Book Excerpt:

False Start

by Terry Pluto

Your Team Never Had a Chance

It was a fall Sunday and I had no understanding of football. I remember running into the house to ask my dad a question. He was in his sofa chair, watching the game on our Sylvania black and white TV. I was ready to run back outside when he almost begged me to watch the game with him. I vividly remember watching a player with No. 32 running and several opposing players bounced off him as he carried the football. I asked my dad, “How does he do that?” My dad said, “He keeps moving his legs.” From there, my dad told me about Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns. I was hooked. . . . My dad passed away when I was a high school senior. I will always have memories of us and our Browns. Our lying crossways across his bed listening to the Browns win the 1964 championship over the Baltimore Colts. His throwing me the football in our backyard while saying, “Frank Ryan hits Gary Collins with the touchdown pass . . . Bill Nelsen to Paul Warfield over the middle.” Win or lose, they are always our Cleveland Browns.

—Martin T. Zimmer

Your team never had a chance.

Browns fans need to know that about the reincarnated franchise that returned to the National Football League in 1999.

The NFL never should have allowed Art Modell to hijack the franchise to Baltimore. And Modell never should have even considered moving the team when he had the perfect buyer sitting right next to him in his suite on game day—a man named Al Lerner. But Modell was one of the boys, a veteran owner, and the league loves to take care of its own. And if it’s unfair to the fans, so what? They’ll just put an expansion team in there and make even more money in the process.

It was all about money.

Never forget that.

Money for Modell, and money for his lodge brothers in the NFL owners boxes.

(Can anyone say Personal Seat License without reaching for the Tums?)

This is the book the NFL really doesn’t want you to read. It’s the story of how some of the best football fans in the country were betrayed, abused, and finally stuck with an inferior product—but charged more for it. What has been the return on their investment? What have fans, who bought every ticket for every game since the Browns came back in 1999, received as a reward?

Heartaches, headaches and frustration.

That should come as no surprise. The NFL hamstrung the new Browns from the beginning, and for very selfish reasons. This led to a variety of poor decisions that haunt the franchise to this day.

Is it possible the Browns can overcome all this and even be a contender any time soon?

This is the NFL, where it seems almost any team can make the Super Bowl, unless it happens to be playing in Cleveland. So, yes, the Browns could have a playoff team in the near future. They could be a factor in the playoffs. They could finally make their fans bark for joy rather than howl in pain. But if it happens, it’s because the team has overcome a ridiculous number of obstacles, most of which were put into place by a league that has dollar signs for eyes.

And that makes me mad, because Browns fans deserve better.

Who is the typical Browns fan?

It may be Dan Gilles, who sent me this letter:

I don’t weigh 500 pounds and wear some ratty old dog mask to games. I don’t dress in any outlandish outfits. I don’t tailgate or paint my vehicle brown and orange when I go to games.

So why is he such a great Browns fan?

I love my family. I love my fiancée. I love my friends and I love the Browns. Other than my wedding day, the Browns winning the Super Bowl would probably be the greatest day of my life. I can only compare the passing of my mother as being more painful than the moving of the Browns to Baltimore. My mother and I listened to that last home game in 1995. When Casey Coleman said the Browns players were shaking the fans’ hands, it dawned on me that they were finally gone. My mother and I cried together after that game. That 1995 season did more to break my heart than any woman did.

But there’s more . . .

I don’t have season tickets, but I went to six games in 2003. They won one. I stayed to the very end each time. It would have been more fun if they were 6-0 instead of 1-5, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. What could possibly be better than being in the stands and rooting for your favorite team?

How about a team that wins at least half of its home games?

Most Browns fans are not insane. They don’t think a great game is where they can throw up on someone and set a stadium record for F-bombs. They aren’t the kind who show up at stadium parking lots for the high church of the NFL at 7 a.m. and begin throwing down shots of Jack Daniels in between cans of Budweiser. They don’t stagger into the stadium and make the poor soul sitting next to them miserable for three hours. The drunken slobs are not the majority.

Somewhere at my parents’ house, I still have Milt Morin’s autograph. He signed a card for me at a church dinner. I have an autographed picture of Lou Groza, who attended several financial seminars taught by my dad. Ernie Green lived only a few blocks away, and I used to play with his kids. These players seemed a part of the town, you ran into them as part of everyday life. They were not remote heroes on a pedestal. I miss the Kardiac Kids. I even miss all the Browns songs . . . “Bernie, Bernie” . . . “The 12 Days of a Cleveland Browns Christmas.” I remember when we’d gather around the TV and watch the Browns play. If the game was blacked out, we went to my grandmother’s house because she had a large outdoor antenna and could pick up the Toledo station carrying the game.

—Nancy Brucken

Browns fans are special, and have a right to see themselves as such. As a sportswriter with the Akron Beacon Journal, I asked fans why they follow the Browns, even now. Especially now. So many responded with their stories. I asked fans to keep it short. Some tried, but they just couldn’t do it. It’s hard to sum up a passionate, agonizing, exciting, distressing, decades-old love affair in only a few paragraphs. Some wrote page after page, single-spaced. Everyone seemed to have a story, their own personal Browns story. Stories of why the Browns mean so much to them. Stories of how the Browns are like a second family. Stories of love and loss, and not just on the field. It seems every Browns fan has their own story, and as I tell the story of the return of the franchise starting in 1999, we’ll listen to the stories of the fans who don’t own a deed to the team, but are the soul of the Browns.

I still love the Browns for the following reasons:

The memory of lying on the floor with my brothers in our family room listening as Ken Coleman described the fluid motion of Bobby Mitchell scoring in every manner possible against the Eagles.

The image of Jim Brown shedding St. Louis Cardinal tacklers on the opening highlight reel of The Quarterback Club.

My father climbing on the roof of our house to adjust the TV antenna to pick up the Toledo broadcast of the 1964 NFL Championship game against the Colts, watching Frank Ryan and Gary Collins work their post-pattern magic.

Walking into old Municipal Stadium when I was college senior, then leaving convinced I’d know that I’d made it when I became a Browns’ season ticket holder.

Agonizing over the extortion that PSLs represented when the Browns returned, but still deciding I couldn’t miss the opening kickoff in the new stadium against the Steelers.

Knowing that the Browns and the NFL are more than just a game, but a way of life. Win or lose, as long as I draw a breath, they will always be my team . . . my Browns.

I just completed my 22nd year as a season’s ticket holder.

—David Dalsky

E-mail after e-mail came in like this, and after a while, I got mad.

Mad at Art Modell, who was such a truly mediocre owner entrusted with such a civic gem, and who sold the family jewels to Baltimore.

Mad at the NFL for allowing Modell to leave, for setting up the new Browns for failure—all in the name of greed.

Mad at the first Browns management team that squandered so many draft choices, giving former general manager Dwight Clark a job that he never should have had and putting former coach Chris Palmer in a position where he had no chance to win.

Mad at the Butch Davis regime for teasing the fans with the trip to playoffs in 2002, then falling flat on its face in 2003.

Mad because Al Lerner died too soon—though I never thought I’d see Lerner as the best man to own the Browns, the guy who really understood what an owner should do, and who was willing to spend his own money to try and do it.

Mad because the fans deserve better.

Not a Super Bowl every year . . . or even every decade.

But how about one Super Bowl? Even a loss in a Super Bowl?

At least Tribe fans have their Jose Mesa and Boston Red Sox fans have Bill Buckner.

Yes, Browns fans have The Fumble . . . The Drive . . . Red Right 88. But all those things happened in playoff games before the Super Bowl!

If you are a veteran Browns fan, think back to 1970.

The Browns won the 1964 NFL title. They lost in Green Bay for the 1965 title. In 1968 and 1969, they lost in the playoffs, one step away from the Super Bowl.

After the success of the 1960s, wasn’t there reason to believe that the team would make it to at least ONE Super Bowl in the next three decades?

But if you’re a Cleveland sports fan, you’re used to it.

Seventeen different NFL teams have won a Super Bowl, and the Browns have yet to play in the game.

Art Modell hijacks the franchise to Baltimore and wins a Super Bowl!

Brian Billick turns down a chance to coach the Browns, and wins a Super Bowl for Modell in Baltimore!

Ozzie Newsome should be running the Browns, instead he’s in charge of the Ravens where he hired Billick away from the Browns and won the Super Bowl for Modell!

Bill Belichick, of all people, resurrects his career in New England, and wins two Super Bowls!!

Carolina was 1-15 in 2001 and two seasons later, the expansion Panthers were in the Super Bowl!!!

Are we having fun yet?

I’ve often wondered why the Browns have such a pull on me. The only answer is the Browns keep me close to my father, who died in 1973. He loved the Browns, and he got me to love them. I haven’t talked to him in more than 30 years, but I think about him often as I watch the Browns. When I’m buoyed by a great performance, I know he’d understand the feeling. I know he’d be just as annoyed by the running backs who dance and wide receivers who don’t block. And I find myself talking to him (as I am now) about something we shared and understood together. My dad died when I was 15. So many things have changed in my life since then—it’s difficult for me to know how he’d react to it all. But I know how he’d feel about hearing that his grandson loves watching the Browns with his son. That knowledge helps me connect with him after three decades.

—Adam Grossberg

What can you say about a letter like that? Or this one?

I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s with The Drive, The Fumble and I still believe in my heart that Denver missed that last field goal . . . it was definitely WIDE!!!

Being a female and crying after all those heartbreakers may seem odd for a non-Browns fan . . . but not to those who have been through it. I sometimes wonder why I look forward to the next game each year, just to get disappointed all over again. Maybe it’s because I shared those moments with my dad. We’d always get excited to watch the games together and then talk about it forever after it ended. My mother never quite understands why we put ourselves through such misery every year. . . . I look forward to more and more Browns seasons to share with my dad, because he’s the one responsible for me falling in love with this team.

—Stacie Cepin

There are worse things than the Browns not making the Super Bowl, or even being embarrassed by the Steelers or Bengals. But for so many Browns fans, this isn’t just their team. It’s part of an extended family. The Browns are a very important part of their lives, and in many ways, the friends they make at the games mean more to them than those who happen to share the same bloodlines. It’s been said that a family is a bunch of people whom you end up stuck in an elevator with. But Browns fans are different. They volunteer and pay and line up to go into that elevator, even if it seems like it’s going nowhere.

In 1993, I retired from the Navy and returned to my roots in Akron for one reason, the history of sports in the area. More importantly, I wanted my four children to have the same experiences I had as a child. I now live in Detroit, but every game day, I get up at 4 a.m. and make the three-hour drive to Cleveland. I park on the lot off West 3rd Street, and meet a group of guys whom I’ve been friends with for more than 11 years. We share PSLs and bought them together. The lot is alive with fans who think our turn is coming, the smell of BBQ and the conversations that permeate the smoke are stronger than any 5-11 season. The Browns are our excuse for coming together, but our friendship is the glue that makes sure we keep coming together.

—Ernest Jones

Browns fans rage and scream and cry and, yes, whine a little bit. But that’s a sign of hope. Anger at least means you still care enough to get mad. It means you’re not ready to give up. It means the Browns still matter to so many fans despite having the worst home record in the NFL since coming back in 1999, despite a 4-10 record in the playoffs since 1970. In the darkest days of the 2003 season, a frustrated Coach Butch Davis answered his critics by saying, “Why don’t these people get a life?”

I give Davis a break on this, because he really does appreciate the fans. He was just shocked at the intensity of the criticism coming his way, and spoke purely out of emotion—just as did many of the fans.

Get a life?

The Browns are not life and death. But when they are at least respectable, they make life so much better for the fans who help pay the salaries of the millionaires on the field.

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About the Book
False Start by Terry Pluto
False Start

by Terry Pluto

Your team never had a chance.”

That’s what Terry Pluto, one of Cleveland’s top sportswriters, realized after taking a hard look at the unhappy beginnings of the new Cleveland Browns franchise. This book chronicles what he found: backroom deals, big . . . [ Read More ]

Read a sample
About Terry Pluto
Terry Pluto author of False Start

Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine- . . . [ Read More ]

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