An odyssey through fandom: three decades of pain, hope, obsession and clarity with the Cleveland Browns
By Marc Sessler | Published Sept. 20, 2018
I wanted Elway erased.
This elusive, slippery villain from the West. Alive and kicking on a 12-inch television in my seventh-grade bedroom. Pulling Denver down the field. Steadily unraveling a Browns defense gasping for air.
Praying. Hands clasped. Alone in my room. Trying to patch into a conversation with God: "Please. This one time. Stop this guy. God, I know you will do what is right."
God was out to lunch. By the time He checked his messages, John Elway had done it. Ninety-eight yards to tie the game and send the AFC Championship into overtime.
I knew it was over. The Browns had been cracked like an egg. The Drive. Today a piece of history played repeatedly on NFL Network as a fresh arrow shot into the neck of any Browns fan camped near a television. Back then, in January 1987, my first opportunity to question the nature of a loving being in the skies above.
How the hell did this happen? How did I wind up becoming a fan of this team? I'd never even been to Cleveland. I was a 13-year-old innocent living in a Connecticut bedroom town outside New York City. Every day in the middle-school lunchroom, I sat nestled amid a hive of Giants fans. The occasional, nihilistic Jets supporter, too, but overwhelmingly Giants dudes who -- that same day, in 1987 -- sat on plush living room sofas watching Big Blue waltz into Super Bowl XXI. A voice in my head would ask that night: How did this happen?
Chris Sprague. That's how.
Sprague was the new kid in class. He came rolling in from a Cleveland suburb, talking up the Browns like some sort of predestined victory ship. Zeroing in on me, a kid with no declared loyalties.
My dad was a Giants fan, but I didn't get it. Led by some malcontent named Bill Parcells, the G-Men were happy to win games 10-3, white-knuckling through autumn affairs with a backfield asked to run the ball 53 times a Sunday. These sleep-inducing bloodfests sent me in the other direction.
During that 1986 season, Sprague kept at it. Hammering away at me in homeroom. Telling me about this quarterback named Bernie Kosar. A heady, sidearm specialist raised a Browns fan 80 miles away in Boardman, Ohio, rooting for the home team. The narrative drew me. Cleveland's Halloween-colored unis were concerning, but the Browns were rising in the AFC Central, hammering conference wannabees like clockwork on Sundays.
Living in Connecticut, the Browns were a nonentity. The mere idea of Sunday Ticket, years from being invented, sat in a hazy, futuristic mental catalog beside solar travel to Jupiter. Cable TV was a luxury. On Sundays, every household sat down to watch the Giants or Jets. That's what families did.
Then came one Monday night in November. I promised Sprague I'd watch. I turned on the television to see the Browns in prime time against Dan Marino's high-flying, pretty-boy Dolphins. That's when I saw him. Bernie Kosar. Tall and curly haired. In control. Unfurling bizarre, yet beautiful, sidearm darts all over the field. Massacring Miami's defense for 400-plus yards.
Sprague had done it. I was hooked. Forget Parcells and his smothering, shot-from-1922 operation. I had found something of my own.
Two weeks after The Drive, I watched the Giants stick it to Elway in the Super Bowl.
A smarter preteen would have gotten it together and jumped ship from the Browns. The Giants bandwagon was overbooked, but I could sneak aboard and never look back. None of my pimpled, Dungeons and Dragons-playing contemporaries would recall my failed tryst with this outfit from distant Ohio.
At the same time, I told myself: Screw the Giants fans with their perfect lives. I knew I'd have the last laugh. Kids would nod as I walked down the hallway, admitting to one another: "That guy went out on his own. Carved his own path. Picked his own team."
My own team.
Well, mine and Sprague's. We circled our wagons after The Drive and vowed to stay loyal. We were locked in. And this time around, he didn't need to convince me. I was bit. Bitten like a fool. It felt like fate. Magic love. The Browns were going to become the NFL's great comeback story -- as soon as next season -- and that felt just right to a dangerously naive seventh-grade kid with no concept of how to talk up the girls sitting around me in Earth History.
I would do my part for the Browns. A loyal foot soldier. Give me a break with casual fans, I thought. Stooges who spent Sundays playing Dig Dug, watching five plays of a Jets game only to hit the lunchroom on Monday acting like they covered the affair for Newsday.
Those guys were frauds. This required total commitment. I would become a perfect fan. A shining diamond. What else did I have? No girlfriend. Can't drive. Suck at math. Wandering through East Ridge Middle School a foot shorter than Brynn Taylor, the girl I harbored a massive, secret crush on. The world was holding up a flood of stop signs, but the Browns were a glowing green light.
As a first act of devotion, I turned my room into a full-blown command center. I cleared the walls of previous nostalgias, redecorating with every item of Browns paraphernalia I could get my hands on: a Bernie Kosar poster found at The Danbury Fair Mall; a collage of Browns images sourced from three years' worth of old Sports Illustrateds; hand-drawn illustrations of Kosar, Kevin Mack, Ozzie Newsome and Hanford Dixon; newspaper clippings from The Plain Dealer obtained through a friend of the Sprague family back in Ohio; and, tucked into a book, a letter received from Brynn Taylor. She was gone all summer with her family in California, but I had pulled off a middle-school miracle at the end of the academic year, landing Brynn as my date to the final school dance. In my mind, we were an item, and this letter -- in which Brynn carefully described the Californian landscape and a Mexican dinner with her parents, while revealing zero devotion to Marc -- had me convinced.
Things were looking up.
Not for long.
Two things happened in eighth grade: (1) Brynn returned to school and quickly hit the ejector seat on our "relationship" to date Matt Nielson, a previously nonthreatening classmate who now occupied my mind as a deep-state, weaponized foe; (2) The Fumble.
Darkness thrived. The Fumble, in my mind, made The Drive look like a tap on the cheek from Raggedy Ann. John Elway and the Broncos win again, escaping an AFC title game epic against Cleveland that saw them go up 21-3 by halftime, only to watch Kosar's Browns rage back to tie the game at 31 in the fourth quarter.
I made the mistake of watching this pivotal life event with a kid from my class named James Beasley. He was a good guy, but his entire family hailed from Colorado and adored the Broncos. I sat quietly on the floor of their living room, refusing to eat or drink or speak. They must have wondered who this subnormal visitor was, hunched in panicked silence inches from the TV as Browns Fan Apocalypse 2.0 unraveled on-screen.
With the Browns trailing 38-31 and barreling downfield for the tying score, Earnest Byner fumbled the ball. On Denver's 2-yard line. With just over a minute left on the clock.
Seconds before, I was convinced this was Cleveland's night. The great comeback artists ensuring their destiny, capping a heroic season with the purest form of revenge against Elway. "God," I prayed again before Byner's ill-fated scamper, "I see what you were doing all along. The Drive. Everything that happened. It happened for a reason. To show the Browns and their fans -- and me, Lord -- what it means to overcome the bad days. The worst stuff. Thank you."
But Byner lost the ball. Stripped out of his arms by a from-the-wilderness defensive back named Jeremiah Castille. The room went death-dark around me. I could hear the Colorado transplants screaming. I heard someone say they were sorry for the Browns -- the mom, I'd gamble; they were a nice family -- but I was a lost cause.
Broadcasters Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were my only allies, understanding the moment and allowing the visuals to speak for themselves as NBC's cameras showed Kosar, along the Browns sideline, kneeling beside Byner. Arm around his teammate, whispering something we'll never know.
Byner had become my favorite player that season. A 10th-round draft pick out of East Carolina in 1984, he was a symbol of that Browns team: a tireless workhorse whom coach Marty Schottenheimer viewed as a son; a player Kosar called the team's most valuable asset. Byner had baffled the Broncos in the second half, scorching Denver's defense with a rash of big-yardage gains off pinpoint lobs from Kosar. A would-be hero on the biggest stage transformed -- in one snap -- into a scapegoat for one of the darkest playoff defeats in NFL history.
I sat in that alien living room drenched in raw shock. Mocked by nature. Someone else was dating Brynn Taylor and someone else was going to the Super Bowl. Again, I'd made all the wrong moves.
The Fumble jarred my worldview.
I'd spent a calendar year with the Browns as the center of my life. When they won, I'd march into school like a glowing jewel. When they lost, I thought about dumping friend groups and ditching town in the back of a flatbed truck. I had a knack for doubling down on Browns defeats by lighting up the subsequent Monday with a 38 on a math quiz or 51 on a surprise Spanish test sent from the center of hell. By Wednesday I would turn the corner, reading hopeful snippets about the Browns in USA Today. By Thursday, I was white-light pure again, confident Cleveland had turned Sunday's loss into a Bible-worthy parable that would pave the way to vengeance.
I believed myself to be psychically linked to the team. More than a fan. Little did I know that '87 squad was the best Browns team I would ever see. I had no sense of the star-crossed future. Mine or the team's. I was a misguided rube harboring delusion of grandeur. No wonder Brynn bounced.
The Browns were always there. The club drifted into deep mediocrity in the early 1990s, but I could count on the players to suit up on Sundays and divert my attention for three hours. Helping me forget that my own football career, as a reserve cornerback for the Ridgefield High School Tigers, was the stuff of dark comedy.
While I spent hours obsessing over pro football, I could barely comprehend film sessions with our own coaching staff. Every Monday, a horde of sweaty, hormone-riddled teens would gather to stare at grainy, soundless, Zapruder film-esque footage of a neighboring high school running some version of the Wing-T on a horrifyingly sunlit field.
"That's the point of contain," a red-faced assistant would shout, looping the clip of a hulking, mean-faced fullback taking the ball off tackle.
The mind would drift into faraway regions: How many upperclassmen would need to be felled for me to see the field against this mouth-breathing boy-ogre? ... Will I become a better driver? I scared everyone in the car driving up the I-84 off-ramp by mistake. ... Why does my Spanish teacher, Senora Gingras, keep appearing in dreams that veer closer to nightmares? What is the correct form of ser/estar? ... When Sara Pappas says I can call her, WHEN does she want me to call her? And how do I get through on a landline without her mom (or dad) answering first? And then what do I say to her? What shared topics exist?
In a testament to our coaching staff, I rarely saw the field. One rainy November day, hours after being devastated on an algebra pop quiz, I was asked to slide in at cornerback while the offense walked through plays for an upcoming tilt against Trumbull High. My job was the same on every snap: Methodically slow-footing around Mark Krichbaum, our menacing, big-as-a-front-door tight end. Already being scouted by colleges, Krichbaum was roughly four times my frame. Walk-throughs were noncontact, mental exercises, but not for us ultra-scrubs. This was our time to fly. Instead of moving gingerly toward the quarterback -- and pretending to be blocked by Krichbaum -- I vaulted into the backfield to pantomime a game-altering sack. One time, two times and again.
"Enough with the glory maneuvers, boys," one assistant coach squawked at us deep backups.
What did he know? This was our limelight. Come game day, we'd be hidden away like low-level mafia figures. On my next high-speed curve past the line, I was hit with thunder: a devastating forearm under the chin, throwing my head back and airmailing my 130 pounds skyward before landing with a dense thud on the wet grass. Dark shapes mixed with light. Head buzzing. Suddenly remembering a dream I had the night before about an intriguing classmate, Kristen Young, turning into a human-cat figure in our lunchroom.
"No half-speed heroes, you nerd," I heard from above. It was Krichbaum, standing over me, blocking out the sun.
Football Sundays quieted the noise. To compensate for ongoing, less-than-zero Browns coverage in the NY/NJ/CT area, I would sit Indian-style on the floor, camped in front of the television, eyes glued for clues from Northeast Ohio. NBC's 10-minute ticker was my deepest ally, suddenly glistening on screen with life-or-death updates from afar. If I was truly blessed, Bob Costas would break into Giants action to unfurl a highlight from Cleveland Municipal Stadium, images serving as nothing less than pure oxygen. These tense Sundays -- certainly annoying to the parental units -- turned to pure in-house chaos when the Browns would face the Jets or Giants on local TV. The stakes would flush everyone into adjoining rooms, chores about town and made-up yardwork out back. Venn diagrams, 11th-grade minxstresses and Senora Gingras were put on deep hold until the horrors of Monday returned.
Two Septembers later, I stood staring out the window of my freshman dorm room at Miami of Ohio, a perfectly manicured campus set amid farmland an hour north of Cincinnati. One of my larger hidden motives for picking Miami was drawing closer to the Browns, something I kept to myself. I was that brand of rare idiot in 1992.
I went to college determined to make new friends and mesh into what was long advertised as "the best four years of your life." Within a fortnight, I knew I was misplaced.
I'd wake up in the middle of the night wondering why I'd come here. Then tuck it away for weeks, tumbling into dorm drinking, doomed flirtations and a lingering promise to the people around me to rush a fraternity. I drifted into that world for a spell, being pulled into a variety of human acts: drinking back-to-back-to-back 40-ounce beers against a ticking clock and waking up later in total darkness on a couch in a house two miles from my dorm; going along with being "kidnapped" by a goon belonging to Phi Kappa Something at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning; and being told by phone at 10 a.m. on a September Sunday that I was required to bring a patchwork of potential fraternity brothers breakfast burritos and two cases of Pabst bottles within 30 minutes if I wanted any chance of joining their treasured civilization.
"You better call someone else," I said as I hung up the phone.
Terrible strategy by this pack of bros, lining me up for a drop-dead task mere hours away from Cleveland's 1992 season opener against the Colts.
I felt at home for the first time as a college human. Leaving the dormitory. Walking alone through the morning quad and into the heart of downtown Oxford, Ohio, where I posted up at a sports bar 50 minutes before kickoff in a wooden seat set four feet from a television the size of a Buick. The Browns, under the watch of a young coach named Bill Belichick, scored three points and gave up 14 that day, but I shrugged it off. The young waitress knew I wasn't 21 -- she was in my field botany class, a course I'd suffer in -- but I was one of three people in the entire place and she'd fed me cold draft beers the entire way. Even in these dark, lost times, I'd always have the Browns.
Until I didn't.
Three autumns later, in 1995, I was a two-time transfer student standing alone in a bland, dormitory common room at American University in Washington, D.C. Clinging to a bowl of Top Ramen and staring dumbly at an overly loud television poisoned by the cheery voice of a local newsman proclaiming that Art Modell was moving the Browns to Baltimore.
To me, a death announcement. In my 10th year as a fan of the Browns, they were gone.
The first thing that came to mind: a misty, gray day in Cleveland in 1988. My first trip to the city I had obsessed over. My father had purchased two surprise tickets to a Week 12 showdown between the Browns and Steelers for my birthday. It poured rain the entire time, while the 15-year-old in me sat in a state of hero-worshipping awe. It was a day of dreams as Bernie, Byner and the gang romped over Pittsburgh, 27-7, to jump back into the playoff picture in the AFC.
Alone in that American University common room, I thought also about the season before and a rough-and-tumble '94 Browns team that doubled as Belichick's high-water mark with the franchise. After being reviled in Cleveland for cutting Kosar the year before, Belichick fielded a squad that allowed the fewest points in the NFL and did just enough on offense to carve out an 11-5 mark and book a trip to the Wild Card Round. The foe was familiar, as Belichick was scheduled to tussle with former mentor Bill Parcells and his Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots.
Nobody back then knew what Belichick would become. Long before he grumbled his way through press conferences in Foxborough, Bill refined the art by lobbing rapport-jarring non-sequiturs and curt throwaways to beat reporters in Cleveland, leaving scribes and plenty of fans to wonder what made this odd personality tick. I tried to find out in a series of wandering, obsessive letters to Belichick sent during his tenure as coach. To my utter, teenage surprise, he wrote back -- more than once -- although I harbored suspicions those responses were typed out by his secretary. I'll never know.
The Browns went on to beat Parcells and the Pats -- their last playoff victory as a franchise -- only to endure a beatdown by Neil O'Donnell and the Steelers.
The following summer, Cleveland's '95 team was seen as weakness-free after padding its air-tight defense in free agency and using the open market to add the biggest prize of all: star wideout Andre Rison.
The hype spiked in August, when the Browns authored a 55-13 preseason rout of the Bears. The game was zapped into homes nationally on "Monday Night Football," and two moments stand out: (1) Late in the third quarter, a no-name Browns runner was stuffed by a massive defensive lineman. An otherwise meaningless snap, until play-by-play man Al Michaels noted the Bears' stop was made by an undrafted rookie out of Virginia by the name of Mark Krichbaum -- the same unruly behemoth who leveled me half a decade prior on the high school playing fields. I considered this a notch in my belt. I'd been body-rocked by an NFL player and lived to tell about it. (2) With the final minutes of the romp ticking away, Michaels jumped in to declare something close to: "There doesn't seem to be a weakness on this Cleveland Browns team."
The weakness was within. Something closer to poison. Less than 90 days later -- as I clung to that bowl of Top Ramen, listening to that news anchor prattle on about the move to Baltimore -- I knew something was gone forever. Changed. A stark turning point in my somewhat drifting, easy existence. The Browns were history.
For the next three years, from 1996 through 1998, Cleveland haunted the NFL as a ghost. My post-college career plans were deep-sixed when the Browns imploded. My design was to work for the team in any capacity: moving to Cleveland and happily mopping floors or replacing lightbulbs for the Browns until someone noticed my devotion. I would never lift a finger for the Baltimore Ravens.
Instead, I wound up in New York City, living in a shared third-story apartment on West 108th Street near the Columbia campus. After four years of university classes, my first real job in American society boiled down to inserting metal security strips into the spines of books at the Columbia library. Ten dollars an hour. Six months later, this morphed into a filing career for a private investigator in Washington Square Park. Times were strange.
One summer day, I decided to move west. Drifting across the country on a Greyhound bus and getting off in Denver. I'd saved enough from the PI's office and felt no pressure to find work right away in Colorado. I booked a room for a month in the Denver downtown YMCA and rented a P.O. box four blocks away to communicate with family and a small group of friends toying with the idea of heading west. I was alone in the city, spending hours reading in the library, drifting through neighborhood streets, drinking beers in daytime bars and watching the money go. A clown.
My friends back east decided to make their way to Colorado. Ahead of time, I helped source a home for us -- a sky-blue-painted farmhouse on the outskirts of Boulder, 40 minutes north of Denver. They arrived in August of '98, filling the house to the brim, with each of us paying $200 a month in rent. Four guys, three girls and one pickup truck. We attacked the Boulder job market to fill a rash of low-level positions. By September, I was working at a flashlight factory within biking distance of the farmhouse. The job was mental horror: Clip this piece of plastic to this other piece of plastic. Do it again. Now do it 300 times an hour or hear from the supervisor.
There were no football fans in the house, but my roomies, Jeff and Sarah, would drive me down to the local sports bar, The Barrell House, to watch all the non-Browns action on Sundays. We'd landed in the heart of a Broncos revival, with John Elway fresh off a Super Bowl win over the Packers and guiding the '98 squad toward another AFC title. The Barrell House packed out every Sunday, legions of Elway, Terrell Davis and Ed McCaffrey jerseys hunched around cold pitchers of beer as the Broncos laid total waste to opponents.
On January 31, 1999, Elway did it again, calmly guiding the Broncos like a scorching missile through a wanting Falcons team to take Super Bowl XXXIII. By then, I had no problem rooting for the guy. Elway's latter-career crowning was one of the few living, breathing NFL ties to those old Kosar-led teams. Besides, it was common knowledge the Browns were returning the following season as an expansion outfit, joining a six-team AFC Central now packed with the Titans and Jaguars, along with the Steelers, Bengals and hated Ravens.
Yes, my team might struggle for a year or two, but I knew with severe confidence the Browns would be well-run and quick to return to form. Cleveland would teach a lesson to the rest of the league, not just on the team-building front, but a lesson in vengeance.
Cleveland's return in 1999 doubled as a course-correction by the NFL draped in fanfare and nostalgia, but not without its problems.
After three years without the Browns, I was giddy to welcome them back into my life. I attempted to raise from the dead all my youthful zeal for the team, saving articles about the developing roster, keeping an online diary about their progress and arriving to The Barrell House II on September 12 six hours ahead of time to lock down the best seat in the house for Sunday Night Football, pitting back-from-the-dead Cleveland against Pittsburgh. I carried with me a blank, spiral-bound notebook to record scouting observations about the young Browns: a seemingly plucky band of youth and low-level vets centered around veteran passer Ty Detmer and first overall pick Tim Couch, the strong-armed rookie quarterback out of Kentucky whom Cleveland planned to redshirt.
After a flood of high-concept pregame antics headlined by comedian/Browns fan Drew Carey, the team took the field for the first time since that star-crossed 1995 season. I sat with my childhood friend, Matt Hogan, now living in Boulder, and talked with extreme hubris, declaring Cleveland would win at least six or seven games and vie for a playoff spot the following autumn. My flowery boasts swiftly became a fool's wind, as the new Browns were scattered into a thousand pieces in a dangerously embarrassing 43-0 crushing by Kordell Stewart's Steelers.
By game's end, the Browns had abandoned all plans to redshirt Couch, yanking Detmer and throwing the rookie into the final minutes of this inglorious return. My notebook contained one scouting note from the first quarter: "Terry Kirby must hit the hole faster. Offense looks lost."
The worst thing a fan can know is the future. Had someone sat me down after that spewing Steelers debacle and said, "You think this is the low point. You're thinking it can only get better. Hear me out, idiot: It's just beginning. Over the next two decades, the Browns will sneak into the playoffs once -- and lose. Every other season will mesh into a dark dream of incompetence and confusion. Your friends will laugh at you. You will feel personal embarrassment a thousand times before you feel an ounce of joy. Think about a new hobby. You're on a course to spend 10,000-plus hours obsessing over this sports team between now and 2018. Imagine putting that time toward something you can control? Something tangible and real. Please heed this, you roaming naïf."
Instead, I dove in, creating for myself a nightmarish swirl of Sunday-based indignities and low points:
ITEM: September 14, 2003: At a cousin's wedding in Indiana, I drag nuclear and extended family, the morning after the nuptials, to a sports bar to watch the Browns confront the Ravens. I tell any relative in earshot about Cleveland's rough-and-tumble defense, a unit ready to surprise the NFL. Huddled over beers and plates of bar food, nobody says a word as Baltimore's Jamal Lewis runs for a league-record 295 yards in a cataclysmic dismantling of Cleveland.
ITEM: November 9, 2003: That same autumn, I wound up stuck in Arizona after leaving Boulder in an ancient, canary yellow VW camper van with my girlfriend of the time. We were moving to Los Angeles, where I planned to "become a screenwriter." Instead, the van imploded in Phoenix, where the GF and I broke up and I found myself $10,000 in debt and jobless in the godless desert. Out of moves, I rented the cheapest apartment I could find along bleak I-17 and found a job bathed in corporate horror working as a "human resources coordinator" at a Wells Fargo call center within 100 yards of the apartment. I knew nobody and spent hundreds of hours alone reading about the second Iraq War and watching depressing Diamondbacks baseball in a host of area dive bars -- my only way out of the 100-plus degree heat.
The Browns were no joyride, but I still centered my Sundays around them, catching a cab to a sports bar 14 blocks away before the late-morning kickoff and staying all day. One Sunday stood out: After watching the Browns come out of their bye week to crumble comprehensively in a 41-20 hammering by the Chiefs, I wandered into a nearby restaurant in a foul mood. The restaurant doubled as a Bills bar, and I soon found myself in the corner of the room monitoring a tight tilt between Buffalo and Dallas. A particularly mouthy Bills fan was nestled at the bar, boasting about his 4-4 squad inevitably laying siege to the AFC playoff race. The Buffalo faithful quickly irritated my senses, chanting team poems and songs in unison at every first down. This was the Bledsoe-led outfit that opened the year by shocking the Patriots 31-0, but subsequent weeks had revealed them to be a half-baked cadre destined for the scrap heap. "Bills are half-baked!" I shouted to the room, eliciting curious, annoyed looks. "You're wasting your time! Bills are a fraud!"
"How about keeping it down, pal?" the Buffalo fan at the bar hissed appropriately.
"Who's your team, ace?" an elderly, weathered woman in a Thurman Thomas jersey asked loudly.
"You're a joke," the guy at the bar chuckled, eliciting laughs from around the room.
I didn't say another word -- I was outnumbered and now reviled -- but I sat there until the final whistle of that 10-6 Cowboys win, believing I had accomplished something valuable in this completely dim barroom joust.
ITEM: January 2, 2005: The previous August, I'd finally made it to Los Angeles, arriving in a rental car with one box of jeans, socks and shirts, and another lined with novels and half-filled notebooks containing the early etchings of soon-to-be-rejected screenplays. I'd left Arizona with no vehicle of my own, no girlfriend and no idea where I'd wind up. It still felt like a win.
For work, I leaned on my "experience" from the Wells Fargo corporate Death Star in Phoenix to land an office gig in West L.A. Mentally unstimulating work was preferred. I'd moved to town to take evening screenwriting classes at UCLA, planning to ignore every aspect of life beyond carving out a finished story. I found a shoebox of an apartment on Motor Avenue, just blocks from Culver City. I knew nobody, was still smarting from the breakup and found it preferable to spend hundreds of hours alone.
On Sundays, though, I would slip back into my world of old. I'd wake up early, grab the Sunday paper and take a pair of connecting buses to a Santa Monica tavern hosting the Southern California Browns Backers Association. I'd found similar, deeply loyal fan groups in every city -- Washington, D.C., Denver, Boulder, Phoenix -- and now in Los Angeles. The Browns were an afterthought that season, losing nine straight games during a horrific stretch that saw coach Butch Davis resign his tenuous position following a 58-48 loss to the Bengals.
Threatening to end the year with 10 straight defeats, the Browns squeaked out a win against the Texans on January 2. Carless and without the stomach for another loss, I skipped the game. I'd spent New Year's Eve at a ramshackle house in the Hollywood Hills rented by a group of dudes -- including a guy from my screenwriting class -- who were kind enough to invite a no-name stranger.
Just past midnight, I found myself out on the porch with a tangle of wannabe actors, buzzed girls in dresses and loud bros. I was a ghost to this clique, but I felt fine. Staring down at the moonlit, green-brushed hillsides that banked and rolled toward the yellow glow of Sunset. I didn't need football. Not tonight.
I clung to visions of becoming a screenwriter, but nothing came. I spent 2005 into 2006 trying to finish an overly long script about a young woman named JENNY SILVER, a Nancy Drew-esque girl detective who ditched sleuthing as an adult and fell into pills, only to find herself tugged back in to solve her biggest case yet. Problem was, I just couldn't figure out the case on paper. I still spent Sundays at the Browns Backers bar, sipping beer at kickoff and watching Cleveland tumble into a hole while wondering how to correct the floating second act of my crime-stopping-gal story.
The horror would come in the early Monday hours. I was in debt and still without a car. I'd wake in the middle of the night and wonder if my whole act was nothing more than a vanity project: refusing to get a steady job, bills piling up, notebooks filled with evidence over a lack of anything tangible from within.
Sinking fast in a town made for rich men, I put aside my quest to become a revolutionary Tinseltown typist for a string of densely dull, defeating office jobs. I justified the shifts by telling myself the roles all involved some aspect of writing: pamphlet creator, database organizer, marketing materials coordinator, product descriptor, drunken texter. Every one of these tasks pulled a little more sunlight out of the Los Angeles sky, replacing my wonder of the city with dreary, two-hour-long connecting bus rides into downtown L.A. and back again to my apartment where every night was takeout Indian food and a drifting sense of self. The aughts were floating away. Me with it. The Browns, too.
By 2010, my existence was an altered picture.
Three Aprils earlier I'd met a dark-eyed beauty by the Pacific Ocean on Easter Sunday. Simone. Due to my general inability to pull the trigger, three months passed before our first date. When that evening wrapped, I knew she was different and kind to a degree that swept away all the relational firestorms and silent torture of days gone by.
By 2010, Simone and I were celebrating one year of marriage and expecting our first child. In the name of familial stability, I was embedded as a corporate proposal writer at a Big Four accounting house that brought me aboard during the 2008 financial crisis. In contrast to the adventure of living with Simone, a sense of human panic filled the day job, where uber-wealthy partners of the firm were asked, for the first time in years, to pitch new business. The upshot was a ferocious wave of 70-hour workweeks.
At first, I threw myself into the role. There was writing to do and some sense of excitement in traveling to San Diego and Las Vegas on "urgent" business. Everything was pitched as the most important thing that had ever happened. A late-arriving proposal request on a Friday at 4:30 p.m. meant one thing: Your weekend was assassinated, replaced by an all-hands-on-deck, war-room setting that swallowed Saturday and Sunday into Monday.
The uglier side of the job reared its head when panicked partners and ladder-climbing managers would turn on the proposal writer at any moment. As an escape, I had begun an NFL blog with a handful of longtime friends, including Matt Hogan, who had sat with me so long ago during those football Sundays in Boulder at The Barrell House II.
I'd chip away at football articles in the office, on company time, and feel electric energy when someone clicked "like" or added a comment to the post. What was this? This allure? So much more satisfying than being verbally lashed by a cadre of salt-and-pepper-haired wealthy men floating home in their Porsches.
During one particularly ugly proposal assignment, I was tagged to serve a partner I'd been warned about before. A robust, white-haired, gold-watch-wearing fireball of ego, this fellow was known to attack down the food chain when peeved. I learned that firsthand as he materialized out of nowhere one morning after I'd been up all night working on a draft for his review. Fifteen minutes after submitting the 80-page snoozefest, I heard him barking out to some cowed assistant: "Where does he sit? This Sessler guy?"
"Over there, sir," I heard the woman whisper.
Then him. Red-faced, coffee-breathing fury, staring me down as I sat shielding my laptop, attempting to hide my on-screen blog post about whether ex-Browns passer Derek Anderson would survive in Arizona.
"This is absolute crap!" he blared, waving my draft. "Redo this! The entire introduction. Get it right!"
He shuffled away. Seconds later, I heard him duck his head into the office of a fellow partner. They chuckled and talked loudly about their boats, just a couple of fading corporate warships clinging to self-visualized heroism on the 22nd floor of a meaningless work tower in the middle of Los Angeles.
"You better watch out for those Eagles," the other partner warned.
"The Eagles? The Eagles are junk, Jim!" my guy bellowed, so that everyone on the floor would be certain of his infallible football opinion.
This hot-and-cold era of adult life was helped none by the Browns. While I authored proposals to make rich men richer, Romeo Crennel's 2008 team hit the scene with vast expectations after a 10-win, playoff-free campaign the year before. They weren't up to snuff in '08, though, flatlining intensely on multiple nationally televised games and nearly setting an NFL record by failing to score an offensive touchdown for 24 straight quarters to close the campaign.
Eric Mangini landed in 2009 -- with a thud. His Browns team opened 1-11 before turning into a ground-and-pound, 1953-esque outfit in a season-ending, four-game win streak. Nice finish, but I found myself sitting next to Simone on the couch ripping through those 11 losses in fast-forward on Sunday Ticket. The team was starting to lose me, as my obsession turned toward getting out of this soul-crushing Big Four boiler room before my ticket was punched.
My friends and I were typing up a storm on our self-started blog called Read and React. I began using nights and weekends to pound out post after post, until one day the phone rang.
On the other line was a friend named Chris Bayee, a local sportswriter who had secured a part-time job editing copy at NFL.com. All this time in Los Angeles, NFL Network had been five blocks from my place. I'd jogged by it some mornings and wondered how anyone got in. I knew I wouldn't, with a paper-thin resume that screamed town-to-town job jumper lacking purpose.
"Listen," Chris said. "It's just three days a week, but these guys are looking to expand NFL.com. I thought you'd be interested. The editor, Justin Hathaway, is a good guy. I could give him your name."
A week later I was sitting across from Justin, trying to explain why someone with zero news clippings would be worth even a sand particle of good in his newsroom. Justin kept razzing me about the Browns and tempering my concerns, saying: "I can coach all that up."
Justin promised to call me with his decision sooner than later. I got in my car -- I had one finally -- and barreled at illegal speeds toward a Barnes and Noble. There I purchased everything I could find on editing, newswriting, headline-crafting -- plus a massive NFL encyclopedia. I took an emergency vacation from the hell-job and vanished from society.
Fifteen pages into the first book, I knew I was screwed. I had no idea how to write news. As an exercise, I would monitor NFL events and attempt to bang out a quick post on the items of the day -- to horrible results. Dangerously slow, mind drifting, no knack for how to structure a story. I sunk into the depths. What was I thinking? With a newborn on the way, ditching a full-time job with benefits for a three-day-a-week entry-level gig? A role I had no business performing? Just another half-baked fantasy.
I was out to dinner with Simone when the call came in. I grabbed my cell and went out into the Los Angeles night.
"It's Justin. I didn't want to make you wait," he said, which sounded fatal.
"Look, I know I have no experience," I said. "I know that."
A full beat of silence, then Justin laughed: "You're in."
That first year in the newsroom, I fell for the Browns all over again as their Mangini-led outfit of 2010 caught fire for two minutes in late October, stunning the defending-champion Saints 30-17 in the Superdome before unfurling a 34-10 timebomb on the gold-encrusted Patriots.
It would lead nowhere. That team finished 5-11, the most wins they'd notch until 2014, the year I sat dumbly thrilled inside Radio City Music Hall as the Browns swung for the fences selecting radioactive college superstar Johnny Manziel. Cleveland has won 11 games in the four seasons since, reducing my fandom to watching others prattle about the newsroom as their teams soar toward new promised lands.
This past April, a day before the draft, I returned to that old Browns Backers bar in Santa Monica. I found myself next to a Ravens fan. He was maybe 22, draped majestically in his royal-purple Joe Flacco jersey, untroubled by life.
"Big Ravens fan?" I asked.
"Yeah, man, they're my team."
A smarter fellow would end the conversation there, allowing this youth-adult to float on down the road. But I had become imbued with something less glorious.
"Browns fan," I told the youth-man.
"That sucks, bro. Sorry."
"Well, it sucks Cleveland lost their team when they were moved to Baltimore out of sheer greed."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the Browns became the Ravens."
The conversation crumbled from there as I realized this lifelong Ravens fan had never heard the origin story. I dished it, unasked, unfurling all my tired talking points until the youth-man's friend finally wandered beside him to see what was afoot.
"You cannot be a Ravens fan without knowing this. You can't. You cannot," I said, turning toward the door.
I heard it from the young guy's friend as I exited: "That dude was intense."
I float home on the metro pondering it. How far away I've wandered. Early days spent in rooms alone dreaming about a football team; now morphing into tirades in taverns of the night. I should know better, I scold myself. I'll start again tomorrow. I'll erase the darker moments. I'll become what they want.
It begins with dropping the Browns.
I've thought about it before. Maybe 10,000 times. I've given this team my devotion -- I'm falling to shambles in public over them -- and they return the favor with winless seasons and everyone chuckling away in the newsroom. It's time to ghost. Time to dump everyone I know and live alone in a youth hostel -- maybe in Australia. Maybe deep Europe. YES.
I suddenly float into reverie over new, comforting plans to leave everything and all people behind. It's then when my phone lights up with words from a trusted friend bearing close ties to the Browns:
THEY'RE TAKING BAKER MAYFIELD.
Subway doors fly open. My stop. I walk out into the night. I start over inside.
THIS IS DIFFERENT, I tell myself. This time around. This isn't Johnny Manziel. This Mayfield guy is serious. He has a beard. He's perfect for Cleveland. His attitude. His me-against-the-world thing. That's what they need. This time it's real. It's really real. No more false starts. No more pinning my hopes on a pack of rubes-turned-quarterback. All of this has been worth it, I chant to myself.
I'm back. The night is shining and young. I cascade through the open door of a corner beer bar and sit at the counter.
"The usual?" asks Tasha, floating over in dream-light of the West.