Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
During my 30-plus years chronicling the Browns, the start of training camp mostly always was met with dread because it signaled the end of summer for me.
The calendar said otherwise, but the countless hours spent standing in 90-degree searing heat and observing the newest collection of guards, tight ends, defensive backs and whatnot ate up what was left of Cleveland’s short summer.
Unlike baseball’s timeless mantra of spring training – “hope springs eternal” -- an appropriate theme of the typical Browns training camp was “this is probably as good as it’s going to get.”
There were exceptions in the mid-1980s, of course. But in the expansion era, Browns training camps generally have been spot-on harbingers of the futility to follow.
A few images linger:
* Steve Zahursky, a right tackle, getting exclusive tutoring for three days from not one but two offensive line coaches. Zahursky was the only offensive lineman who reported to coach Chris Palmer’s three-day rookie camp prior to the start of the full training camp in 2000.
* Wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Donte Stallworth frolicking between drills at Romeo Crennel’s 2008 camp, resulting in Stallworth stepping on Edwards’ bare right foot with his football cleat, nearly tearing Edwards’ Achilles tendon. The grandfatherly Crennel would observe, “Kids will be kids.”
* Rookie center Alex Mack sprinting laps around the vast circumference of the practice fields as coach Eric Mangini’s punishment for suffering yet another mental or physical mistake in the 2009 camp.
* Behemoth defensive tackle Shaun Rogers slow motion-lollygagging around the fields at same camp for jumping offsides. Rogers’ unofficial lap time was recorded by ancient sun dial.
* Coach Mike Pettine bracing for a bucket of ice water dumped on his head and then challenging mentor Rex Ryan to do the same in the Ice Bucket Challenge at the 2016 camp.
* Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams taunting offensive coordinator Todd Haley for complaining about Baker Mayfield getting hit in a drill, prompting coach Hue Jackson to step in like a boxing referee and send both men to their corners.
But enough about the bad ole days.
Things are changing.
Anticipation: Because of limited seating capacity at their year-round team practice facility, the Browns for a number of years have required fans to register on their team Website for free tickets to attend training camp.
Last week, approximately all 60,000 tickets for the 15 open practices were claimed in about two hours.
The last time I saw such frenzied anticipation for a Browns training camp was in 1985 when quarterback Bernie Kosar of Boardman, OH, stirred the Sleeping Giant by finagling the NFL draft rules to play for his home-state team.
Back then, camp was held at spacious Lakeland Community College in Mentor and fans surrounded the practice fields 10,000-strong on weekends. They were rewarded with the first of five consecutive playoff seasons.
Back to the future: The flash crowds in 1985 were more the result of curiosity about Kosar than playoff expectations.
This is different.
What’s happening is a hype driven by the emergence last season of fiery quarterback Baker Mayfield, the replacement of sad-sack Jackson with homespun Freddie Kitchens, a roster of certifiable playmakers assembled by GM John Dorsey, the trade for social media superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and the declaration by NFL schedule-makers and Las Vegas sports books that the Browns are Super Bowl contenders for the first time in two generations.
So let’s get this journey started already.
Here are five things I’m looking forward to at Browns training camp:
5. How the kicking situation plays out. One of the young kickers – incumbent Greg Joseph or fifth-round draft choice Austin Seibert of Mayfield’s Oklahoma University team – has to come through for this team to realize its vast potential. We saw last year what unsteady kicking did to the Chicago Bears. That disaster must be avoided here.
4. A spark from the special teams. When Browns special teams were real good, they had an ignitor – Josh Cribbs. A return specialist can light a fire to the entire team and the stadium. I can see Antonio Callaway being that spark.
3. The impact of the key new defensive players -- Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson, Greedy Williams, Morgan Burnett, Eric Murray, Jermaine Whitehead, and new coordinator Steve Wilks. We may not see whether the team will tackle better until the games start counting, but improved speed should be obvious in camp.
2. Development of a loaded offense, the likes of which we haven’t witnessed in 20 years of Browns expansion. With Mayfield, Beckham, Jarvis Landry and the other receivers, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, tight end David Njoku, a highly competent offensive line, Kitchens calling the plays alongside new coordinator Todd Monken, this offense should expect to score points every time it has the ball.
1. The excitement of the fans and just the overall buzz of camp, and how the new players, particularly Beckham and Vernon, react to it.
Nobody in the Browns building with the exception of Kevin Mack, the 1980s running back and current alumni director, really has a clue about what’s in store.