CLEVELAND -- I've been in town for about 48 hours, and already six people have told me about Scott Entsminger. Dozens more have emailed me. You want to know how we feel about the Browns? Scott Entsminger is your answer. That's what everyone tells me.
Scott Entsminger was from Mansfield, about 80 miles southwest of Cleveland, and he worked for General Motors for 32 years before recently retiring. He loved to garden, and to fish, and he played guitar with some friends in a band called the Old Fogies Band. He had a wife, and a teenage son, and three dogs. And he died on July 4 of this year, at the young age of 55.
His obituary is a fairly standard one -- it's where I gathered all that information above -- except for two sentences:
A lifelong Cleveland Browns fan and season ticket holder, he also wrote a song each year and sent it to the Cleveland Browns as well as offering other advice on how to run the team. He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pallbearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.
On Legacy.com, you're allowed to comment on obituaries in a separate Guest Book section. (Note to my kin: Please do not attach a comment section to my obituary.) Entsminger's page goes on and on, 153 entries, almost all of them Browns fans, laughing with this dead man they never met, sharing their own memories of this franchise that's determined to follow and haunt them into the grave and beyond. You can sorta tell reading all the entries: This is how they think they're gonna go too. This is what it's like to be a Browns fan.
FirstEnergy Stadium, as any Browns fan will tell you, is nothing like Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and even though they say that as a compliment to the stadium, you can tell they really think it's an insult, or at least a shame. There's nothing wrong with FirstEnergy Stadium: It's perfectly clean and safe and has decent sightlines from wherever you sit. (Joe Posnanski, writing of Cleveland Municipal, once wrote, "Municipal was uniquely designed so that no matter how many people attended, every person had a view blocked by a steel beam.") But there's nothing special about it either. It is fairly standard issue, built out at the exact angle that allows the noise to escape and blocks any view of the Erie waterfront. It's fine. It's also nothing. It's Standard Generic Stadium.
Browns fans deserve more than Standard Generic Stadium, and they know it. But then again, this is the central conflict of today's Cleveland Browns: They are a replacement for, a symbol toward and a simulacrum of a franchise that meant everything to this city … but they're not exactly that old franchise. These Cleveland Browns are a monument to the old Browns, but they're not the old Browns. For the sake of continuity, convenience and civic clarity, these Browns share a name, and a record book, and a fanbase with those old Browns. Their fans share memories between the two, and they've decided to connect them, to pretend that it's all seamless, to pretend that 1996-98 never happened. But they're not the same thing. The Cleveland Browns are a cover band making inferior music. They're an avatar. They're Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, desperately trying to remake Kim Novak back into Madeleine.
These Cleveland Browns -- these new ones -- began expansion play in 1999. They lost their first game 43-0 to Pittsburgh. They've had the second-worst record in the NFL since they came into existence -- or re-existence -- and they've only played one playoff game, a loss to the Steelers. (FirstEnergy Stadium is the only current NFL stadium that has never hosted a playoff game.) Their career touchdown leader in this incarnation, amazingly, is Braylon Edwards. This is a dreadful franchise.
The old Browns were not dreadful. They were painful, to be sure: They seemed to exist, particularly in the Super Bowl era, solely to yank away the dreams of their fans at the last possible second. They were cruel, really. But they were not dreadful. They were not irrelevant. They were not this. The current Cleveland Browns don't rise to the level of painful. They are just lousy, in a boring way. Think of it this way: If, say, San Antonio had gotten an expansion team in 1999 rather than Cleveland, and gotten off to this sort of start, would they have any fans left? Would their stands be even half full? And yet there are the Browns fans, totaling 67,000 a game, out there at their boring stadium screaming for their boring team, as if it means anything, as if any other football fanbase in the country would even bother. They cheer for these imposters, they make them theirs, in a way this franchise does not deserve.
The Cleveland Browns are ennobled by their fans. Their fans are the only reason they matter.
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Thanks to my friends at great Cleveland sports blog Waiting For Next Year, I ended up sitting in the Dawg Pound for the Browns' game against the Dolphins this past Sunday. As everyone I've told this to has informed me since I left the stadium, though, I didn't really sit in the Dawg Pound. Not the real one.
My Dawg Pound was friendly. It was loud, sure, and spirited, and featured an inordinate amount of Brandon Weeden cursing. There were a couple of guys who had a little too much to drink, the sort of guys you give a wide berth to, just in case. I had good seats, and everyone was really into the game. But it wasn't dangerous, it wasn't crazy, it wasn't the old Browns. Heck, I only saw a couple of masks.
But that shouldn't be meant to imply that there was less devotion from the fans. Even through a dull, 7-6 first half, even through a total offensive breakdown in the second half, Browns fans were yelling and hooting and cursing and all of it. It's a different kind of cheering than I see at other places: This is almost preemptive cheering, a noise for its own sake, to signify that we're going to yell for this team even if we know it's stupid, even if we know it won't make a difference. It hasn't worked before, it won't work now, but dammit, we're doing it anyway.
That noise, that devotion … it is the only thing the Cleveland Browns franchise, this current version, has going for it. The fans here have decided, in the face of logic (as all great decisions in the name of fandom are), to connect those old grand Browns with these new sad ones, and the Browns reap all the benefits. Without that fanbase, the Browns are nothing. With it, they can be everything.
No one should care about these Cleveland Browns. With their old lousy Lerner family owners, with their new owner Jimmy Haslam, an optimistic guy trying to change things but a little saddled with, oh, a wide-ranging FBI investigation. With their nice but bland stadium. With their bad quarterback, with their wasting of an all-world left tackle and a potentially superstar running back. With their no home playoff games, with their no hope. There's no reason anyone should care enough to even expect to let down by the Browns.
But there they all are, 67,000 strong, filling the stands, putting this team before all else, making their last statement on this earth a self-deprecating joke about their stupid devotion to this stupid team. The Browns don't deserve the fans they have. But have them they do. Someday, God and Scott Entsminger willing, they'll actually do something with them. They'll actually make it all worth their while.