From Browns in '95 to Chargers today, relocation is rife with pain

Past the politics, the referendums, the haggling over stadium space and cash flow; beyond the fresh new branding and pretty words about why this makes sense for the league and for Los Angeles -- I think of the Chargers fans.

Somewhere in San Diego on Thursday morning, a 12-year-old football fanatic woke from dreams to learn of a new reality: their team was gone.

Sure, the move is not into total oblivion -- just two hours north into the metal, seaside jungles of Los Angeles. But for many Chargers fans, this is the end, the bookmark to a painful, elongated tug-of-war between the team and San Diego voters over how to pay for a shiny, new stadium within city walls.

Instead of a peaceful resolution, the Chargers will play 113 miles up the coast at the StubHub Center, an intimate, 30,000-seat, Carson-based venue that shouldn't expect any guarantees when it comes to longtime fans making the traffic-clustered, two-hour trip north.

Two hours -- and too many broken promises -- will be too much for plenty of burnt fans who gave their loyalty, their money and their hearts to San Diego's football team.

No easy words for Chargers fans

The people of San Diego have a new ally this morning in anyone who's watched the team they adore ripped away in the thick of the night.

Browns fans, especially, have come out of the woodwork on social media to empathize with Chargers fans just beginning to process what this all means. The team you grew up rooting for is no more.

I grew up a Browns fan in the 1980s. My bedroom wall was adorned with hand-drawn sketches of Bernie Kosar, Frank Minnifield, Webster Slaughter and Earnest Byner. The obsession level was off the charts, enough to cause parental concern.

As a drifting middle-schooler, my secret home was notebooks filled with statistical printouts, bleeding-heart essays about Cleveland's playoff chances and every fact and figure I could muster.

At that age, all I knew was that the Browns were inseparable from the bloodstream of Cleveland. Even as someone who followed the team from a distance on the East Coast, it was impossible not to feel the powerful bond between that blue-collar Ohio town and its football team.

Inside the world of my adolescent mind, it went without saying that the Browns and Cleveland would be together forever.

How little I knew.

What's past is prologue

I was a junior in college at American University in Washington, D.C., when I first heard the news.

I remember wandering lazily into the shared kitchen space in our co-ed campus dormitory. Dirty pots and pans and ramshackle furniture everywhere. No sound, save for the television tacked to the white-washed brick wall -- with some news guy breaking into a sweat as he passed along the rumor:

Browns owner Art Modell was moving the team from Cleveland to Baltimore.

Wherever I was going, whatever wayward packet of Ramen noodles I was planning to boil, it all went away in a white-hot flash of stunned confusion.

"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and for me," Modell said days later during a news conference in the shadow of Camden Yards, where a 70,000-seat stadium would be built for Baltimore's new football team. "I leave Cleveland after 35 years, and leave a good part of my heart and soul there. I can never forget the kindness of the people of Cleveland, the fans that supported the Browns for years. But frankly, it came down to a single proposition: I had no choice."

If Chargers owner Dean Spanos can relate to Modell's plight, Chargers fans now know the fresh pain of watching an era splintered to the wind.

After all, no team besides the Chargers has spent more time in one city before pulling the plug. Fifty-six years of ups and downs reduced to nothingness for a jilted fan base that can't be asked to simply pick up and follow along like obedient little minions.

The argument that Chargers fans should remain loyal boils down to a personal choice. Their choice. Some will stick around. Plenty have already vanished.

NFL Network's Alex Flanagan described Chargers fans pulling up to the team complex Thursday morning and dumping years of paraphernalia on the front steps.

"I just threw my Chargers stuff -- I'm gonna go home, put everything up and probably give it away, throw it away, throw it in the dump," one fan announced. "... I'm done."

Asked if he was prepared for Thursday's announcement, the man said: "In the back of my head I was, but in my heart, I wasn't."

Destination unknown

We know where the Chargers are off to, but what about the fans they've left behind?

When the Browns moved, I was left wondering what the National Football League still meant to me.

The following autumn, as my one-time Cleveland Browns paraded around Memorial Stadium dressed in purple and white, I couldn't help but view the horror show live. I watched their games alone in the apartment I shared in Rosslyn, Virginia, with a pair of girls who spent about 80 hours a week off-site working on Capitol Hill for aging politicians.

Those Sundays were awful. Two years removed from Bill Belichick guiding the Browns to a playoff win over a Bill Parcells-led Patriots squad, Cleveland football was a fading dream, replaced by the highly awkward scene -- for me, at least -- of seeing Vinny Testaverde sling passes to Michael Jackson and hand the ball off to my childhood hero, Earnest Byner. On the wrong field, in the wrong uniform.

It all felt so wrong. I had planned to work for the Browns after college, but found myself shifting gears. I lived across the street from USA Today, where I served as a completely naive intern at Baseball Weekly. The idea of covering football -- once mesmerizing -- made no sense anymore.

Never the same again

In the weeks and months after the Browns move, Cleveland slowly learned that it would eventually be handed an expansion team -- a future hope that took away some of the sting of Modell's decision to shatter a 35-year run along the shores of Lake Erie.

Good luck, though, finding a Browns fan who took the counter-cultural route of cozying up the Ravens. Never. Football just became an empty home -- no family around. No voices. No heartbeat.

I drifted from Washington, D.C. to New York City and eventually on to Colorado in the years before the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. Knowing my team would eventually return to the living, I slowly plugged back into the league like a jilted lover on the rebound.

My Sundays were spent in Boulder at a raucous sports tavern -- the Barrel House II -- where my obsession-by-proxy was an in-his-prime Brett Favre. With no team to root for, I found Favre to be the perfect follow: wild, unpredictable and fully alive.

Those long hours of football-watching were drenched in booze and excess. I'd lay siege to the Barrel House in the still-morning hours and seal off a table for my Giants-loving friend, Matt Hogan. The day would start with the two of us nursing beers during early game action, only to morph into a chaotic scene of 20-somethings wailing at the smashed cluster of television sets. It was easy in those times to remember what I loved about our greatest sport -- just with the heart of it chopped out and burnt to ash.

The Browns got their team back in 1999 -- the wait was tolerable -- but we all know the ridiculous and wicked road they've traveled since. It hasn't been the same. Not even close. And for many people in the city of Cleveland, it never will be.

Today, Chargers fans understand. As much as anyone ever will.

The counter-argument that San Diego residents still have their team close by? Total nonsense. That thinking only makes sense to automatons and hell-bent contrarians distanced from what just happened to one of the league's most loyal fan bases.

When Flanagan asked that crushed Chargers supporter if he might someday warm to the idea of commuting north to see the Los Angeles version of the Bolts do battle, the man spoke for many of his brothers and sisters:

"Have I gone to a Clipper game? No. Will I go to a Charger game? No," said the fan. "I'm done ... I'm not even going to follow the team anymore."

If any of this comes as a surprise to the organization, it only reveals how detached the franchise became from the thousands upon thousands of San Diego faithful who made this team their home for so many wonderful decades.

For the Chargers, things will never be the same.

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