30 Years After “The Drive”

Thirty years ago, yesterday, UJ and I and two of our friends were sitting in our seats in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, watching the AFC championship game and hoping that the Browns would finally make it to the Super Bowl.

It was the first year after Kish and I had moved back to Ohio from Washington, D.C., and UJ and I decided to spring for season tickets to the Browns.  To our delight, the team — led by Bernie Kosar, Ozzie Newsome, two great running backs, some very good receivers, a defense that would bend but not break, and an indomitable coach, Marty Schottenheimer — turned out to be really good.  We saw some great wins during the regular season, and the Browns had won an improbable, come from behind, overtime thriller playoff game against the Jets the week before.  Now, on a cold day on the Cleveland lakefront, the Browns were playing the Denver Broncos for the AFC slot in the Super Bowl.

plain-dealer-front-page-the-drive-41646014a33b632eOf course, just as the Browns seemed to be on the cusp of victory that day, “The Drive” happened, and the hopes of the team and Browns fans the world over were crushed.  It’s a story that has almost become the stuff of legend — which is why you can find Cleveland newspapers and, of course, the Denver Broncos website remembering it, 30 years later — and it is always mentioned, bitterly, when people talk about the horrors of Cleveland sports fans over the past half century.

I didn’t realize that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of “The Drive” until one of the guys I went to the game with mentioned it.  I groaned when he did, because I had no interest in ever thinking about that game again, and I expected to experience that familiar hot blast of pain and frustration that always bubbles up whenever I remember that game — but to my surprise my reaction yesterday really wasn’t all that bad.  It’s almost as if the Cavs’ NBA championship win last year, and the passage of three decades, have taken the pitchforks out of the demons’ hands that are lurking in my Cleveland sports fan subconscious and replaced them with something softer that can produce a twinge of regret, but not the torment and angst that once seemed to be everlasting.

They say that time heals all wounds.  Maybe it’s true, even for sports fans.

Advertisements

Daring To Hope

This is for the Cleveland sports fans out there.  Anyone else is welcome to read it, but they won’t really fully understand it.  They can’t.

I know how you’re feeling.  You want to buy in to the Cavs, full-bore and without reservation, and go into the game tonight with supreme confidence that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and the other members of the Wine and Gold can win and pull off the most improbable comeback ever and, for the first time in NBA history, bring a team back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship.

141204-clenyk-11But something’s holding you back.  We Cleveland sports fans don’t like to admit it, but it’s fear, and also guilt.  Fear, because we feel like we’ve seen this story before, and when we open our hearts to one of the Cleveland teams, our hearts always get broken.  I don’t need to recount all of those instances to you, because they’re engraved on our very souls.  The saying is “once bitten, twice shy,” and we’ve experienced that a hundred times over, to the point where we’re cowering in the corner when our teams do well or hardening our hearts by predicting failure in advance, thinking that if we do so and failure does come it won’t hurt quite so much.  That doesn’t work, by the way, because even under the hard, calculated public veneer there always lurks a delicate blossom of hope, fresh and unguarded, ready to be crushed anew.

Everyone — even non-Cleveland fans — can understand the fear component.  What they don’t get is the weird sense of guilt.  Every Cleveland sports fan I know personalizes the losses and believes, deep in the pit of their being, that they honestly are the cause of 52 years of misery.  Maybe it’s because they watched the game on TV, or because they didn’t.  Maybe it’s because they didn’t wear the right shirt, or because they didn’t go to church, or because they feel that they haven’t always been a good person.  I guarantee that, as I write this, hundreds of Cleveland fans are doing nice things for their spouses and kids and friends and are hoping that their good deeds might cause the cosmic tumblers to click into place for the Cleveland sports team, just this once.

It’s the professional sports version of the Butterfly Effect.  We know that we can jinx the Cavs because we have jinxed the Cleveland teams in the past, over and over again.  We routinely get accused of jinxing by our friends and family.  (I’m looking at you, UJ!)  I’m probably jinxing things by writing this, or I would have jinxed things by not writing it.

So we live our lives by these curious rules that make us watch games from a particular chair or eat a particular snack or send text messages to particular friends, hoping that we don’t do or say anything that brings it all crashing down around our heads.  We’re so bound up by our superstitions and fears and guilts that we can’t just enjoy it, ever.

I can’t change you, any more than I can change myself.  It’s just how I am, and it’s how we all are.  Because we’re all in this together, aren’t we?  We Cleveland sports fans are linked together in ways that fans of successful franchises can’t possibly imagine.

So, I wanted to wish all of my fellow Cleveland fans well, and tell you that I’m all in.

Believeland

ESPN has a new one of its “30 for 30″programs out.  It’s called Believeland, and it’s about (gulp) professional sports in Cleveland.

Russell and I were talking about it the other day, and he asked if I had watched it.  And I had — at least, the very first part.  But when we got to The Drive, and I knew that The Fumble would be close behind, and then I would have to re-live the Indians’ World Series losses and Michael Jordan’s shot to beat the Cavs and the Browns leaving to go to Baltimore, I switched it off.  It was just too painful to watch all of that crap, again.  Living through it once and feeling like you have been not only utterly forsaken, but also the object of affirmative torture by the sports gods, was more than enough.

il_214x170-890063290_27m0I was kind of embarrassed to admit this to Russell, who also is a Cleveland sports fan.  But Dads who are sports fans have to be honest with their kids about it.  There’s good in being a sports fan, but there’s also a lot of pain and angst and feeling like an idiot because you care so much about a team that you can’t sleep when they lose a big game and sometimes you admit in candor that a bad loss will not only wreck your day, but also wreck your month or even your year, and that there are some bad things that happened — like those mentioned in the preceding paragraph — that will haunt you for the rest of your days until you go toes up.

Interestingly, Russell said he enjoyed the program, because he hadn’t lived through it, and he felt it gave him an understanding of Cleveland and its beleaguered fans that he just hadn’t had before.  It was educational, rather than painful.  And maybe that’s the right way to look at it.  Maybe, until that glorious day in 2137 when a Cleveland team finally wins another world championship, every Dad or Mom who indoctrinates his child into the brotherhood of Cleveland sports fanship should sit that child down in front of the TV, make them watch Believeland, and then ask the crucial question:

Are you sure you’re ready for this?

My Momentous Sports Fanship Decision

Having given the matter careful thought, I’ve reached a momentous decision.  After decades of complete commitment to Cleveland sports teams, I am declaring myself a free agent.  Persistence in the face of unrelieved failure is not a virtue!  Perhaps I’ve simply had more gut-wrenching losses and humiliatingly dismal seasons than a person should be expected to bear.  You can decide for yourself.

Akron, Ohio, the place of my birth, falls squarely within the Cleveland sports orbit.  Parentage and pedigree played a role, too, as my parents and grandparents were all Cleveland sports fans.  Rabid support for the Browns and the Tribe was a kind of birthright for the boys in our family.  I gladly participated, going to Indians games with my grandparents and watching the Browns with UJ on autumn Sundays.  Little did I know that, during those hopeful days of the late ’60s, I was signing on to a lifelong commitment that, for more than four decades, would not be rewarded with a championship.

Free agency feels funny.  Of course, I’ll have to figure out which teams to root for now.  Or, perhaps, I’ll just let sports fandom go by the wayside for a while.  Laying off professional sports for a year might just do me good.  Surely, it would have a salutary impact on my blood pressure and reduce the number of instances where my outbursts disturb the dogs of our household.

Don’t doubt for a minute my decision to live a Browns-free and Tribe-free existence.  Although I’ve lived, and mostly died, with them for years, my commitment to professional sports free agency is total.  Yes, I can — I think!