Supporting the perennially hapless Cleveland Browns clearly has to be a labor of true love. To stand by their men, who have recorded just one win in their past 26 games, including none so far in their dreadful 2017 campaign, takes a special kind of devotion, so it's not without good reason that those die-hards who bleed orange and brown are often hailed for being as indomitable as their team is inept.
Yet if you think those local fans who attend the "Factory of Sadness" have it tough, just feel for those hardy souls scattered all over the world -- there are 45,000 registered members of the 331 Browns Backers clubs in 13 countries -- who still heroically keep the faith from afar. Well, this is their big week. With the Browns off to Twickenham Stadium, the home of English rugby, for their NFL International Series game against the Minnesota Vikings, some of their longest-suffering overseas fans have dug deep into their pockets to jet in from all over Europe to attend.
We listened to the stories of long-suffering fans from Norway, Iceland, Italy, Switzerland and Great Britain who'll be in London for Sunday's game, as well as the president of the Browns' most distant fan club, the man who's barking "Go Browns!" as he gets ready for a night of celebration in Australia should they finally break into the win column.
Ryan Urbon, Reykjavik, Iceland (2,800 miles from Cleveland)
Seven years ago, Ryan Urbon, a lifelong Browns fan from Akron, Ohio, was at a game with a buddy when a life-changing conversation took place.
"Suddenly he turns to me and says, 'Hey, you know, we really need to go to Iceland; I hear they have the hottest chicks. Come on, we need to check it out,'" Urbon recalled. "So after I Googled it, we decided to go on an awesome holiday there, and what do you know? I met a girl there on the first night in Reykjavik, ended up dating her and moved there a year later."
That relationship may have ended, but his love affair with the Browns only blossomed while he built up his travel business on the Atlantic island a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
"I'm part fan, part missionary, trying to teach Icelanders the rules of a game that nobody understands while at the same time spreading the good word of the Browns," explained the 28-year-old.
Four years ago, he formed the Icelandic branch of the Browns Backers. Each Sunday, he organizes a screening with a bunch of chums at Dillon Whiskey Bar in downtown Reykjavik.
"We can get about 25 people watching a game on a good day -- er, even if there aren't many good days for the Browns -- including 15 Icelandic members," Urbon said. "It can get crazy. This place has the best happy hour in Iceland -- yes, happy hours and the Browns can go together -- but they do kind of suck more than ever at the moment and it's such a downer that a lot of my mates just don't care to come out anymore."
There is one consolation, though: "As the game is done by 8:30 p.m., 9, it gives us a couple of hours' drowning-our-sorrows time."
Steve Maybury, London, UK (3,740 miles from Cleveland)
This is a big week for Steve Maybury, a founding member of the British chapter of the Browns Backers. The team he loves is finally returning to his London manor again. Maybury was there at Wembley Stadium back in 1989 for the old exhibition American Bowl contest between the Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles -- "Guess what? They lost," he said with a smile. Twenty-eight years on, the 53-year-old finds himself hosting visiting fans from around the world for Sunday's game at Twickenham as president of the 135-strong British Bulldawgs fan club.
They normally meet weekly to watch the Browns in a casino in the heart of London's West End. It used to be largely U.S. expats, but these days it's 80 percent British fans, including "a couple of city workers, a paramedic, someone from the BBC, highly connected U.S. businessmen ... a very varied crew," Maybury said.
Yet why would any new recruits from all around Britain and Ireland plump to follow a lost cause?
"I think part of it is the British love of the underdog," pondered Maybury, who reckons he must be a sucker for double punishment as a supporter of Southend United, a similarly unsuccessful third-tier English league soccer club. "There's a tradition aspect, too. The Browns are a grand old traditional franchise, like the Packers, with great fans. Who wouldn't prefer to support a team like that rather than one of the glory sides like the Cowboys or Raiders?"
Steve figures he and wife, Jane, have forked out thousands of pounds to travel to Cleveland and other NFL cities to watch the Browns in 25 games through the years.
"That probably does make me sound like a sad anorak -- and most of my friends would probably agree," he said with a shrug.
What memories, though. "I even went over for the opening day of the new franchise in 1999 against the Steelers," he said. "What a great day! And then the game started -- and we got killed 43-0."
Christoffer Becker, Oslo, Norway, (3,880 miles from Cleveland)
It was the lure of the great American road trip that eventually led Norwegian Christoffer Becker to bring the Browns back to the Land of the Midnight Sun.
"I'd had this dream of driving through as many U.S. states as possible," said Becker, 45, who works in international wine retailing. "So back in 1996, I saved up, bought this crappy Dodge Aspen '78 sports edition without air conditioning for $500, then rambled through 39 states before I found a summer flame in Cleveland. So I got stuck there. It was a fling thing."
But his love for the football team he found there was the real thing, just like his soon-to-be-acquired "hatred of the Steelers with those terrible yellow towels." Back in Norway, and after a brief career as a professional soccer player with Valerenga, Becker eventually launched the Browns Backers of Scandinavia, a small but merry band from as far afield as Estonia, Sweden and Denmark. When the group gathers to watch games -- usually in Oslo, but once 800 miles away at a bar in Bodo, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle -- black humor abounds.
"It's like we're all watching an episode of 'Blackadder'; we always start off with the best of intentions and positivity but it soon goes wrong and gets very silly. Take the first drive of the season; everybody's talking about a fresh start, then a horrendous mistake on a punt leads to a Steelers touchdown and the pub is already groaning 'here we go again' -- and the season's only two minutes old!"
On one visit back to Cleveland, he met Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to sign "a crazy Norwegian placekicker called Kickalicious [Havard Rugland]." Never mind. There were, laughed Christoffer, still more crazy Norwegians out there who found it "kind of cool to support such a team through thin and thin."
Stefan Willi, Winterthur, Switzerland (4,220 miles from Cleveland)
Stefan Willi still remembers how his father, who had worked for six months for a company in Cleveland that made aircraft engines, returned home to Switzerland in 1991 with a Browns cap for a wide-eyed 9-year-old boy.
"I was hooked from then," Willi, now 35, said. "My father had friends there who'd send newspaper clippings and videos about the Browns, and I'd follow them even though it was then really hard to watch football in Europe at 2 a.m. with just one station in Germany showing maybe four games a year."
He set up the Zurich branch of the Browns Backers, which now has five members -- three from his family and another Swiss guy -- "Patrick from Berne, who watched them on TV, loved the brown-and-orange color combination and decided he must follow them."
Willi, a project engineer for a company that builds trains, played tight end for his local Winterthur Warriors team, 15 miles from Zurich, before going on to coach the youth side.
"The kids are between 16 and 19 and support the fashionable, successful teams like the Patriots," he said. "They make fun of me, but when they hear I'm a fan before they were even born, they say, 'You're crazy, but you must have it deep in your heart to always suffer with them.' I can tell them, 'Actually, we used to be quite good.'"
Since 2012, Willi has made a pilgrimage to see the Browns play live at least once a year.
"I never think, 'This isn't worth it.' It's not even a discussion," he said. "We're not Browns fans because we hope one day to see a winning team again; it's much deeper than that for me. My father lost his fight with cancer, but whenever I watch the Browns, win or lose, I still have a connection with the team through the man who brought them to me. They are my passion."
Frank Lauer, Vicenza, Italy (4,400 miles from Cleveland)
"I jumped into Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, did a tour, too, of Afghanistan. I've been in Germany and now live in Italy, and wherever I've been, with the help of a satellite decoder, I've watched the Browns get beat," boomed Frank Lauer, a retired soldier who now works for the U.S. government at their military base in the elegant old northern Italian town of Vicenza.
At 49, Lauer, who seemed destined to end up in Italy after being brought up in the Cleveland suburb of Parma, sighs that he's old enough to remember all the classic Browns calamities -- "yes, sir, Red Right 88, The Fumble, The Drive" -- but absence only ever made his heart grow fonder.
He ended up establishing the Italian chapter of the Browns Backers, which now has 13 members who'll gather at the 501 bar at the base -- "at 5 p.m. you sign off, and at 5:01 it's time for a drink" -- to watch their bumbling heroes. Gathering this itinerant group of military and government personnel isn't always easy, so sometimes these days it can be just Lauer and his family watching Sky Italia with friends over Tex-Mex food at home. He never misses a game, though.
"Either I'm really a fan or just really crazy -- or maybe both," he said. "The other week, we were 30 minutes south of Montepulciano -- me, my wife, son and two dogs -- in the middle of nowhere in idyllic Tuscany at a restaurant, enjoying a bistecca alla fiorentina, a fine glass of Montefalco and watching the Browns. Naturally, they lost -- but somehow the setting helped take the pain away."
Bruce Millinger, Perth, Australia (11,280 miles from Cleveland)
"We're literally halfway around the world from the Browns -- separated by two continents, one ocean, the equator, the international date line, the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn -- so there's a particular kind of obsession needed to follow the Browns from here; I think insanity may be the word," chuckled Bruce Millinger, president of the Backers' most distant outpost in Western Australia.
Formerly an 18-year Browns season-ticket holder "when we were good, with Kosar, Testaverde and the Kardiac Kids," Bruce met his wife, an Australian doctor, in Cleveland and "she brought me home with her as a souvenir."
While helping run her cardiology practice, he still needed his Browns fix, so he set up a group that, because of the 12-hour time difference, has to meet up at 8 a.m. on a weekday for breakfast -- "Brekkie with the Browns, we call it here," he said -- at a U.S.-style sports bar, the Varsity, in Perth. The bar opens early especially for them on the rare occasions that the Browns take part in a televised night game. Most of the club are native Aussies.
"We actually had one member who was just determined to find the most losingest team out there," Bruce said. "Er, don't ask me why."
The timing of Sunday's London game (9:30 a.m. ET; 9:30 p.m. in Perth) is great news for the Australian fans, though. For once, they can go the Varsity on a weekend evening instead of a weekday morning, when they're left thoroughly deflated before they even trudge into work.
"But it's more than just about the winning and losing; it's the camaraderie," Bruce said. "We'll meet up for a picnic, talk the Browns and toss a few footballs around on the beach with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop. The Browns fans are the most dedicated all over the world. Because those guys may not be the greatest product ever put on the field, but they're still our Browns."