Instead of being the bad luck, bad breaks, bad record club it has been for most of the past two-plus decades, Cleveland became the talk of the NFL, going 11-5 and making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Tonight the Browns meet the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in an AFC wild card game.
And their rise – from expletives to excellence – has been cheered this season all across the Miami Valley and southwest Ohio.
Browns Backers Worldwide – Boveington said he heard there were 363 chapters across the globe this season – is one of the largest organized fan clubs in all of professional sports around the world.
There are 16 chapters within an hour’s drive of Dayton, including ones here in the city and in Beavercreek and at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, as well as Springfield, Springboro, Monroe, Oxford, Union City, New Paris, Minster and Russell’s Point.
“There’s a chapter in every town that has an NFL team,” said Darrius Jones, who’s been a member of the Northwest Browns Backers of Dayton since 1988. “There’s clubs in something like 43 countries, too.”
“They’re all over: South Korea, Japan, Ireland, Germany, Egypt. Almost anyplace there’s a military installation, we have fans,” said David Monroe, a Vietnam vet and longtime Springfield mailman who is president of the Springfield Browns Backers. “Mali in Africa had one, too.”
Some clubs give birth to others.
Gailon Revere, who’s 38 and lives in Middletown, was part of the 360-some member Cin-Day club, but eventually wanted a place that was a little closer to home and didn’t have such an overflow crowd when they viewed games together.
Boveington helped him launch the Monroe Dawg Pound club a year ago and it now has close to 50 members and even has kids involved.
Revere said his 9-year-old daughter Anistan is “rockin’ her Monroe Pound Puppies shirt… “The whole thing has taken off and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
All the Browns Backers clubs meet at a favorite bar or restaurant to watch games, though in this pandemic-plagued season, numbers have been reduced and a couple of clubs have not met at all.
In normal times they have special functions, from draft day parties to banquets where former Browns players sometimes attend.
Most clubs are involved in some kind of charity work, too, said Geri Schick, who is the secretary/treasurer of the University-Oxford Area Browns Backers Club. Her husband Jim is the president.
Each year she said their club donates to two charities: The Pilot Dogs program in Columbus which aids the blind and the Parachute Butler County organization that provides court appointed special advocates for children in need.
“We ring the bells for the Salvation Army every holiday season,” said Monroe of his Springfield club. “We usually set up at the Walmart on Bechtle Avenue. This year we took in almost $3,000.”
The one thing every club shares is a profound devotion to the Browns.
And how committed can these folks be?
When Mike Lump, now the president of the Top Dawg Browns Backers in Russell’s Point, began seriously dating Amy Fleming, she finally took him to meet her dad, Norm.
“I quickly found out there was three stipulations for anyone who wanted to marry his daughter,” Lump laughed. “They had to be a Methodist, a Republican and Browns fan.” And not necessarily in that order.
“I checked all three boxes, so I guess I was OK,” he laughed.
He has been more than that. The couple’s 25-year-old son, Brennon, was named after Browns receiver Brian Brennan.
“And when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I had a sweatshirt made for her that said: ‘Brownie in the Oven,’” he chuckled.
Just like with Mike and Amy, when it comes to backing the Browns, family ties often play a big part.
“I’m 72,” said Jim Schick. “Back in 1956 we were living in Hamilton and I remember my dad sitting me down in front of the television and saying ‘THIS is the team we root for.’ And it was the Cleveland Browns.”
The next year he said his dad told him to “Keep your eye on No. 32. He’s really gonna be a good football player.”
Jim Brown was a rookie that year and he would go one become the greatest Browns player ever.
And tonight when Schick watches the Browns, he’ll be wearing his favorite jersey.
Jim Brown’s No. 32.
Gailon Revere will have special memories, too:
“When I was just 8 or 9, my mom dated a guy from Cleveland – Nelson Bruce. He turned me on to the Browns way back then.
“He’s no longer with us now – he passed away – and as each year goes by, I think about him a little bit. Especially this year. If he was still alive, I wonder how he’d feel about all this.”
Probably like he’d found heaven here on earth.
If you are a Browns fan, you are many things – especially resolute.
They’ve had to endure everything from bad breaks to the ultimate betrayal when owner Art Modell ripped the franchise out of Cleveland and relocated it in Baltimore as the Ravens.
The reboot in Cleveland four years later was shaky and has mostly wobbled since.
“We’ve had to go through all these blunders where they brought in people who thought they were the smartest people in the room and they made one bad decision after another,” Revere said.
This season is only the third winning campaign since the 1999 return. Four seasons ago the Browns went 0-16. The year before they went 1-15. They won just two games in 1999 and three in 2000 and 2015.
In that time, they’ve had 12 head coaches, 11 general managers and 31 different starting quarterbacks.
Through it all – as the Swear Jar overfilled in Mason – Browns fans everywhere stayed blue-collar believers of better days ahead.
“There’ve been quite a few studies and they always came up with the fact that, based on the conditions and the circumstances they’ve endured, Browns fans are the most loyal in the game,” Monroe said.
Loyalty does permit a bit of license though.
“Yes, we’re loyal, but we’ve been frustrated, too,” said Boveington. “To cope you’ve got to have a sense of humor. If you didn’t, it would be one heck of a life.” So in typical Browns’ fashion, when the team went 0-16, a fan named Chris McNeil organized the Perfect Season Parade in January of 2018.
The parade route was in the shape of a zero and was traversed by ambulances and a hearse. Some 3,000 fans showed up carrying signs and even tombstones bearing the names of all those departed – and defeated -- quarterbacks of the past.
And now, as this year’s team surprisingly made the playoffs – a place where the Browns haven’t won since 1994 – all that bad luck seemed ready for the rearview mirror.
But while COVID-19 has been an issue all season, it’s hit the Browns especially hard this week.
First year head coach Kevin Stefanski – who has done a miraculous job changing the culture and uplifting a disappointing team that won just six games last season – will miss tonight’s game after testing positive for the virus five days ago.
The Browns have seven coaches and six players – most notably Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and safeties Ronnie Harrison and Jovante Moffatt – who are unable to be around the team due to COVID-19 protocols.
Cleveland’s practice facility was closed to the team until Friday.
“It’s frustrating, but after all we’ve been though, we’re like: ‘Hey, no excuses. Let’s just win this thing somehow!’” said Boveington.
“We’re gonna treat it like water off a duck.”
‘My candle is flickering’
Zack Allen, who started the Wright Patt Air Force Base Browns Backers a year ago, was at the very last game in Cleveland Municipal Stadium before Modell moved the team.
It was December 17, 1995, and the Browns ended up beating the Cincinnati Bengals in a scene that soon looked like a Mad Max movie. Fans were weeping. Others were angrily throwing things on the field and some started to rip out the seats and railings.
“I’m sitting at my seat just trying to get a little piece of wood to take as a souvenir and the next thing people are throwing whole sections of seats,” Allen said.
“Finally, we kicked out two old seats and took them with us. I still have them in my garage.”
Scott Stahl has something of a Browns’ museum in his and wife Judy’s home in Union City.
Originally from Oak Harbor – Class of 1961 – he remembers being at the game when Jim Brown ran for 237 yards against Philadelphia.
“I was at the ’64 championship game, too,” he said. “My ticket cost $10 and the program was a dollar.”
He helped start the Union City club in 1987 and has had several Browns, including Ozzie Newsom, Gerald McNeil and Steve Everitt, visit his home over the years.
He and Judy became such football fans that they went to nine Super Bowls. Sometimes they got into the games, sometimes they just partook in the outside festivities.
Always they wore their Browns gear.
“There’s 32 teams in the NFL and 28 of them have played in the Super Bowl,” Stahl said. “Of the four teams that are left – Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland – three have hosted Super Bowls.
“So that only leaves the Cleveland Browns.”
He managed a laugh: “My candle is flickering. I’m pushing 80. I want them to get to the Super Bowl while I still know what the heck is going on.”
With the front office and coaching staff finally on the same page, a good head coach and a young roster with some bone-fide stars, the Browns seem on the way to making Stahl’s hopes a reality.
Likely not this year, but sometime in the future.
In the meantime, Phil Kelly, president of the Northwest Browns Backers of Dayton, said he hopes stellar running back Nick Chubb gets more carries tonight than he’s had in some recent games:
“When he gets going, that takes the pressure off Baker Mayfield. The other way around, that doesn’t work.” Regardless, many Backers are so excited, they’re singing.
Every year Boveington said he converts a Christmas carol into a Browns song and club members sing it at holiday gatherings.
This year he said it went like this:
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Playoffs, everywhere you go.
“Take a look at the first and tens, happening once again
“With Baker and his offense on the go
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Playoffs,
“Browns fans want much more.
“But the prettiest sight to see, is a Super Bowl trophy
“At our own front door.”
While tonight’s 8:15 kickoff may be a harbinger of those times to come, Stahl said he’ll have to do some prep work first:
“It’ll be a late one and I tend to fall asleep, so I’m gonna have to take a nap first.”
Like all Browns fans, he should have sweet dreams.