ON SUNDAY the Browns played host to the Jets, a team that holds a special place in the hearts of Cleveland fans. Twenty years ago, in an AFC divisional playoff game against New York, those woofing Milk-Bone tossers—who were recently found to be the NFL's best and most loyal fans in a study by bizjournals.com—did what all supporters dream of doing: They made a tangible contribution to a win.
Late in the game the Dawg Pound denizens were serenading New York's boorish defensive end, Mark Gastineau, with chants of "Gastineau sucks." What it lacked in cleverness it made up for in its ability to agitate. Gastineau started jawing back at the fans, and with a little more than four minutes left and the Jets up 20--10, he hit Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar a good two beats after he released a pass. The roughing-the-passer penalty gave Cleveland a key first down, and the Browns went on to win the game in overtime. "Gastineau was so pissed off," says Dawg Pound founder John Thompson, who still tells the tale with pride. "For the fans to be a part of the outcome was pretty wild."
It was one of the most remarkable comebacks in postseason history, but the game is significant for another reason: Until they topped the bizjournals study, it was pretty much the last good thing to happen to Browns fans. Since that Jets game they have seen their team lose two AFC Championship Games in such crushing fashion that the losses were given names: The Drive and The Fumble. They saw the most beloved player in franchise history, Kosar, released by coach Bill Belichick in the middle of the 1993 season, only to catch on with the Cowboys and win the Super Bowl ring that had eluded him with the Browns. (A popular T-shirt featured Kosar's ring on an upraised middle finger and the words THANKS, BILL.) They watched as Belichick, a disaster in Cleveland, went on to become Lombardi in a hoodie with New England. They saw their team, one of just six now in the league never to make it to the Super Bowl, taken away when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996—where, natch, the Ravens won the Super Bowl four years later. "That was hard," says Thompson.
After the Browns left Cleveland, Thompson, 45, a Cuyahoga County maintenance worker who has legally changed his name to John Big Dawg Thompson, started getting invitations to speak. So he traveled the state preaching the word like a man of the cloth. Except, of course, his collar was of the canine variety and he wore a rubber dog mask that he bought the day before the 1985 season opener, when he stumbled out of a bar after a long day of watching college football and found himself standing in front of a costume shop. (At training camp Thompson had seen Browns players barking at one another after big plays. Just like that, the Dawg Pound was born.)
Thompson talked football with the guys at the American Legion Hall. He visited schools and lectured about the importance of fighting for what you hold dear. He testified in front of a congressional antitrust committee (sans mask) about what a team means to its hometown fans. "Anything to keep the spirit alive," says Thompson.
It worked. The city has embraced the Browns even more closely since they were reborn in 1999—which is remarkable given how bad the team has been. A record of 38--81. A defense that has never ranked better than 15th in the league. An offense that's never been better than 23rd. The new Browns have been plagued by bad drafts (in 2003 they spent a second-round pick on an unheralded linebacker from a D-II school that was 0--11) and ridiculous injuries (Kellen Winslow tore up his leg popping wheelies on a motorcycle). Or, in the case of William Green, a 2002 first-round bust whose then girlfriend stabbed him in the back with a steak knife, both.
Yet the fans have stuck by the Browns because, well, they take their football seriously in northeast Ohio. The NFL was born 50 miles to the south, in Canton. The team's founder, Paul Brown, grew up 55 miles away in Massillon, a town of 31,000 with a high school stadium that seats 18,000. And lest anyone forget, the Browns haven't always been this bad, which is a source of pride in a place that rivals New Jersey for the title of Punch-line Capital of America. "We're proud of our town, and the Browns represent it," says Thompson. "My whole life I've heard negative things about it, but this is a cool-ass town. It's a little broke, but it's cool."
In fact, per capita income was one of the factors the bizjournals study took into account, as was December weather. Only six NFL cities were found to be worse off economically, and only three are colder. Still, the Browns have played before a house that's been 99.83% full since their return.
The stadium was packed again on Sunday, when 72,507 turned out for the Jets game. Hours before kickoff, James Smith, who's been coming up from Massillon for games for 20 years, was tailgating with three friends in the parking lot. The 25-mph wind whipping off Lake Erie didn't bother them, nor did the prospect of watching Cleveland fall to 1--6, a fate they avoided with a 20--13 upset of the Jets on a controversial call. "It's a beautiful day," Smith said. "It's a Browns Sunday."
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"Berbick, an apparent homicide victim, was one of two men to fight both Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson."
—TREVOR BERBICK OBITUARY, PAGE 18
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO