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The Browns Are Back.

WHAT'S WORSE: being a man without a country or a football fan without a team? The latter travesty ends this year because the Browns are back in business.

When those beloved Browns hightailed it from Cleveland to Baltimore three years ago, it marked a sad watershed for professional football. Even in these modern-day times of unprecedented greed and gall, never had so successful an NFL franchise opted to abandon such a loyal city. Every football Sunday for nearly a half-century, Cleveland Municipal Stadium had been jam-packed with 80,000 of the best and truest fans the sport has ever known. Luckily for Browns' boosters, there were still a couple of years left on the lease when the club departed. So, as part of the deal brokered by the Cleveland city fathers and the league, turn coat owner Art Modell could move his club only if he left behind the team name, colors, and records. Moreover, Cleveland was assured of being awarded the next expansion franchise. The wait is over; the new Browns begin play this summer.

More important than the preservation of the team records, at least from a personal standpoint, is that the Browns' name and uniform have been preserved for Ohio. All the recent shifting of National Football League franchises has resulted in the absurdity of clubs taking their helmet logos, uniforms, and nicknames to a new location.

In the Browns' case, however, the shift to Baltimore wrought the purple-clad Ravens. The expansion Browns will be dressed like their forefathers. This is vital since their attire is unique in NFL annals. For me, to a large degree at least, the team doesn't make the uniform, the uniform makes the team. The lone NFL franchise with a color for a nickname (although they technically are named after their founding owner and head coach, Paul Brown), the Browns nevertheless hardly ever play in brown jerseys. Instead, they wear white, sparsely trimmed in orange and brown. On their helmet, the Browns have no logo. This is true of no other club. Cleveland's headgear is orange, with a white stripe trimmed in brown on either side.

Pro football's unusual uniform roles allowed the Browns to be white for most games. Baseball, basketball, and hockey command that the home teams wear white and the road clubs wear dark. The NFL, however, permits the home team to pick. In the old days, practically every football club opted for colored jerseys at home, except for the Browns and Dallas Cowboys. Thus, Cleveland and Dallas selected white at home and had white chosen for them on the road. I always held my breath when they were to meet in the playoffs, wondering who'd get home-field advantage and the choice of colors.

(Coincidentally, my favorite college football team, Tennessee, also sports orange as one of its official colors, as do my baseball Giants. For years, the Volunteers, in a tradition exactly opposite that of the Browns, were the sole NCAA Division I team that wore colored jerseys at home and on the road. Their pale orange shirts and white, untrimmed numbers proved a significant enough contrast against practically all comers, even on a black-and-white television set. Moreover, like the Browns, the Vols have come tantalizing close to winning it all, again and again, only to leave a string of stinging setbacks in their wake.)

Foremost among the Browns' dismal defeats was the Cleveland catastrophe known as The Drive, engineered by Bronco quarterback John Elway. I sat in the end zone section renowned as the "Dawg Pound" on that snowy January, day in 1987, for what was to be the first of three straight AFC Championship game losses to Denver. (All told, the Browns came within one win of reaching the Super Bowl on five separate occasions, twice while in the old NFL and three times as members of the American Football Conference--following the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Even more maddening is the fact that each of Cleveland's captors went on to get dominated--not merely beaten--in the Super Bowl. I still maintain that Joe Namath and the New York Jets merely would be a sorry footnote in history had they faced Cleveland in 1969 instead of the Baltimore Colts.)

In the snow, the Browns went ahead of the Broncos with six minutes and change left on the fourth-quarter clock. Lake Erie shook from the celebratory roar. But even as Bernie Kosar's long touchdown pass had found its mark moments before, something made me look at the game clock instead of joining in the madness. Understand, as a New York kid who grew up rooting against all of Gotham's sporting entries, a friendly stadium going nuts for my side was something new. Cheering always had meant bitter defeat. Ghastly, disappointed silence from the home crowd was equated with sweet victory.

I did let out a brief scream of delight when Cleveland forged ahead, but the practical sportswriter inside me prevailed. I knew there were more than six minutes to go. The gnawing didn't dissipate on the ensuing kickoff, although all signs should have silenced my fears. Denver misplayed the kick and had to start on its three. Yet, Elway and the Broncos charged up the field, lickety-split, and tied the game. An overtime field goal ended it.

The winter air went right through me on the way to the car. I thought of all the other heartbreaking playoff losses I had witnessed on TV--and there were many. However, none matched this one, doubly so because I was there. The sad empty feeling I experienced that night as I drove back to New York never will go away completely, not until a championship banner finally waves over Cleveland. I should have known that a legacy of near-misses was to be my fate when the Browns lost the NFL title game to the Green Bay Packers in 1965, my first year rooting for them. Just the season before, Cleveland captured what is now its last championship in almost four decades with a shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts. But that memorable crown predated my allegiance by just a few months.

Today, though, Cleveland football fans are at ground zero---together. A new hierarchy of heartbreak may lie dead ahead or, better yet, gridiron glory will come to the Great Lakes once again.

Bring on the millennium: '00 World Champs has a great ring to it.

Mr. Barrett is Associate Editor of USA Today.
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Title Annotation:Cleveland Browns football club
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:It's Time to Recognize the Contributions of WOMEN INVENTORS.

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