2021 NFL Draft: Cleveland takes center stage at just the right time for Browns fans

CLEVELAND -- The 2021 NFL Draft kicks off in Cleveland on Thursday night, but the hype surrounding this event began nearly two years ago.

Riding a wave of optimism that would follow the Browns into their ill-fated 2019 season, fans filled the lush, renovated Public Square in downtown Cleveland on a sunny May afternoon. Dignitaries from the city and its NFL franchise took the stage, expressing gratitude and excitement over Cleveland landing the event around which Browns fans had come to build their spring schedules since the team returned to the NFL in 1999.

The fan base's future, like that of its Browns, was as bright as ever, confirmed by the NFL's desire to bring the draft to a city that annually obsesses over the event's regenerative potential.

Of course, the 2019 season didn't go as planned, with the Browns stumbling out to a 2-6 start and eventually posting double-digit losses for 16th time since the franchise's rebirth.

But now, 23 months after that celebration in Public Square, the Browns are not preparing to wildly pin the future on their first-round pick. Instead of filling the local airwaves with debates over which top-five player should soon be wearing brown and orange, locals have been looking further down their mock drafts for the next piece -- a complementary one, not a cornerstone -- who might help the suddenly-relevant Browns take the next step. And of course, they're enjoying being at the epicenter of the NFL's banner offseason event.

The traveling spectacle that is the NFL draft announced its arrival in early April with the placement of massive replica helmets from each of its 32 teams along pedestrian Mall C in downtown Cleveland. In the center of the front row was the Browns' three-striped, logo-free orange helmet.

Annually abuzz with draft discussion each spring, Cleveland is officially ground zero for the NFL's selection circus in 2021. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Annually abuzz with draft discussion each spring, Cleveland is officially ground zero for the NFL's selection circus in 2021. (Tony Dejak/AP)

The display attracted attention from more than just those wearing brown and orange in the weeks leading up to the event, but on the Saturday before the draft, one needed to set aside a good 15 minutes just to get a chance to take a photo in front of Cleveland's iconic headgear. A line of fans stretched deep into the grassy area just south of the two rows of helmets, nearly halfway to the street, properly distanced amid the persistent pandemic that has reshaped society for more than a year. In that line stood Ramin Meshginpoosh, a 48-year-old Madison, Ohio, resident clad in Browns apparel who'd made his way to Cleveland with his wife to take in the scenery surrounding the draft.

Meshginpoosh once covered the Browns for a small, local newspaper while still in college in the early 1990s and had watched many a draft come and go, promising better times for the franchise in the form of newly selected prospects who'd often end up disappointing instead of inspiring.

"It's been a rough ride," he told NFL.com. "They've been an absolutely horrible franchise since they came back."

'It's the same old tropes'

Ask almost anyone from outside of Northeast Ohio for their opinion of Cleveland, and nothing but jokes and jabs likely come to mind.

The locale once known as "Sixth City" -- due to its former status as the sixth-largest city in America -- devolved as the nation underwent demographic and economic changes beginning in the 1960s. Major industry moved out of town, and with it went a large section of its blue-collar population. Cleveland deteriorated from a sparkling jewel of an earlier time in America to a bent, brittle nail in what became known as the Rust Belt. And the city was slapped with a new nickname: "The Mistake by the Lake."

It's a reputation Clevelanders still push back against today.

"Once you get outside of the Midwest, then you get folks who have no clue," Meshginpoosh said. "It's the same old tropes. (Cuyahoga) River on fire, that type of stuff. It gets old."

Cleveland's been through rough times over the past six decades, but the city has repeatedly shown the ability to bounce back. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Cleveland's been through rough times over the past six decades, but the city has repeatedly shown the ability to bounce back. (Tony Dejak/AP)

The city was forced to undergo a transformation that took decades and was significantly spurred by the achievements of its three major-league sports franchises: The Indians, Cavaliers and Browns. For most of the last 60 years, the football team reigned, establishing an everlasting foothold that has strongly cemented Cleveland as a football town.

Cleveland rose and fell with its Browns, especially in the 1980s, which began with a thrilling squad that came to be known as the "Kardiac Kids" because of its penchant for last-second, heart-stopping victories. By the middle of the decade, the Browns landed an Ohio kid at quarterback -- Boardman native Bernie Kosar -- who guided the team to three AFC title games in a four-year span.

As a city, Cleveland began its own transformation around that time, landing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along the shore of Lake Erie and building a new two-sport venue complex at the downtown doorstep known as Gateway. The Indians reversed decades of misery almost as soon as they moved in, reaching the World Series twice in three years, and the city hosted both the MLB and NBA All-Star Games in 1997. Cleveland's Flats entertainment district made an aggressive comeback, and with baseball's most fearsome lineup of that era selling out Jacobs Field on a nightly basis, downtown Cleveland became a place to be.

But during that resurgent stretch in the latter half of the '90s, one thing was missing: the beloved Browns.

The city's football team -- kings of Cleveland from its historic first decade of existence through 1995 -- was gone, having packed up and moved to Baltimore. No Sunday tailgating, no crowd roaring and barking in unison, no professional football in a storied football city.

By the time the Browns were resurrected in 1999, they had had missed the wave. Cleveland's progress waned near the turn of the century, as the Indians had been sold and embarked on a frugal (and often fruitless) path toward contention. Their Gateway neighbors, the Cavaliers, took up the mantle as the city's top team with the arrival of Akron native LeBron James. All the while, the Browns listed in the abyss of irrelevance, unable to assemble a quality football team.

From 1999 through 2019, the Browns posted a grand total of two winning seasons. They made one postseason, losing in spectacularly painful fashion to the rival Steelers in January of 2003. A franchise with a rich history -- boasting four NFL titles and eight total championships -- became a complete laughingstock.

"The history on the Browns and football in Cleveland is going to have a lot of different chapters," Jim Donovan, longtime Browns play-by-play broadcaster and WKYC-TV sports anchor, told NFL.com. "There's going to be a sad chapter, when the team moved. There's going to be a real hard chapter of coming back in 1999 and being as bare bones of an expansion team as you could possibly be. Because I think we were all so naïve. Let me tell you, I was at the head of the class in that. When they came back in 1999, I just said, 'This is going to be easy. We'll be right back, it might take a year, but we'll be right back there.' But God almighty, it's taken so long."

'If it were the Browns, oh my God, it would be through the roof'

Cleveland's hiring of Kevin Stefanski as head coach in January of 2020 didn't exactly move needles across the country.

The Browns had just faceplanted on the national stage, going 6-10 in a season that began with widespread expectation that they'd finally turn things around. Their highly quotable (but ultimately ineffective) coach, Freddie Kitchens, was shown the door, along with self-assured general manager John Dorsey. Very few -- if any -- were high on the team.

To make matters worse, Stefanski was forced to begin his tenure amid a pandemic that was just starting to grip the world. The rookie coach was barely able to get to know his new team, instead learning how to establish his operation via Zoom calls.

In this moment of darkness and separation, the Browns lit a beacon of hope for Cleveland.

The city had already found itself in the midst of another transformative run that began a few years earlier. This time it came on the shoulders of LeBron, who had returned home after a four-season sojourn in Miami and led the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title, kicking off an unforgettable year for Cleveland. The Cavs welcomed an estimated 1.3 million fans to their championship parade -- which also featured the American Hockey League's Calder Cup-winning Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters -- and a month later, the Republican National Convention completed its weeklong stay in the Forest City. That fall, the Indians hosted Game 1 of the 2016 World Series, beginning a legendary battle with the Chicago Cubs on the same night the Cavs received their championship rings next door.

Then, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Browns re-ascended to the throne of Cleveland, going 11-5 and recording their first playoff victory since the 1994 season.

Though it ended in defeat, the 2020 season stood as a sign that the organization might finally be a legitimate contender once again, setting up its passionate fan base for a potential explosion of bliss that would dwarf what was seen in 2016.

"If it were the Browns, oh my God, it would be through the roof," 92.3 The Fan host and Cleveland-area native Mike "Chico" Bormann told NFL.com. "But the Browns can even just be 4-12, but wait a minute, wait a minute, we think they look good in two of those games, and it's just different. I didn't realize it until I came back and was working here that, wow, it really is all about the Browns. That's it. Period."

The significance of this past January's postseason victory can't be overstated. It wasn't just the fact that the Browns had won a playoff game, or that they'd knocked out the hated Steelers in the process. The triumph came when Cleveland -- like the rest of the world in the midst of a harrowing health disruption -- just needed something to feel good about. And the afterglow has been visible on the streets.

"It's heartwarming to see people wearing Browns gear," Donovan said. "They're older people, and they're young kids and they're wearing the number of a jersey a famous player on the Browns is wearing now, and that's really good to see. That was missing for a long period of time. To have that back, I think, is really important, because now the tradition has been watered and it's starting to grow again."

'Dude, it's freaking November!'

The NFL's choice of Cleveland as host of the 2021 NFL Draft didn't include a prerequisite of featuring a successful football team. In fact, more often than not, Cleveland lands among the top television-ratings markets for draft coverage because its team isn't good.

"In the past, Night 1 of the draft was one of the bigger nights of the year for Browns fans," Browns radio producer Jason Gibbs told NFL.com. "It was almost like hope springs eternal, that rejuvenation of hope for this fan base."

On the backs of the Indians and Cavs, Cleveland has enjoyed a healthy streak of notable placement among the sporting consciousness in the last half-decade, no doubt. But make no mistake: Cleveland is a football town. And being roughly 60 miles north of the birthplace of professional football -- Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- one could make an argument for Cleveland being the football town.

"I think that time, too, like LeBron coming back, Cavs winning, Indians doing their thing, you're still kind of hoping -- that's the irony -- is that you're still kind of hoping, All right, are the Browns finally going to get it together?" Bormann said. "You'd always have that contingent of that fans that would call and would be like, 'Well, I mean, uh, what do you think of the QBs coming out?' I'd be like, 'Dude, it's freaking November!' "

Cleveland's quarterback question appears to be answered, but another remains: Are the Browns for real? After battling the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs to the final moments of their Divisional Round game, the answer would seem to be yes. But success in the NFL is often as enjoyable as it is fleeting, and skepticism lingers around here.

"People are still kind of sticking their toe in the water," Donovan says of Browns fans' current demeanor.

But with Cleveland serving as ground zero for this week's draft, and the Browns re-emerging as the best team in town, it's impossible to contain the excitement of a football-crazed populace.

"Now that it's here, all of a sudden, there's a buzz," Gibbs said. "Everybody that I'm talking to -- between friends, family and just fans in general -- they want to know, 'Where can I go? What can I be a part of? I don't necessarily have to go to the draft, like, the Fan Experience. How can I get tickets for this? How can I get close? Are there other events during the week that I can be a part of?' People just want to be involved."

Fresh off their most successful season since the franchise's rebirth, the Browns aren't scheduled to pick until No. 26 overall. (Steve Luciano/AP)
Fresh off their most successful season since the franchise's rebirth, the Browns aren't scheduled to pick until No. 26 overall. (Steve Luciano/AP)

That buzz is growing stronger by the day both downtown and in the surrounding enclaves, where the arrival of the draft coincided with the annual break from winter. Frigid temperatures stubbornly clung to the city as long as they could, even bringing two nights of snow one week before the draft, and it was a brisk 45 degrees on Monday morning. The sun, however, was shining, and temperatures broke 80 degrees by Tuesday.

After 13 long months of general inactivity, the city's downtown is again coming to life. Two miles from the main draft stage, vaccinations continue at Cleveland State's Wolstein Center, a FEMA site that opened up walk-in appointments this week. A sense of normalcy is finally starting to creep into the social consciousness. And if the NFL's promotional signage didn't make it clear enough -- "TAKE THE STAGE" is emblazoned across billboards, the rear doors of passing FedEx trucks, Cleveland's famed trolley buses and the skybridge to its downtown casino -- the locals are well-prepared to reintroduce the nation to their beloved home.

"This could be the coming out party for this city," Gibbs said.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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