CLEVELAND — Thousands of Browns fans have crushed themselves into the sidewalk of the highway ramp leading to the Cleveland Municipal parking lot. Many sport smudged eye black on their cheeks and wear necklaces made of plastic dog bones in honor of the team’s mascot, a bull mastiff named Chomps. As the crowd slowly moves toward the tailgate, one guy calls out, “Let’s go Brownies.” Everyone responds with a rhythmic, barking chant: woof, woof, woofwoofwoof.
The tailgate for Cleveland’s first game of the season is set up in what locals call the “Muni Lot,” an endless swath of asphalt that stretches from a parking garage near FirstEnergy Stadium toward the end of time. People dance on top of RVs, crush beers on their heads and spray spiked seltzers in the air. Early this morning, a video went viral on Twitter of a man, seemingly drunk, falling off a school bus.
There’s a desperate energy here that borders on mania, as though all of these fans woke up feeling as dangerous as Cleveland’s quarterback Baker Mayfield proclaimed himself last year. Walking into this football party feels like descending into that big pit from the dystopian movie Mad Max: Fury Road. The air smells like weed, stale beer and smoked meat.
But for the first time in a long time, it also smells like hope.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past, say, two decades, you know that the Browns have consistently been the worst team in football. The team won one game in the 2016 and ’17 seasons under former coach Hue Jackson. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2002 season. They’ve finished last in the AFC North 13 of the last 16 seasons. They’ve had 29 starting quarterbacks since 1999.
Being a Browns fan has meant knowingly signing up for pain and losing that, on some level, became a point of pride. In 2017, when Cleveland went winless, fans threw a parade at the end of the season. Even when winning didn’t seem to be an option, people stuck around, drowning their sorrows and commiserating together on the cracked pavement.
“People who are following a 1–30 team, those are real friends,” says Scott Nunnari, a die-hard fan who’s been showing up to the Muni Lot every Sunday since 2002. He owns a school bus he’s modified to look like a giant dog in honor of the Browns, and he parks it in the same place every week. “We have the advantage of having a losing team, and having our friends, and making good friends with good people down here.”
But recently, the Browns have started to look a little less like losers. GM John Dorsey, who came to Ohio in 2017, drafted Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall in 2018, and the brash young player has been a breath of fresh air in Cleveland, leading the Browns to their best record in years (7-8-1) last season. Jackson was fired at midseason last year and replaced as head coach by former offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. When Cleveland traded for WR Odell Beckham Jr. this spring, the hype train completely left the station with Browns fans firmly buckled in.
“Going in, it seems like people are expecting to win today, whereas in years prior it was like, hopefully they play well and show up well,” says Zach Hites, who’s had Browns season tickets since he gradated from college in 2014 (his parents offered him a graduation party or the tickets, and he took the tickets). Hites lives on Long Island now, but he flew back for today’s home opener against the Tennessee Titans. He’s been a loyal fan his whole life, even though he’s known that seasons hardly ever end well for Cleveland.
“I love football, I love watching football, l love the Browns,” he continues. “Our entire weekends are dedicated to football—Friday is high school, Saturday is Ohio State, Sunday we’d watch the Browns. It’s fun going to Browns games, even if they lose. You have fun. This year is hopefully the payoff.”
In Nunnari’s dog bus, the party is in full swing. Nunnari pours something he describes as “berry moonshine” into plastic shot glasses for everyone on board the vehicle, which he’s turned into a full-service bar, complete with draught beers and dog statues on shelves. He arrived at the lot on Saturday morning at 7:45 to be sure he’d be able to claim his usual parking spot. Securing his position hasn’t been an issue in years past, but with all the “newbie” fans climbing on the bandwagon now that the team might actually be good, he was worried someone might unknowingly take it.
“I’ve always been for a team that’s garnered no attention,” Nunnari says. “We had no problem with that. We wanna have fun. Whether somebody notices or not doesn’t really matter. But now everybody’s noticing, and it could change things. This could be a whole off-the-chain party. It’s packed. This is amazing today. I think that the Browns defense is gonna be the surprising and wonderful thing. They’re gonna dominate all year.”
I leave the tailgate and weave my way through the throngs of brown and orange jerseys (mostly Mayfield, but a few Odell Beckham Jr. and, for some reason, Johnny Manziel) to FirstEnergy Stadium. When I hear one guy say, “This is our f---ing year, man, this year’s different,” I ask him why he thinks so.
“The city’s electric,” says the guy, whose name is Anthony Sirna. “We got Baker Mayfield, we’re waking up feeling dangerous. We’re gonna win this whole super bowl. I think our record is gonna be 11–5. We’re gonna win the divison and go to Super Bowl. We’re gonna win the Super Bowl.”
Cleveland’s vibe right now feels like when you get back together with an ex and tell your friends that this time—for real, this time—he’s changed. The stadium buzzes with nervous excitement that erupts into a roar when Mayfield runs onto the field. Huge flames shoot out of the barricades near the field. Mayfield swaggers across the field, throws a pass, and raises his arms to pump up the crowd, which responds with decibel levels previously reserved for aircraft carriers.
This is the time before anything can go wrong. When all the offseason projections can still be true. When no one has yet thrown an interception, dropped a pass, grabbed a facemask, lost a game. Cleveland is suspended in this moment that brims with potential for both elation and disaster.
The game starts. Mayfield completes a pass to Beckham for the first time and the fans go crazy. Here it is, what they were promised. The Browns score on their first drive, but the extra point is bad. Fans clap, nod their heads. They’ll take it, knowing they can’t have too much too fast. After all, this is still Cleveland.
Which is exactly the problem—this is still Cleveland, and over the next three hours, things don’t go quite as planned. Mayfield throws three interceptions and gets sacked in the endzone for a safety. Titans QB Marcus Mariota throws a go-ahead 75-yard touchdown to Derrick Henry late in the third quarter. The Browns committed 18 penalties for 182 yards and gave up 31 points in the second half.
With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the stadium is mostly empty, save a few dedicated fans who sit with their heads in their hands or still have the energy to gesture in indignation at the referees. The Titans will go on to beat the Browns, 43–13, making this Cleveland’s 16th straight year without a win on opening day.
This team is, if nothing else, consistent. The Browns have once again Brownsed themselves. Even if this isn’t the outcome fans wanted, it’s familiar. They know how to handle themselves.
“Of all the ways that could have gone, that wasn't how I envisioned that,” Hites says, as he leaves the stadium and heads to a bar with friends. “But that was about as close to the most perfect Cleveland way to start a season with this much hype. The vibe coming out of the stadium and even at this brewery really isn't that bad, ‘cause people are disappointed, but honestly not surprised. It was still 100% worth the trip, and I'm going to next week's game and looking forward to it despite this setback.”
He pauses, then adds, “Already looking forward to next week may be the definition of insanity, but I can’t help myself.”
Even in defeat, Cleveland still believes. A loss hurts, but at least fans are losing with thousands of other losers. Few NFL fanbases have earned this sad solidarity more, or know more profoundly that hope, however bruised, can always be picked up off the pavement of the Muni Lot and healed in time for next week. Browns fans have done it before, and if history is any indication, they’ll do it again.
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