YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — There is finally joy in Mudville this week.
After nearly 30 seasons of Cleveland Browns fans sharing an inescapable sense of disappointment and defeat, they finally found themselves staring down the improbable: defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs — and doing it in Heinz Field, no less.
Sunday’s win over their neighboring rival (a rivalry whose significance had diminished over the years because of the Browns’ string of abysmal losing seasons) marked the team’s first postseason win since the 1994 season.
In a year consumed with a deadly pandemic that has resulted in isolation and loss, separated us from our routines, jobs, traditions, loved ones, and community as riots and politics have scorched the earth, the win is a welcome distraction.
Just ask Wes Chandler, a fan so devoted he once spray painted his parent’s home brown and orange, how he feels about his team as they finally ended NFL’s longest active playoff drought in a year when it seemed nothing else was going well.
“With everything that has happened this year, no matter where you are or what position you have, everything seemed intent on trying to pull us apart. It was so nice to have those few hours when you could escape it all and be part of something good, something aspirational,” he explained.
“Well, unless you are a Steelers fan,” he deadpanned.
Chandler said for many Steelers fans, of which many are friends and neighbors, even in defeat, there is this sense of “we’ll get them next year,” a shared anticipation of next year’s matchup and rekindling that rivalry.
Most outsiders assume that Youngstown is the home of Browns fans, but several different factors actually make it a three-team city. It’s located 66 miles from Pittsburgh and 75 miles from Cleveland, so both teams share a split geographical robust fan base. “If you are from the south side of Youngstown, you are a Steelers fan — north side, Browns fan. And then there are the San Francisco 49ers fans, which is a thing because they are owned by members of the DeBartolo family who are legendary Youngstown natives,” Chandler said.
Bob Gall, who joined Chandler outside his home in suburban Youngstown, explains that getting young people to have a reason around here to be a Browns fan has been a challenge. “If you have a son or daughter, it’s kind of hard to get him to be a Browns fan because if you show them all these years — well, they have been losers forever,” Gall said. “So naturally, the Steelers got more attention around here, and it’d be easier to go for them because they’re winners.”
Gall said if you’re a Browns fan all these years and you stuck around, that says something about your resiliency and loyalty, “I think they’re the best fans going, because who else would stick around all these years of torment?”
Normally Chandler, who is in his yard flanked by Chomps, his larger-than-life inflatable version of the Browns Dawg Pound mascot, said without the pandemic he would have driven to Pittsburgh to watch the game at Heinz Field either in the stadium or at a tailgate, then driven from there to Cleveland to celebrate.
One day later, both Gall and Chandler are dressed in full Browns regalia.
“It’s just ironic that because of the COVID all year, there were no fans to be able to join and celebrate together. We finally get our team going, and we can’t enjoy it in the way we would traditionally celebrate,” said Chandler.
Chandler did watch the game with longtime friend Joe Cassese, whose family runs the legendary Mahoning Valley Restaurant (known as MVR to locals) in the Smoky Hollow neighborhood of Youngstown.
There is a photo in the MVR of Cassese that just might explain his devotion to the team: He is wearing an official Browns pullover, holding a whistle to his mouth while carrying a football surrounded by uniformed Browns players on the field. “I was the equipment manager,” he says laughing, adding that he came back home 13 years ago to Youngstown to serve at Youngstown State University, his alma mater, as their Director of Athletic Development — and to work in the family business.
“So, I’ll still go and help as needed as a ball boy, work on the sidelines, whatever it is. I have worked the majority of the games at Heinz Field for the last 15 or so years. And it’s always the same story. Go to the game. It’s an amazing feeling. You’re at the Browns-Steelers game, and the Steelers beat us in Pittsburgh. And when you go home laughing, saying, ‘Maybe next time,’” Cassese says of years of frustrated fandom.
“And so now here’s an opportunity where we actually could have been working games this year, and the Browns are winning, and it’s the irony, and instead we are sitting there in chairs last night thinking to ourselves, we could be working the sidelines of this game, and we’re not,” he said of the disappointment of not sharing the elation of his team’s victory.
There is a lot of legend, lore, and suffering associated with being a Browns fan. “There was ‘the drive’ and ‘the fumble,’ both of which happened in championship games with the Denver Broncos,” Chandler said. “Art Modell then moves the team, only for that same team to win the Super Bowl,” he says in a way that conveys how fresh and real the pain still is.
On Sunday, Rep. Tim Ryan said he wasn’t a member of Congress, he was just another long-suffering Browns fan watching a game with his brother. “You know, even though we took that big lead early, I know after talking to my friends and family, they all thought somehow how we’d blow it.” All of the Browns fans said they had a hard time believing they’d win the game even after they ran out to a 28-0 lead over the Steelers in just 13 minutes — the Browns went on to win 48-37.
Now Ryan says all he feels is part elation and part relief. “Especially given all of the things working against them going into the game,” he said, referring to head coach Kevin Stefanski and multiple players missing the game due to COVID-19.
Cleveland native Jim Tressel, the iconic Ohio State coach turned Youngstown State University president, has a unique way of watching NFL games. “I usually root for [the teams that] have some guys that I coached, so I was rooting for Cameron Heyward for the Steelers,” Tressel said. “But from a team standpoint, I was rooting for the Browns, and I always have. I grew up in Cleveland, and a special treat … was that the interim head coach that was taking the place of the coach that couldn’t coach the game was a young man that used to be on my staff here at Youngstown State,” he said of Browns interim head coach Mike Priefer, who was an assistant under Tressel in 1997 and 1998.
“I think that’s one of the fun things about sports and the arts is that moment that you can put behind you all the challenges of life, and they’ve been large this year, and you can just kind of escape into that excitement, get fired up about it, and you can just emote,” Tressel said. “You could be sure that people not just in Northeast Ohio, but because the Browns are a much older organization than the Bengals, really across the whole state were able to capture that excitement and carry that shared sense of being part of each other for a long time.”
Tressel concludes, “And after the year all of us have had, that is a good thing.”