- For most NFL fans, the NFL Scouting Combine is just a blip on the radar. But for Cleveland Browns fans, it represents much more.
INDIANAPOLIS — Steve Fry hates mock drafts. “None of them are ever right so they’re not worth reading,” he says.
But even this Browns fan will admit that getting a glimpse at the NFL’s next group of potential stars has a certain allure. So the man who loves the worst team in football made the two-and-a-half hour drive from his home in Dayton, Ohio to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last Friday to see it all for himself.
“We hope and pray all season,” he said. “We hope we’re not the No. 1 pick or the No. 4 pick. You don’t want that spot.”
“We’re excited about the chance to come here and see college players. See who the Browns might pick up.”
Here at the combine fan experience, Browns fans were peppered throughout a sea of spectators lining up to see the Lombardi Trophy or to get Reggie Wayne’s autograph. There was almost no Browns merchandise at the pop-up store (save for a $30 hat) and nothing specifically inviting for a Browns fan, except for a glimpse of new general manager John Dorsey wandering out of the convention center. But make no mistake: This, for at least the last few seasons, has been their mountaintop.
No team has possessed quite the stranglehold on the first round of the draft in recent years, meaning that for one portion of the NFL calendar, the football world stops and shines on Cleveland. And during that brief, sunny moment, it provides a strange satisfaction for puzzlingly loyal fans who would give anything for a winning season—but settle for being the team who can legitimately, endlessly dream of future potential for a few weeks out of the year.
“It is our Super Bowl,” Sylvester Kindred, a Browns fan wearing a throwback Jim Brown jersey told me. “Preseason, I do a lot with the tickets until like the third game of the season and then I’m done. But we have a good time.”
He was there with a few friends, all wearing Browns hats or sweatshirts. Watching them crane their necks to see the wide receiver bench press, it became clear that the NFL has a grip on certain die-hards that will never relent. Cleveland has been pummeled by bad ownership changes, a franchise move and years of irresponsible, knee-jerk regime swaps that leave the club perpetually suited to run someone else’s offense and defense. Yet, here Kindred was, meticulously planning for the future as if it will be any different.
“Take [Penn State running back Saquon] Barkley, then take the guy from Alabama [DB Minkah Fitzpatrick], so you got your two starters,” Kindred said. “Then, you get a free agent [quarterback], and get Lamar Jackson in the second round. I’m telling you, people are sleeping on him. He ain’t no small guy. Any time a guy has a neck that big, the body can grow around it.”
It’s 1:54 p.m. on Friday, six minutes until the first of the combine’s marquis quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield, will meet with reporters. There are at least seven full-time Browns writers scattered in the mix, including long-time Cleveland Plain-Dealer beat reporter Mary Kay Cabot, who unlocks her digital recorder and readies a cell phone in both hands to shoot video. The scrum will grow so tight that she has to hold the phone above the head of a shorter person standing in front of her.
Because the draft is the most ravenously consumed part of a Browns fan diet, reporters covering the team have to act accordingly. Every quarterback press conference, year in and year out, is a must. Every top safety, corner, running back, receiver, pass rusher and linebacker has to be on the radar, too.
“Once the regular season comes, the reality of a terrible football team comes back into play,” says Daryl Ruiter, the Browns’ beat reporter for 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland. “From basically January to August through training camp, that’s our season. That’s really where the work gets put in. The team always makes changes, whether that’s in the front office, the coaching staff, the players, free agency, the draft.
“The regular season comes, the optimism of the fans tends to die down by the end of September when they’re all but mathematically eliminated from contention and it’s very regimented through the end of the season.”
Ruiter, who has covered sports in the market for more than two decades, has managed to stiff-arm some of the cynicism that inevitably comes with the job. He spends a lot of time interacting with Cleveland sports fans and talked emotionally about the Cavaliers victory parade he got to report on in 2016. But he’s also aware of the smog that has fallen over the town’s football team.
“I mean, my goodness, we’ve taken draft calls in September,” he said. “Our hosts have taken draft calls in September.”
I wonder if maybe it takes more than just a journalism degree to cover the Browns—maybe you’re part therapist as well. Ruiter said that almost every time he goes downtown to grab a beer, someone approaches him and asks specifically about free agency or the draft—hopeful, forward-looking. As we walk back through the Indianapolis convention center toward the J.W. Marriott, he admits that maybe he’s not as funny as he thinks on Twitter. Sometimes the jokes he makes at Cleveland’s expense can be a little too cutting and that has to be taken into consideration, too.
This whole fan base is built on the belief that one day they will strong arm the rest of the NFL. Their turn at a dynasty will come. In the meantime, all of these exercises, like the combine and draft and free agency are somehow meaningful and bountiful.
“Here’s a great quote, you should use this,” Ruiter says. “The greatest story in the history of sports has yet to be written, and that’s the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl.”
He repeats it again for effect and we part ways.
• UCF LB Shaquem Griffin lit up the combine. Want to learn more? Check out Andy Staples’s profile of the inspirational UCF linebacker on SI TV.
That seems so far away from here, behind a stanchion and some retractable rope near the temporary NFL Network set. Brothers Bill and Charles Hebble surveyed the space where a few future NFL quarterbacks just talked.
I asked both how long they can fend off the glow of the combine during football season.
“I try and hold on as long as I can,” Bill said. “Usually, the Browns are eliminated from the playoffs mathematically early on and that is typically the kicker for people. But I mean, I try and hold off until after the college bowl games. You hear things tossed around the media and look at things on Twitter, but I never really get into mock drafts until late January or right about now.”
“I think I kind of jumped the gun on that,” Charles said, laughing. “I mean, I’m a big college football fan so it’s kind of hard not to get excited about the new players and upcoming draft.
“Being an Ohio State fan, you’re watching [Saquon Barkley] and, you’re definitely getting excited.”
The Hebbles both agreed that passing on Barkley would be like passing on Carson Wentz all over again, and also agreed that the last time they felt a jolt of energy as a Browns fan was in Johnny Manziel’s rookie season, when the team briefly climbed into first place led by Brian Hoyer.
It felt natural to ask them, then, what they might do if the Browns actually made the playoffs. If, this time next year, they weren’t at the combine getting their fix, but back in Cleveland taking a victory lap, elbowing up next to the Jaguars, Titans and Rams fans who have seen similar rebirths in recent years.
Charles let out a long sigh. “I can’t, right now I can’t man. I just can’t imagine that,” he said.
Said Bill: “I mean, we can’t even imagine a winning season.”
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