I'M NOT SURE what I was expecting. The pilot welcoming me to Manziel-land? The guy driving the rental car shuttle to give one of those finger-rubbing gestures? A Drake sighting?
O.K., maybe not that, but I figured there'd be tangible evidence of Johnnymania upon my arrival in Cleveland last Friday. The night before, in a sequence of events that Hollywood would scoff at—had it not just released a movie with the exact same plot—the Browns executed a flurry of first-round trades and took Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It was a trying night for Browns fans. (Full disclosure: I was born in Cleveland to season-ticket-holding parents.) I had melted down when the team passed on Manziel with the eighth pick, sending a series of texts to friends and family that were little more than strings of obscenities. But then his slide began, and #BeforeManzielGetsDrafted became a thing on Twitter. (Best use: "Donald Sterling will host the BET awards #BeforeManzielGetsDrafted.") Two hours later his name was called 22nd. Cut to me fist-pumping in the street and texting a one-word update to my previous screeds: Withdrawn.
From what I saw on TV (the bedlam at the team's watch party) and read about (a run on Manziel jerseys and more than 2,300 season tickets sold) I thought my sentiment was shared by all Cleveland fans. When I got to work on Friday, I was told to fly to the city to find out.
Upon arrival at my hotel I hit the bar, where Johnny Football was the topic of discussion on both TVs. Hot takes abounded. Then a new topic crawled into view: a report that the team's best receiver, Josh Gordon, had failed a drug test and was facing a yearlong suspension.
Of course, that possibility had been hanging over the franchise for months, a veritable Bong of Damocles. The Browns had supposedly shopped the second-year wideout at last season's trade deadline because he'd tested positive in 2013 and had been forced to sit out two games, and they feared a second positive, which would trigger a 16-game ban. As the second and third rounds of the draft commenced on Friday night, that became the new narrative. "We can't get any positive news and keep it going," one fan told me later. "Typical Cleveland."
I trudged on in my search for Johnnymania. At a bar called Harry Buffalo, a drunk lady from Buffalo was taunting patrons. "So now you've got Johnny Football, and he has no one to throw to. Not that he can throw anyway. He's not a pocket passer." (A fairly obvious criticism, but not bad for a drunk lady from Buffalo.) With USC wideout Marqise Lee and the SEC's alltime leading receiver, Jordan Matthews, on the board, the Browns took an offensive tackle in the second round. Then they took a linebacker and a running back in the third.
On Saturday morning I hit the team shop at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the place was dead. From there I went to the Cleveland Flea, a market that pops up in a parking lot once a month. Sitting outside was a truck peddling the wares of Fresh Brewed Tees, one of only 21 apparel manufacturers that have a licensing agreement with the NFLPA. By Friday morning owner Tony Madalone, a Browns diehard, had shirts with Manziel's name and likeness for sale on the company's website. "It's our hottest shirt. We've sold tons," Madalone told me. "I've already done a reorder."
But Madalone's support of Manziel was more about business than football. "It's an interesting pick," he said. "It's obviously exciting for Cleveland. But I love [last year's part-time starter] Brian Hoyer. I think Brian is the go-to guy." (Hoyer played at St. Ignatius High in Cleveland, and has inspired a devoted local following as well as brisk sales of Fresh Brewed's HOYER THE DESTROYER T-shirt.)
Before the draft The Plain Dealer asked readers if they thought the Browns should take Manziel with the fourth pick. Seventy-six percent said no. Granted, he went 22nd, but it seemed evident that skepticism remained. One good reason was on display at the stall of another T-shirt company, the Social Dept. It was a shirt with a Venn diagram in which one circle was labeled CLEVELAND OPTIMISTS and another was labeled CLEVELAND PESSIMISTS. The intersection was a football. This is a fan base that's nostalgic for a brief era—the mid- 1980s—whose highlights were two of the most crushing defeats the NFL has ever seen, the Drive and the Fumble. It's a city that is going on 50 years without a championship in any sport. Unbridled optimism left town with Jimmy Brown.
On Saturday night I went to an Arena Football League game downtown. The Cleveland Gladiators were playing the Los Angeles Kiss. A guy in the $2 beer line wearing a Trent Richardson jersey seemed to sum up the guarded hope of many without even saying the names Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, QBs the Browns had picked 22nd in past drafts: "I'm 50-50. He's small, but he brings a lot of spirit to the town. He's another QB who could be a potential savior." To recap: Manziel is not a pocket passer but has messianic upside.
Then, finally, I saw it. A jersey with the number 2 and the name J FOOTBALL on the back. The guy wearing it was Chuck Booms, a sports talk host in Cleveland. He ordered the jersey months ago as an act of faith. On draft night he had been at a bar in the suburbs, while a buddy of his had been at the Browns' viewing party downtown. Both locations were packed with diehards who walked out when Manziel was passed over at No. 8. Booms "collapsed into a heap of nothing." In his eyes, what does the Manziel pick mean to the town and the team? "Everything. They have not been on the map since [returning to the NFL in] 1999. It's been a decade and a half of garbage."
The conversation turned to Gordon. "You enjoyed every second you could of Josh and his incredible athletic gifts," Booms said, "but you knew sooner or later.... Tick tock, tick tock." By this point the draft had ended without the Browns taking a receiver, but Booms had a theory: The team had intelligence that Gordon would beat the case. "They have to know something," he said. "They can't be that smart and instantly be that dumb."
But there are plenty of Browns fans who'd argue that they can, that something will go wrong because it always goes wrong.
That's what Johnny's up against, his new city's telltale heart. Tick tock, tick, tock.
Pay It Forward
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for