There we were, sitting in a darkened corner of Shenanigans, a rather run-down-looking sports bar on the main drag of Belleville, Illinois. Donna had on one of her long-sleeved Browns t-shirts and her Browns football-helmet earrings. I had on my now-oversized Bernie Kosar jersey. The fragments of already-eaten chicken wings lay on a plate in front of us, along with her half-filled Diet Coke. I bounced the straw up and down inside the ice cubes in my glass of water, wishing that the contents could have been a beer. Several of them. Before us, one of the big screens displayed the ongoing massacre that ensued between the Browns and the Ravens. The carnage looked even worse in analog. You have to at least win a game to be worthy of high-definition, I guess. We left with 4 minutes to go. Driving home, I thought a good deal about the choices we make. And I could have kicked myself because with a little bit of prepubescent dexterity, the fiasco that I just witnessed could have been avoided.
I wasn't always a fan of Cleveland sports. My father was a Green Bay Packers fan, so early on, I, too, pretended that I was Bart Starr or Ray Nitschke. My dad even made us a lamp using a Packers helmet. But all that changed when I started watching NFL Highlights, the show hosted by Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. It was on Sundays at 11 o'clock, prior to the start of the football games, and I quickly fell in love with the Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Len Dawson was from nearby Alliance, Ohio, which was a good thing. But that wasn't the reason. It was the fancy offensive schemes and the strange huddle they used. Halfbacks and flankers always seemed to be in motion. There were loads of end-around plays and trickery abounded. Plus, I thought their colors were pretty cool.
This fixation with the out-of-the-ordinary played a huge role in the teams that I chose to follow as a youngster. The Indians? Who cared about them when you could follow a flashy team like the Oakland A's? I loved 'em! The "Moustache Gang" were a blast, especially with guys like Gene Tenace, Sal Bando, and Rollie Fingers. And I could have cared less about the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers when there was the always-in-contention New York Knicks! My favorite player was the one-and-only Walt "Clyde" Frazier. I would practice for hours his behind-the-back dribble and his peculiar jump shot. Yes, my teams were easy to spot and easy to follow because they were winners of Super Bowls and the World Series and NBA Championships. So what would possess a seemingly bright, intelligent kid to trade in all these gifts in exchange for the downtrodden squads from the city known as "The Mistake by the Lake"? I blame it on an autographed picture that I received in the mail.
In between playing sports with my friends, I decided sit in my room and draft letters to professional athletes requesting them to send an autographed picture. So I grabbed a handful of paper and started writing. I ended up sending a stack of notes to various teams and players that I had watched on NFL Highlights, as well as other games on television. And then I waited. And waited. Each day the mail would arrive but amidst the bills and other things there were no autographed pictures. Until one day a large, flat envelope came in the mail, a package that the mailman could barely fit through the slot on our front porch. My mother handed it to me saying, "It has your name on it". Indeed, it was addressed to me, and the return address on the envelope said "Cleveland Browns". I hurriedly ripped open the envelope and out popped an autographed picture of running back Leroy Kelly. I liked Kelly because I, too, had a shirt with the number "44" on it. "Wow," I thought, "my first autograph!" I grabbed some tape, ran upstairs, and plastered it to my wall.
In the upcoming days, I waited. No autographed picture from Walt Frazier or Earl Monroe. Nothing from Joe Rudi or Sal Bando. Zilch from Len Dawson, Mike Garrett, Buck Buchanan, or Elmo Wright. I was stunned and a bit bummed out. A friend then said to me, "Why don't ya just like Cleveland. Everyone else around here does".
Yep, it could have been avoided. But, no. Leroy Kelly had to send me an autographed picture. In reality, though, it's really all my fault. I'm the one who would later lay in bed at night listening to Joe Tait broadcast Cavs games. I'm the one who had to go to the Stadium and watch Rick Manning roam center field. And I'm the one who felt abject pain when Brian Sipe threw the interception into the end zone against the Raiders. The full understanding of my choices had not yet come to fruition in those early days. Why couldn't I have had the decision-making prowess of my friend Kyle in Nashville. His Cowboys have won multiple Super Bowls. His Lakers are the reigning NBA champs. And his Dodgers are on their way to the post-season.
So as I read the forums in The Plain Dealer and the Beacon Journal online, commiserating with other bad decision-makers, I think about what could have been...and I do find some amount of solace, even amongst a pathetic 0-3 start. The Chiefs are also 0-3. The A's will finish last in the American League West. And the Knicks are one of the most chaotic organizations in sports. The only thing that would comfort me more is to be able to sit at Shenanigans and watch the Browns squeeze out a win against the Bengals. That, and to be able to trade in my water for a beer when they don't.
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