The Scabs of Winter

The scab conceals what is underneath, which is usually worse. When the crust is ripped away, the blood rushes to the surface and the first thought is, “Shit. I shouldn’t have touched it.”

That’s kind of what the Cleveland Browns have become after a perfect 16-loss season—the oozing pustules of the NFL. It was close to being just a gross infection, though. Driving to beat the Steelers with less than two minutes left in the final game of the season, an incredulous 4th quarter through-the-hands drop by wide receiver Corey Coleman assured the North Coast faithful that their Brownies would continue to be the non-strike scabs of football, ripped of the charade of “wait until next year.” No pretending. No optimism. No fake news.

I drove six hours to witness the parade of perfection that would trudge, counter-clockwise, around First Energy Stadium to form a big 0, perhaps in the hopes that a hole could be incised to implode the Factory of Sadness and find release from its hubris of horrors.

Walking past the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lou Reed’s desperate voice croaks out, “Heeeeeeroooin…will be the death of me.” It’s fitting for a team that’s been on the nod for nearly two decades.

Under the bronze statue of Jim Brown, outside the ring of honor with Otto Graham’s number 14 staring out, and the plaques of the Hall-of-Fame Cleveland inductees lined up around the stadium are the brown-and-orange acolytes asserting their opinions. From the “Browns are the shit” toilet to the casket looking to exorcise the team’s vile play, it was a cheerful crew in their Owen 16 jerseys.

And why not? Temperatures were ticking up just past 5 degrees, and with six layers (thermals, long-sleeve T, microfiber pull-over, fleece jacket, pea coat, and Michelin Man topping) above the waist and three layers down below, I was ready, except I could barely put on my multiple pairs of gloves. In fact, I was so covered up and toasty in my balaclava, scarf, turtle fur and two additional hats that I decided to walk down the shady side of the street. Walking past the protected Cleveland canyons, however, the vista opened up as I was hit with a bracing wind-blast off of ice-choked Lake Erie. I can now understand why Northern Europe was motivated to develop an industrial capacity to keep from freezing to death.

Chris McNeil, who coordinated this battle cry against the ramparts of the Haslam family (who also own the Pilot/Flying J corporation), says that he organized the parade as a Bronx cheer for the Browns. Things were actually in place last year for a raucous celebration when an 0-14 season went bust with a last-second win against the Chargers. Luck was on their side this year, and city officials clearly don’t mind poking at ownership’s futility. But some people don’t have the macabre sense of humor necessary to enjoy the spectacle—they say it brings dishonor to the town. But then again, it’s not as bad as the Cuyahoga immolating itself.

And, in fact, Cleveland sports teams have done remarkably well aside from the gridiron abominations. The Indians have made the playoffs the last two years, and the Cavaliers have LeBron James, who brought home the team’s first championship in 2016. Cleveland is also listed as one of the hottest places to live, bone-chilling conditions notwithstanding. Even Trevor Noah has made time to show up.

But the Browns are different. Perhaps it’s how the franchise left, and then returned. Browns version #1, they of the four pre-Super Bowl championships, was apparently owner-whispered out-of-town by minority stakeholder Al Lerner. After Art Modell signed the moving papers on Lerner’s private plane and hightailed it to Baltimore in 1996, Lerner outbid everyone to become the owner of Browns version #2. A little sketchy, and some say that’s why the franchise is cursed.

But being cursed usually stems from many heart-breaking defeats over the years, not loss after loss after loss after loss after loss after loss after loss after loss—I could keep going. That’s just gallows humor.

And that’s what was around in abundance at the parade. It had a typical tailgating feel, only no game. Plenty of drinking, wafting smells of pot, and a guy dressed way too scantily. We were wondering if it was alcohol or hallucinogens—or maybe a combo—that could allow dermal physics to seemingly not be impacted by the life-threatening cold.

It was all pretty upbeat, with some occasional signs urging the coach, Hue Jackson, to be fired—or Haslam to be jailed.

It wasn’t clear when the parade would start, but eventually the Rover’s Morning Glory tour bus got moving. I slipped into the crowd a little behind the sad members of the Struggle Bus, and alongside some ghoulish marchers hoisting headstones for the 28 Browns starting quarterbacks that have graced the sidelines since the team’s reintroduction in 1999.

It was a bizarre scene being in the middle of thousands of fans hootin’ and a hollerin’ about the sheer ineptitude of their team, with many swans around to commemorate Johnny Manziel’s infamous party picture.

After about a quarter-turn, the stadium’s shadow covered us and had me pondering which was more brutal—the weather or being a Browns fan. For some, it wasn’t a clear answer. For one fellow who had had about five too many, it was obvious. “The Browns have sucked since 1999. And it ain’t gettin’ any better.”

As I settled in to the closest bar with hundreds of other parade survivors, I sensed the despair of fans that had truly hit rock bottom—or perhaps it was the grim satisfaction of averting frostbite. Whatever it was, Cleveland fans are hoping the team doesn’t screw up their first two draft picks out of the top four selections this year that may finally lift them off the sidewalk. Here’s hoping they are right.

 

Jonathan Gruber is a documentary filmmaker who lives outside of Washington, D.C.

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