Terrance Mitchell of the Cleveland Browns celebrates with fans in 2018.
Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images
My favorite parable about the joyous, mad futility of being a sports fan involves a man named Scott Entsminger. On the whole, there was nothing remarkable about Scott Entsminger. He lived in Mansfield, Ohio, worked for General Motors for 32 years before retiring to fish and spend time with his wife and teenage son, and spent his off hours playing music with a group of friends in what they called the “Old Fogies Band.” And more than anything (except his family), he loved the Cleveland Browns. They were the center of his world, so much so that he wrote a song for the team every year and sent it to them, along with “other advice on how to run the team.” Entsminger was a thoroughly ordinary man, but in July 2013, when he died suddenly at the age of 55, his extraordinary love for his Browns won him immortality. In his obituary, in addition to “encourag[ing] everyone to wear their Cleveland Browns clothing to the service in honor of Scott,” his family made sure to include the following line:
He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pall bearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.
If the 2013 Cleveland Browns had a sense of humor, they would have provided six players, ideally in full uniform, to lay Mr. Entsminger to his eternal rest. But, then again, they probably would have dropped him.
It is difficult to find romance in sports anymore — I think I quit looking for it after Love & Basketball — but if there is a place it is still exists, it is in the unrequited love of the fans of a perpetually losing team. There’s really nothing quite like it. If every time you turned the key of a Volvo it exploded, you’d stop buying Volvos. If every time you went to a certain restaurant eating the food caused you to fall onto the floor, uncontrollably vomiting and defecating, you’d would no longer eat there. If every time you tried on a sweater from the Gap it caught on fire, you’d shop somewhere else.
But not only do dedicated fans never abandon the sports teams that, over the course of several decades, cause them nothing but pain — they in fact wear that pain as an emblem of honor, a sign of their loyalty and fortitude. The misery binds them even closer to their team, deepens their love. It’s an extreme version of the irrational investment strategy of every diehard sports fan: You invest thousands of hours and a lot of emotional capital in a sports franchise that does not care about you and, in fact, is solely separating you from your money, in exchange for some future psychological benefits that may never come. Remember when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and fans went to a wall on Waveland Avenue to write the names of loved ones who never got to see the Cubs win a title in their lifetime? It was very sweet, but those people are dead. They watched the Cubs every day for their entire freaking lives, the Cubs never won that title, and then those people died. Game over.
When the Cubs finally won that World Series in 2016 — fulfilling a longtime prophecy of my fellow rival Cardinals fans that if that ever happened, the world would soon end; five days later, it sorta did — it took them off the long-suffering sports fan tote board, joining Red Sox fans (2004), White Sox fans (2005), Saints fans (2009), Cavaliers fans (2016) and, more recently, Eagles fans (2017) and Raptors fans (2019). The Cubs winning the World Series is one of the few positive sports stories that broke through from the sports world to the front-page-of-the-Times real world, a spot usually reserved only for national teams like the USWNT and individual heroes like Serena Williams or Tiger Woods. There aren’t many teams like that left. The Cleveland Indians, maybe; the Buffalo Bills, probably; the New York Knicks, definitely.
But the closest outcome to the Cubs winning the World Series would have to be the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl. This is the most moribund franchise in the NFL, one whose previous incarnation (the one that Art Modell sneaked off to Baltimore in the middle of the night, an act of betrayal so profound there’s an epidemic of Browns fans urinating on his grave) perpetually approached greatness but always fell infuriatingly short, and whose current incarnation (which began with an expansion team in 1999) has been flat-out terrible for 20 years, reaching the playoffs only once in those two decades. But their fanbase has remained steadfast and frighteningly dedicated: I went to a Browns game in Cleveland a few years ago, and it felt like a cross between a frantic gathering of lunatic soccer hooligans and an unhinged Mad Max sequel. Few people on earth want anything as much as Browns fans want a Super Bowl championship. One Browns fan is trying to conjure one into existence by inking a prophecy on his body.
And that’s why the biggest story in the NFL this upcoming season — other than the sport’s inexplicably increasing success dancing between the raindrops on matters CTE, Trump, Kaepernick, and Goodell — might just be that the Cleveland Browns are going to be one of the best teams in football … and almost certainly the most fun. During years in the wilderness in which the team, run by a Moneyball-esque analytics team (which included former baseball exec Paul DePodesta, the inspiration for the Jonah Hill character in that film), lost at a rate even previous Browns teams couldn’t match, they built up draft picks and planned for the future, and that future, at last, seems to have arrived. The Browns, amazingly, have everything. They have a young, ferocious defense led by former No. 1 overall draft pick Myles Garrett. They have a deep running-back core, with one of the most likable players in the league in Nick Chubb and, well, one of the least likable in Kareem Hunt, the man suspended for the rest of the season (and then released by the Chiefs) last November after video surfaced of him punching and kicking a woman in an elevator. (He is extremely talented so now is — of course — back, after sitting out eight more games to start this season.) They have mercurial but astonishingly gifted wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., precisely the sort of hypnotic player whose skills more than make up for his personality quirks. And they have the rarest commodity of all: A true franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield (another No. 1 pick), an outspoken, ornery cuss of a player who thinks nothing of insulting other teams’ quarterbacks (which Mayfield has attempted to clarify and walk back from, which, frankly, is no fun at all) and flipping off the opposing sideline. He’s the sort of player everyone hates — hates to love and loves to hate — basically what we were all hoping Johnny Manziel was going to be. He’s exactly how your team becomes the team everyone is talking about.
It is astounding that this positivity, flash, and controversy is surrounding the Browns, of all teams, and it’s certainly possible that it’ll all blow up in everyone’s faces: These are the Browns, after all. But the Cleveland Browns of 2019 look an awful lot like the Chicago Cubs of 2016, an endlessly tortured franchise and fanbase whose decades in the wilderness might be coming to an end. Like what happened with the Cubs, expect to see a bunch of Johnny-Come-Lately fans suddenly wearing Mayfield jerseys in the next year; they’re almost certainly your kid’s favorite team already. Browns fans have been waiting most of their lives for a team like this to come around. They’re either going to make the front page of every newspaper and website in the country, or they’re going to implode in the most spectacular fashion. Either way is an improvement. Either way will have been worth the wait. And if it doesn’t work out, there is some good news, Browns fans: Someday you will be dead and this will all be over.