Lost generation? Browns need to hit on draft to stop erosion of loyal fan base

Ted Brink's cemetery is in his downtown Cleveland apartment.

He calls it a "graveyard of old jerseys," orange, brown and white with numbers and names of Cleveland Browns players no longer relevant to a team struggling to win, one coming off the worst season in its history.

The count:

Two Johnny Manziels.

A couple of Trent Richardsons.

A Joe Haden of the old jersey style.

A bunch of T-shirts of players long gone.

As he explains his collection of irrelevance, Brink wears a Jamie Meder jersey and sits next to his father, Bill, who wears his Jim Brown jersey. Little could represent the city's NFL team better. A man who grew up with the Browns in their heyday watching the NFL's greatest player, and his son whose element of pride is an undrafted free-agent defensive lineman who grew up in Parma Heights, just south of Cleveland.

The Brinks speak of their longtime passion and support for the Browns, and their growing frustration and disappointment. In many ways they are emblematic of the team's fan base, which refuses to abandon the team even in the worst of times, and even when that worst of times lasts for years.

The Brinks are loyal, dedicated, passionate and supportive, to the point that they stay for every play of every game they attend as season-ticket holders. Yet they have seen one playoff game since 1999 and watched as the Browns have gone nine years with a losing record, with at least 11 losses in eight of those seasons.

Bill lives and works in suburban Rocky River, where he is the property manager for a shopping center and part owner with his wife, Debbie, of a store where she makes and sells her own soaps, lotions and body-care items. Ted works in sales at an IT company on the city's east side.

They are the people the team has to consider as it prepares to make the first pick in the draft at the end of the month. They represent a fan base that has not given up, but whose faith has been shaken.

"My generation is like a lost generation of Browns fans almost," Ted said. "I always joke with my dad about the Ring of Honor. 'Oh great, they're honoring another dead guy from 10 years ago.' Awesome. I can't wait for when I'm 40, and they bring Joe Thomas and Phil Dawson -- and nobody else."

Browns ownership gets it.

"Everybody in the organization, from [wife] Dee and I on, understand the importance really of this year's draft and next year's draft, too," Jimmy Haslam said at the NFL's annual meetings. "Rebuilding the team and giving the fans the kind of team that they deserve."

Splintered connection

Bill has had season tickets since 1980, the era of Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids. As a child, he would stack up the couch cushions in the living room of his Fairview Park home on Cleveland's west side and dive over them.

"I'd be watching the game on the black and white [television] and then be Jim Brown over the pile," Bill said.

His father died of colon cancer when he was 6, but Bill had an uncle who took him to games and showed him what the Browns mean to the city. The day after his first marriage, Bill and his wife had breakfast at The Big Egg, a Cleveland landmark, then watched Sipe and Dave Logan connect for a 46-yard touchdown in a 26-21 win over the Green Bay Packers. They didn't leave for their honeymoon until after the game.

"My generation is like a lost generation of Browns fans almost. I always joke with my dad about the Ring of Honor. 'Oh great, they're honoring another dead guy from 10 years ago.' Awesome. I can't wait for when I'm 40, and they bring Joe Thomas and Phil Dawson -- and nobody else." Ted Brink
Browns season-ticket holder

Bill sat in the original Dawg Pound -- the east end-zone bleachers -- and bought two season tickets in 1981. He kept those until the team's move in 1995 and was as emotional as anyone for the team's last game. At that point, there was no agreement to bring the team back; the city thought it was losing its beloved Browns.

"Last game, second half," Ted said. "He whips out this drywall saw and wrench, and he just starts sawing away at the bleachers. I'm like 5, and I'm not sure what to do. I'm like, 'Dad, is that legal? Can you do that?'

"He stops and looks at me, and he says, 'Son, there are some things that are legal, and there are some things that are plain right.' And he went back to sawing away at it.

"To this day, 22 years later, that's the most memorable thing I have from a Browns game. I don't want to romanticize about it, but they were taking the team, and we were taking something of ours."

Bill brings the section of bleachers with him, a faded patch of blue paint still visible on the front of what is basically a 2-by-10 wood board with seat numbers. When the city tore down what was left of Municipal Stadium, fans were allowed on the field. Bill took Ted to a particular spot in the east end zone.

"He drops to a knee -- he drops to a knee! -- scratches a piece of dirt and says, 'Ted, this is where Red Right 88 happened,'" Ted said. "You would have thought Jesus was born there or something."

"Red Right 88" preceded "The Drive" and "The Fumble" in the Browns' litany of misfortune and malaprops. That was the playcall that resulted in Sipe's last-minute pass in bitter cold being intercepted by the Oakland Raiders' Mike Davis to end the Kardiac season. With the shell of the stadium surrounding him, Bill cut off a section of grass from the spot, put it in a foam cup, took it home and kept it alive as long as he could.

When the team returned in 1999, Bill took his kids to the Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Browns' official return to the field. Bill bought six season tickets in the bleachers, near his old ones, and four more in the northwest corner of what is now FirstEnergy Stadium. The seats are on the club level, but the final sections near the end of the stands are not considered club seats, so they get the better view without the extra cost.

That led to them watching 16 losing seasons out of 18 total and 26 starting quarterbacks. To seeing one playoff appearance, nine coaches and 88 wins -- fewer than five per season.

It also led to their experience with "the stairs."

Near the Brinks' section was a stairway. Before the game, those who sat near them would enter the gates, make a quick turn, go up a stairway and walk out right by their section. After the game, they'd walk down, turn right and leave.

It was easy in, easy out -- one small convenience during miserable football.

But when the 2015 season began, the stairwell was blocked, a decision made by the team as it worked to generate revenue and give fans willing to pay more closer access to special moments. For that season the Browns opened Club 46, a bar that sits opposite the team's locker-room door. Fans who paid $6,250 for a season ticket would get, according to the team's website, great lower-level seats, VIP parking, private restrooms, high-end food and beverage that was all-inclusive, and a private entrance.

Except that VIP entrance was the stairwell that the Brinks and those who sat near them used. So that stairwell initially was limited to Club 46 members only.

"The Browns thought it was just too bad for the regular people to use those stairs," Ted said. "So for 110 people they closed off the stairs for a couple thousand. ... We were the people in the Titanic where they shut the chain door. We were third class."

Bill called to complain -- he is not shy about using his voice -- and the stairs were opened after the game. And they remain open.

'You. Clearly. Don't. Get. Us.'

The Browns' decision reflects the trend in not just the NFL but in all sports to try to find revenue where it previously didn't exist. Before Club 46 was built, that section of the stadium was empty and unused space. The Browns turned it into a space where fans got special access and sold out the spot before the 2015 season started.

The Brinks, though, view themselves as the heartbeat of the Browns' support. They've been to games for years. They watched bad season after bad season. Then they temporarily lost their easy entry and exit to a more elite-level ticket purchaser. Jerry Jones started the revenue trend in Dallas, but the Brinks say that Cleveland isn't Dallas. Cleveland is blue-collar. It wants good football, first and foremost.

"We were all like, 'You. Clearly. Don't. Get. Us.'" Ted said.

"If you think about it -- and I know this is probably not something I'm supposed to say -- Art Modell was a Brown," Bill said. "He loved that team. Jimmy Haslam, this is a business write-off. He's trying to maximize his return. I can feel that. You can feel it from the attitude of everybody.

"After that incident happened, I started getting calls about getting 30 percent off my concessions for a week."

He viewed those calls as pandering to a loyal customer.

"We're very big on you getting us, you getting Cleveland," Ted said. "Stuff like that, you don't get us, you're not relating to us if you just don't see that in a city like Cleveland that you're closing off a stairway so a few people can get down when people who have been there 35 years can't.

"It's like, the team sucks. The experience sucks. You get a mug and a hat for being there every year. That's when we started having conversations about the future."

The Haslams have worked hard to become a part of the Cleveland community, and to understand it. Their efforts in supporting Cleveland schools have been noteworthy, as Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, pointed out. Gordon ticked through a list of contributions the Haslams have made -- from paying more than $5 million to rebuild five city football fields to waking up one morning and saying they would pay for scoreboards as well because, they told Gordon, there were none and a field needed a scoreboard.

Gordon also mentioned the Haslams' help in providing money so kids who can't afford school uniforms and clothes have them -- studies show a direct corollary between attendance and having the proper clothes. Gordon called the Haslams the school district's "signature partner" in working to solve that absentee issue. The Browns also have partnered to support an individual school, as well as spent days building playgrounds for schools that lack them.

"I could go on and on and on about the contributions, not just from the foundation they have with the Browns but in their personal investment as the Haslams." Gordon said. "There is a story to be told there. Frankly they have been a little quiet and humble about it, but that is part of their strategy. They are dedicated to having a winning team, providing an incredible fan experience, and doing whatever they can to make a huge investment in this city.

"That's not lip service."

They also OK'd committing more than $109 million to three key free agents this offseason and to spending $16 million for quarterback Brock Osweiler so the team could add another second-round draft pick. They have turned the team's culture and on-field decisions to coach Hue Jackson, whose belief in ownership is unwavering.

"We're really grateful to our fans," Dee Haslam said. "That's one thing about Cleveland fans, is they stick by their team. We admire that loyalty and greatly appreciate it. We're humbled by it."

They point to the next two drafts as key touchstones for the building of the team. The Browns have 10 picks in the first three rounds of 2017 and 2018.

"We're really excited," Dee Haslam said. "I mean really, really excited. You would never know in our building that [we had] the season we had last year. It's pretty amazing. You guys are there some, and you feel the energy. The closer it gets to the draft, the more energetic it gets, and [player personnel director] Andrew [Berry] definitely knows that. ... We're confident. We really are. We're real excited and very confident that it's going to be a good draft, and we have a lot of draft picks the next two years, so it makes a big difference."

The Haslams, like everyone, understand losing casts a giant shadow. But they say ticket sales for 2017 are ahead of expectations.

"The resilience and support of our fans has been tremendous," Jimmy Haslam said.

A frustrating reality

The Brinks mention happenings that chip away at that belief.

Ted was front and center cheering on NFL Network when Johnny Manziel's name was announced on draft day; he now scoffs at "Billy Manziel" going to Las Vegas the last weekend of his Browns tenure. Ted also brings up the "Kick Six" game when the Baltimore Ravens won on Thursday night by returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown on the game's final play. Bill talks about the former "Saturday Night Live" band led by G.E. Smith hired by Randy Lerner to play during timeouts. He mentions other things he calls "silliness," like dog races at halftime and the drum corps.

"You sit in a stadium, and it's half full, and the third-down guy is like, 'It's third down,'" Ted said. "We're like, yeah, yeah."

The "third-down guy" reflects the modern era, where enthusiasm is generated. In the era when the Browns were truly good, the fans didn't need to be told it was third down.

"I'm there to watch good football and have a good fan experience and have our fans there, not Steelers fans or Cowboys fans," Ted said.

At the "Kick Six" game, Ted brought a special prop.

"Obviously, the team is terrible, and Johnny is a joke, and [Mike] Pettine is getting canned, and we're losing the last four or five games like every year," Ted said. "I wore a bag that read: 'We bark together.' Put it on in the third quarter."

It is not Browns policy to eliminate those kinds of fan statements, but on this night a security guard came up and told Ted he had to remove it.

"My dad lost it," Ted said. "I remember what he said, too. 'You know what -- no, he's not going to take it off. This is America. If he wants to wear that bag, he's going to wear that bag. If you take it off, I will sue you. I have been a season-ticket holder for 35 years, and I will sue you.'

"She just about-faced and went right back down the steps."

What's worth keeping in mind is, these are two fans who do not see the Browns as a lost cause. They desperately want to root for the team and desperately want a reason to believe in their team. They support all Cleveland sports -- Ted also has Cleveland Cavaliers tickets -- and have reached the point where they would almost beg for a winning NFL team. As Ted said, "The passion is still deep in there."

Adds Bill: "You always thought, as soon as I give up my tickets they're going to go to the playoffs. I'm 63. Three, four, five years, what's it going to take the Browns to develop? Now, we're getting into my upper 60s. Am I going to want to sit out in the cold? I hope to be hard-core until I'm 90, but you start thinking, am I really going to want to go down there that often and deal with all this?"

"It all comes down to principle and nostalgia," Ted said.

Principle that a fan should always stand by his team. Nostalgia for the days of Paul Brown and Jim Brown and Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar.

As the Brinks speak about the present team, they speak highly of Jackson and vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, whom Ted calls a steady voice in the front office.

"Hue could parade naked through the street, and if they don't give him five years, then they're just doing it wrong," Ted said. "We're not getting a better coach."

They admit that losing exaggerates issues, and readily concede that winning will change things. But they wonder how much longer they have to wait for wins.

"Me and my friends, it starts out strong every year," Ted said. "We're down at the muni-lot, Everyone is there having a good time. By the end I'm trying to scrap and claw to find a couple buddies to get down there."

His main feeling now?

"I think it's a cautious realism and a lot of apathy," Ted said. "I'm not going to be let down. I don't let myself get excited anymore. I just assume it's going to go wrong, and if it starts to go right, I'll start to dip my toe in and maybe get my hopes up, but also be wary when this whole thing is going to come crashing down again."

When he was with the Browns, former general manager Phil Savage took free-agent cornerback Gary Baxter on a tour of the facility. He pointed out photos of the team's history, most dealing with Otto Graham and Jim Brown and Paul Brown. Savage pointed out the photos were all black and white; the team needed to add some color ones.

The Brinks are living color representatives of Browns fans in 2017.

"We have the 2007 Browns," Ted said. "Which are my version of the '72 Dolphins the way I think of them."

The 1972 Dolphins are the only undefeated team in NFL history. The '07 Browns went 10-6 but blew a chance to make the playoffs by losing in Cincinnati in the second-to-last game of the season.