago this Saturday, the Cleveland Browns crushed the favored Baltimore Colts to win the NFL title. No Browns team--no Cleveland team period--has won a title since.
It's hard to overstate that trauma, even for a city that has already experienced more than its share. After all, Cleveland had over 900,000 residents in 1950. When my family left in 1972, the figure was down to about 725,000. In the last census, the population of "the Best Location in the Nation" dipped below 400,000. But when I was a kid, Cleveland's industrial economy meant the stars at night were often blocked by air pollution. Lake Erie was nearly a dead zone and the Cuyahoga River caught fire. (So, too, did Mayor Ralph Perk's hair when he had a mishap with a blow torch during a factory visit.) The pollution is mostly gone now, but so too are most of the companies--and the jobs--that created it.
But the city that so badly needed a break simply couldn't get one. The real torment for Browns fans isn't that their beloved team has been so dismal since its resurrection in 1999. (Two winning seasons in 15 years has been enough to earn Cleveland Browns Stadium the nickname, "The Factory of Sadness.") Distressing as that is, the suffering stems from the fact the once-mighty Browns, the dominant football power of the late 1940's and 1950's, came so close so many times since Frank Ryan, Gary Collins, Jim Brown and a stifling defense stunned the Colts in 1964. Cleveland's is the heartbreak of what might have been.
If adversity builds character, Cleveland Browns fans have lots of it. Denizens of the Dawg Pound, read it and weep.
In 1965, the Browns hopes for a second straight title hit a brick wall against the Green Bay Packers in a 23-12 loss in the NFL title game. In 1968, Bill Nelson quarterbacked the Browns to 30-20 win over the Colts, Baltimore's only loss of the regular season. But in the rematch in the NFL championship game played in Cleveland, the Colts got their revenge in a 34-0 rout. (Their comeuppance came in Super Bowl III against Joe Namath and the Jets.) A year later, the Browns returned to the title game, only to be humbled by Minnesota 27 to 7 in a frigid game that left several Cleveland players with frost-bite. But most tragic by far was the death of Ernie Davis in 1963, the humble Syracuse University star drafted to complement Jim Brown in the dream backfield that never was. Davis died of leukemia before he played a single down.
The 1970's brought the AFL-NFL merger, and with it, the Browns move to the new American Football Conference. But Cleveland marked this new era by trading Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for quarterback Mike Phipps. Warfield went on to win two Super Bowls with the Dolphins. His former Browns teammates? Not so much.
If it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, then the 1980's must have been the best of times for Browns fans. The 1980 Kardiac Kids, known for their last-second, game-winning heroics, seemed like a team of destiny. Until, that is, Brian Sipe's infamous "Red Right 88" pass was intercepted in the end zone in the closing seconds of soul-crushing 14-12 playoff loss to the Raiders. In the 1986 season, Clevelanders' hearts were broken again by "The Drive," in which John Elway's Denver Broncos staged a miraculous comeback for the ages in a 23-20 overtime win in the AFC title game. History repeated itself a year with the "The Fumble," when Ernest Byner was stripped of the ball just as he about to cross the goal line and score the game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Living in The Gambia at the time, I listened to the game on Armed Forces Radio in the wee hours. A few weeks later I received letter from my mother in New Jersey which read in part:
On January 17, 1988 around 9:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, I heard a horrible scream from West Africa...
After that 38-33 heart-stopper, the 1989 Broncos denied the Browns a Super Bowl trip for the third time in four years. In comparison to the previous two, that disappointment was a relatively merciful 37-21 end of the line for the Dawgs.
The 1990's brought my last trip to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. But weeks after I saw Bernie Kosar lead the Browns to a 23 to 13 upset of the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, coach Bill Belichick sent him packing. Soon, Belichick and the Browns themselves were gone, too. In 1995, long-time owner Art Modell shocked Cleveland by announcing he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. Adding to the pain of four years without Browns football was the knowledge that Belichick was piling up Super Bowls in New England, while Modell's Baltimore Ravens snared two of their own.
Ultimately, Cleveland got its Browns back in 1999. The city dropped its lawsuit against the NFL in exchange for a new expansion team, $50 million to put into a new stadium and the right to keep the Browns name, colors and history.
But things haven't been the same since 1995. The Browns have seen a parade of head coaches and quarterbacks, with 22 different starters since 1999. The hulking 85,000 seat Cleveland Municipal Stadium, built in a failed effort to lure the 1932 Olympics, is gone. Replacing its uneven field, dirt infield, pole-obstructed sight lines and vomit-laden walls is what is now called First Energy Stadium. Though a fine facility, the Browns new home just doesn't have the feel of the old one. And now, the heartbreaking losses, like "Bottlegate" against Jacksonville or the helmet toss loss to Kansas City, are more farce than tragedy.
Now, fans in other cities may complain that their suffering rivals or exceed that of Browns fans. With all due respect, my sympathy is limited. Cubs fans who haven't won a World Series since 1908 still have the Bears, the Bulls and the Blackhawks. The Minnesota Vikings may have lost five Super Bowls, but the Twins have rings of their own. And while Clevelanders certainly stand in solidarity with Buffalo and its four consecutive Super Bowl defeats, at least the Bills got there. (Only the Browns, the Detroit Lions, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans have never played in a Super Bowl.)
Fifty years after "all the world was Brownstown," to be a Cleveland football fan is to suffer. (As this season's surprise 6 and 3 start showed, for us hope is a dangerous thing.) Among the jerseys in my closet is number 64, with the word "CHAMPIONS" on the back. Another is simply number 0, and says "NEXT YEAR" where the name should go. But as the Browns end their 50th straight season without a title against the Baltimore Ravens, I'll be where I usually am on Sundays this time of year. That is, in Portland's Blitz Bar, with the Portland Browns Backers.
In the meantime, happy holidays to you and yours. I hope Santa was good to you on Christmas. As for me, all I want for Christmas is what I always want.
A Super Bowl championship for the Cleveland Browns.
Note: None of the above is meant to sell short the renaissance of sorts now underway in Cleveland. I haven't been back since a trip in 1999 to watch the Browns lose 20-7 to the New England Patriots. As the New York Times reported back in 2013:
With all the cultural ferment, a T-shirt for sale at the homey Coffee House on the Case Western campus didn't seem as far-fetched as it once might have. Emblazoned across it: Cleveland Is My Paris.