The Bone Lady Ride Begins!

Debra Darnall in Bone Lady costume standing in front of her orange Volvo station wagon decorated with stickers and sign reading "Bone Mobile"

The Bone Lady: Life Lessons Learned as One of Football’s Ultimate Fans – A Memoir, a book by Debra Darnall from Gray & Company, Publishers – front coverBook Excerpt

From The Bone Lady by Debra Darnall

Driving up from Columbus to Cleveland in the Bonemobile with my dog Molly, Tom and I would go to Browns games. We would sometimes drive up the night before, staying at my brother’s, sister’s, or mom’s house. We had tickets with my brother and his wife. That first season, fans were so full of excitement that the Browns were back and there was a special positive energy in the air. We weren’t so concerned with winning because we were football-starved and just happy to have our team back.

Tailgating was not only fun, it was a spectacle, with fans from all walks of life. Some had also painted their vehicles. Many set up tailgate camps with tents and Browns flags waving on tall poles, devoting the whole day to grilling, playing cornhole, throwing a football, eating all kinds of food, hearing all sorts of music, dancing on top of RVs and buses, visiting with old friends, making new ones, and celebrating that our Browns were finally back. That phrase “Browns fans never lose a party” was never so true.

Game days were like a major holiday celebration, with all of the fanfare and decorative festivities. I was too young to have experienced Woodstock, but judging from accounts of people who were there and from documentaries, it was similar in a way to our tailgate experience every Sunday. Instead of music, we gathered to revel in the game of football and our Browns. Every week, fans got more creative with expressing their deep connection to the team. People who during the week worked very structured jobs were let loose and free to be themselves in the parking lot on a Sunday morning. It was all about having fun. We didn’t really expect the team to win, at least not right away. But as the years went by and losing became the norm, “Thank God for tailgating!” became our mantra. We couldn’t control what happened on the field, but we could create our tailgate party however we wanted. Each year, the parking lots seemed to overflow with more and more Browns fans painting their vehicles and adorning themselves in team colors.

We would pull into the Muni lot around six a.m. to claim our spot. Soon there was a whole group of us who tailgated next to each other and saved spaces for each other. Making new friends and meeting so many Browns fans was the best part of it for me.

At first, I partied right along with everyone else, enjoying the adult beverages. I was just having fun and still had no idea what was starting to unfold. After one of those first games I was walking back from the stadium with a herd of fans, not paying much attention to my surroundings, and suddenly my beehive wig was knocked from my head by a tree limb. Immediately two little kids behind me screamed, and my buddies cracked up. “Those kids are gonna be in therapy for years!” They just stood there laughing while I pleaded with them to pick up my hair and put it back on my head! At that moment I began to realize there was a responsibility that went along with being a visible fan, especially when little kids are around. The Bone Lady would have to stop partaking in alcoholic beverages on game day.

During the week, I worked at my decorative painting business. Columbus had been booming, so I was quite busy. I was a regular at the local paint store and was always striking up conversation with the guys who worked there and the contractors buying their supplies. (I think you can tell by now that I’m not shy.) I got to know the regulars, and most of our conversations were about football, especially the Buckeyes. One of the guys, knowing of my Bone Lady character and my car, told me that at every Buckeye home game he worked parking cars at the Horseshoe, the stadium where the Buckeyes play. One of the cars he always parked belonged to Lou “The Toe” Groza and his wife. If you’re a Browns fan, you already know about the legendary Hall of Famer, the former Browns kicker and tackle. If not, you need to. Anyway, the painter/parking guy (I’m sorry not to remember his name) said I should come down early on a game-day morning with my Bonemobile, dressed as the Bone Lady, and he would park me next to the stadium where I could meet Lou Groza.

As with most opportunities that now seemed to be constantly presenting themselves, I jumped at the chance even though I had no idea what to expect. That game was Ohio State’s homecoming, and I was one of the first to arrive that morning. I parked right next to the stadium entrance and put on my Bone Lady garb. I was hanging out, meeting some nice people, when these two guys from Sports Radio 1460 in Columbus came by and interviewed me. After we were finished, they invited me to go into the stadium with them. I went, not knowing what was to happen, and soon found myself on the field before the game, where I got to get a photo of me standing right at midfield and got to sit on the Buckeyes’ bench!

When I finally returned to the parking lot, Lou Groza and his wife, Jackie, had just pulled up. I showed him my car, which made him laugh, and we took a photo standing in front of it. He and Jackie were both so nice and I was thrilled to meet this football legend.

I thought the day couldn’t get any better, but it did. A gentleman who was in his fiftieth year as an usher at the Horseshoe asked me if I wanted to go to the game. “Yes!” I said. He took me into the stadium, and we sat in the box belonging to the Galbreaths, a well-known Columbus family. During a halftime ceremony, the team retired number 45, which was worn by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. What I would have missed had I not dressed up in my Bone Lady outfit and driven my Bonemobile to the stadium that day! That was such an empowering moment for me—when I realized what I would’ve missed if I had worried what other people would think of a woman dressed in an orange beehive showing up at a Buckeye game.

Someone told the Columbus media about my car, and Dom Tiberi of WBNS Channel 10 came to the house to interview me. I took him for a ride in the Bonemobile. He sat in the back while the cameraman sat next to me in the passenger seat. Dom was so full of energy, and he laughed during the whole ride! After my story aired that night, he called and asked if I would be willing to bring my car into the studio after the Browns’ first win for Wall to Wall Sports, a show that aired after the news on Sunday nights. Of course I agreed, thinking it might be fun. Kirk Herbstreit was the host. I listened to him every day on sports radio and was a big fan, so the opportunity to meet him and show him my car was exciting. The first game the Browns won was against the New Orleans Saints, with a Hail Mary pass from Tim Couch to Kevin Johnson. And it was an away game, so I watched it at home in Columbus. As soon as my excitement over the win subsided, though, reality hit me.

“Oh no!” I thought. “Now I have to go do that TV show!”

Fear seeped in like a colorless, tasteless poison, turning my enthusiasm into total panic. I thought, “What am I gonna do? I can’t do this! I’m not prepared. I don’t know anything. Who do I think I am that I’d be qualified to go on a sports show?”

Anxiety and self-doubt engulfed me, and I almost called the station to tell them I couldn’t make it. My dear designer friend Don called while I was in the midst of my panic, and I told him about it. He gave me the best advice ever, which I still use to this day. He said to just think about every question that they could possibly ask, and have my answer ready. He also told me to visualize the whole TV show experience. I had done that before with my painting projects, so it made sense to apply it now. Don and I were used to helping each other along our paths. He’s always been a teacher to me over many years because every book and seminar he ever suggested changed my life in a profound way. So I always listened to him. This time was no different, and I followed his advice.

The station wanted me to bring a few fans with me, so I called my friend Jim Madden, who was the president of the Mansfield Browns Backers. He agreed, and I met him and a few others at the station. I pulled my car in the studio, and because I had listened to Don’s advice and was prepared for anything, my nerves subsided. The whole experience was fun! Kirk was awesome, and cracked up seeing my car. I also met Andy Baskin, who worked at the station and now is a sportscaster in Cleveland. He’s one of the nicest guys in sports, and a few weeks later, when I asked him to come to Mansfield for our Browns Backers Christmas Party for kids, he graciously agreed and said he was honored that we even asked!

I had met Jim Madden in the Muni lot while tailgating before a preseason game that returning season. He was living in Mansfield and had just become the president of the Browns Backers club there. The day he walked up to me and introduced himself, I had no idea that I was meeting not only a best friend but my true Angel on Earth. He had heard that I lived in Columbus, and he asked me if I would be interested in leading their three buses up from Mansfield for their club’s home game of choice. I was flattered to be asked, and said yes immediately. On the day of that game, very early in the morning, I left Columbus in the dark and headed north towards Mansfield. Jim said he wanted to ride with me as I led the bus parade. To this day, he swears he took his life in his hands riding in my car! Like everyone who sits in the passenger seat, looking over the pile of paraphernalia on the dashboard, he asked, “How do you see?” And like always, I replied, “People see me and get out of my way!”

As we got to know one another during that fateful ride, I knew we would be great friends. If you were to ask him today what he thought of our first meeting, his reply would be, “I thought she was f—ing nuts!” Ah yes, my kind of friend! Jim has a kind and caring heart with a witty, outgoing personality. He has many stories from his life experiences and from with his dealings with many Browns and Indians players over the years. His business, National Pastime, arranged player appearances at various venues, and that first season he included me. So I started appearing at Browns Backers events, player signings, parades, and whatever event Jim would think up in his head. It was all new to me and so much fun! We’ve been unconditional friends ever since that first meeting in the Muni lot, and he has been my consistent confidant—there for me during the saddest times in my life and the best ones. If you have a friend like that, you are truly blessed.

* * *

The Browns won just two games in 1999. But we had a blast anyway! That first season was full of excitement, with so many Browns-related events and activities. One was a Christmas Parade that the City of Cleveland organized to kick off the holiday season. My friend Jim thought the Mansfield Browns Backers should participate and wondered how I’d feel about leading our group with the Bonemobile. I thought it sounded like fun, and soon my creative ideas were flowing. I decided that the Bone Lady should play Santa Claus and ride on the hood of my car. I made a chair with a tall back in the shape of a bone and covered it in Browns fabric with orange fabric balls lining the edge. I attached letters spelling out “Bone Throne” on the back.

Jim always was full of ideas, too, and he suggested that Browns Backers club members act as reindeer. So thirty “Reindeer Dawgs,” dressed in Browns t-shirts with antlers on their heads and dog noses on their faces, pretended to pull me and my Bone-sleigh-chariot while I sat perched on my throne, holding the reins in one hand and a whip in the other. On top of the eight-foot-long, white plastic bone on top of the car, I placed a fake, white, four-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with brown and orange ornaments.

Tom, my sister, her husband, and their kids all participated, too. Tom drove the Bonemobile sleigh, with my brother-in-law riding next to him. We were quite a spectacle as we paraded down the street towards Public Square.

One minor detail hadn’t occurred to us: with me on the hood, Tom couldn’t see anything as he drove! So he and my brother-in-law were like a tag team driving crew, with Tom steering the wheel and working the pedal and the brake while my brother-in-law stuck his head out the passenger window to give directions. It was hilarious, but I wasn’t laughing—I had my own issues: I didn’t feel very stable sitting on my Bone perch and thought I would fall off the car, becoming Bone Lady road kill! No catastrophe occurred, however, and we won Best of Show! How appropriate for a bunch of Dawgs!

That night Tom and I headed back to Columbus, where we did it all over again by participating in the Gahanna Christmas parade. Yes, as my friend Jim said, I must’ve been f—ing nuts!

* * *

A final exclamation point for the Browns’ return and the Bone Lady’s first season was a trip to the Super Bowl. No, you didn’t miss the Browns finally playing in the big game (hopefully that happens before I leave the Earth!). The Browns didn’t make the trip—but the Bone Lady and well-known Browns Super Fan Big Dawg did!

For the season’s last home game, I was out in the Muni lot tailgating with my buddies when Big Dawg came out to the lot. He was with a couple of people representing Jose Cuervo tequila who were looking for the most outrageous fan to join Big Dawg on a trip to Atlanta for a week before the Super Bowl—and then attend it! A few of my buddies were also in the running, but I was the chosen one. I couldn’t believe it! I did feel bad for the others because they probably deserved to go more than I did. So before we left, I symbolically took them with me by having their pictures made into buttons that I then pinned onto my wig.

In Atlanta, there were two fans each from five different teams. It was fun to meet and hang out with them for a week. We were to travel around the city and encourage fans to do outrageous things to win tickets to the game. The only drawback was the weather—cold, with ice storms. Many of the activities were outside, so it wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been. We did, though, get to soak in the atmosphere that the Super Bowl brings.

The night before the game, I went out with a couple of the other fans: Spiking Viking from Minnesota, who sported a purple and gold Mohawk, painted face, and Viking garb, and the Titletown Clown from Green Bay, who wore a green and yellow Bozo wig and Packers-colored clown attire. The bar scene was really happening in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta, so we headed there dressed in all of our garb. We’d had so much fun being dressed up all week that not dressing as our characters seemed boring. Of course, with the Rams and Titans playing in the Super Bowl there were tons of fans from both those teams out in Buckhead that night. It was quite a festive atmosphere as the night progressed, until the bars began closing and everyone poured out into the street looking for a cab home. There were lots of limos picking up players, and young women were getting in and out of them. The area quickly seemed to turn seedy. We had trouble getting a cab, and I started to feel very uncomfortable. While waiting for a cab I decided to huddle in the doorway of a storefront to keep warm. Spiking swung his plastic sword while Titletown kept an eye out for an empty cab.

All of a sudden, two guys walked towards me into the vestibule where I was waiting. They said something to me in Spanish that I didn’t understand and I had a bad feeling as they got closer, forcing me to back up into the doorway. My two fan compadres were paying no attention and then one guy went to reach in his pants like he had a knife or a gun. I screamed, pushing the one guy out of my way, and took off running—the best I could in my Bone Lady platform shoes! My buddies immediately snapped out of their goofing-off mode and followed me down the street. When they caught up with me I started yelling at them to get us a cab because I didn’t want to die in Buckhead that night dressed as the Bone Lady! We eventually made it back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning and I climbed into a warm bed, feeling very lucky to finally be there. The next night, after the Super Bowl, two people were killed in Buckhead (the incident involving Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis), and after my scary experience there it didn’t surprise me.

It was exciting to be at the Super Bowl, but as I walked around observing all of the festivities I noticed that there was a definite line of demarcation between the haves and have-nots. The regular fans seemed to be left out of a lot of the parties and activities. It was a very exclusive atmosphere with lots of corporate sponsors who seemed to be there to do business, and it wasn’t so much about the game.

On our way into the dome, Big Dawg and I were constantly stopped for photographs. I understood why they wanted a photo with him, because he was so well known, but I was surprised that they wanted photos with me—especially since these weren’t even Browns fans. I even missed the whole pregame show because so many people wanted photos. That was a moment when I realized that there was something about the Bone Lady character that people were attracted to, and it wasn’t just about football. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure it out because I was just at the beginning of my journey. Later on I would find the deeper meaning beneath the beehive.

From the book The Bone Lady, by Debra Darnall. 

© Debra Darnall. All rights reserved. This excerpt may not be reproduced without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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