Tuesday, August 10, 1999

An exhibition game that meant plenty

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CANTON — Willis Murray has mellowed. He has harnessed his love for the Cleveland Browns so that it no longer threatens the furniture. Or so he says.

        “I broke a couch when they beat the Colts (in 1964),” said the 57-year-old fan from Wellsville, Ohio. “I was just jumping up and down. You know how Browns fans are. They throw bricks through TV sets. I've been known to throw the bulbs off the Christmas tree.”

        Professional football's most devoted bystanders became active participants again Monday night, and anything that isn't nailed down could come flying through the window at any moment. The Browns returned to competition after three long years in limbo, and they were received as if they were liberating Paris.

        Monday's matchup with the Dallas Cowboys was just a meaningless preseason game — an exhibition staged primarily to evaluate players and exploit fans — and yet it had great meaning.

        “I've never wanted to be anywhere in my life as much I wanted to be here tonight,” said Jon McDivitt, 36, of Canton.

Dawg Pound returns
        McDivitt awaited Phil Dawson's opening kickoff from a hill high above the West end zone at Fawcett Stadium. He wore a dog mask and carried a video camera, and urged Dawson forward as if the fate of the franchise were endangered by delay.

        “Just kick the ball,” McDivitt said. “Kick the ball. Kick the damn ball. Mother of God, kick the ball.”

        Then, at last, Dawson kicked the ball, and hundreds of flashbulbs flickered in the stands. Forty-four months after Art Modell fled to Baltimore in desperation and debt, the Browns were back in front of a packed house of tear-stained, joy-filled, passionate people, many of them adults disposed to bark like dogs.

        It was not as if the Browns had never left. It was better. It was as if they had come back from the grave.

        “We've had a lot of dead Sundays,” said Dante Lavelli, the Hall of Fame Browns receiver.

        “What this means,” said Independence architect Randy Matejka, “is the world.”

        The Browns last won a championship in 1964 — the day Willis Murray broke the couch — and they have yet to reach the Super Bowl. Yet their grip on Northeast Ohio has endured, even tightened, in the wake of Modell's end run to Maryland. Shared grief galvanized Cleveland to fight for its team and its traditions, and shamed the NFL into granting a new franchise to the plundered city.

        Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, speaking to the Browns Sunday, compared Cleveland's experience to his own sense of loss when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Artist Raymond Simon, who produced a series of league-licensed posters to commemorate the Browns' comeback, invoked Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

        Simon's poster, “The Awakening” depicts Browns quarterback Tim Couch and carries a quotation from Yamamoto concerning the sneak attack he planned on Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Bigger than big
        Overstated? Sure. Comparisons with football tend to trivialize real combat. But football fans are not famous for their perspective. Particularly Browns fans.

        “They haven't had any NFL for four years as far as I know,” said Gary Young of Circleville. “We were going to paint my son's room orange when Modell moved the team. We changed it to scarlet and gray, for Ohio State. You have to have someone to root for.”

        Modell has been replaced by the deeper pockets of Al Lerner and the smoother style of Carmen Policy. Bill Belichick, the personality-impaired coach, has moved on, and the engaging Chris Palmer has moved in. Drab Cleveland Stadium has been torn down for a sparkling new edifice on Lake Erie. If you could take all the trauma of losing your team, this is a trade you'd have to make.

        “Policy will have us in the Super Bowl in four years,” Willis Murray said. “Mark it down.”

        For now, Cleveland is happy just to have a team.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.