After three seasons of carefree Sundays, the National Football League has returned to the city it spurned and, like an old flame that once broke your heart, now asks for another chance.
Forgiveness is one thing, but traveling to Berea to watch a bunch of no-names have at it at Browns training camp is another. Anybody could root for Bernie Kosar, but it takes a real diehard to cheer on newcomers Orlando Bobo and Bill Duff during those rugged groin stretches.
So who's back for seconds, and why?
"If she's good, you go back," says Don Remley, who claims his pigskin pardon is a '90s thing. "Why not give it another go? I don't feel any bitterness, because I think the NFL did us a favor by getting rid of [Art] Modell." Remley and his dad, Henry, drove two and a half hours from Fredonia, Ohio, to get caught up on the new team. Wisely attired in a straw hat and Blu Blockers, the elder Remley is more interested in frostbite than sunburn.
"Is the new stadium going to be as cold as the old one?" he wonders. "I was at the '86 championship game and wore everything I owned."
Throughout the punt-catching drill, new coach Chris Palmer rides the rookies pointing to the crowd and yelling, "Any more drops, and you're standing with them tomorrow!"
"Save the moves for the dance club!" he imparts to a jitterbugging runner. The hard-nosed tactics draw nods of approval from the spectators many of whom believe that it was their undying spirit that won them a new team.
"I rode on that convoy of buses to Pittsburgh to protest the move," says John Bonness, "and I guarantee you, without the fans, it would have taken ten years to get a team." Bonness has been a season-ticket holder for 24 seasons and cites the realities of pro sports in lieu of any grudges. "I see the business side of the move. You gotta pay your freight. I'm just proud of the fans."
Others at training camp are just excited to find shade under a scraggled tree or a really big guy's gut. "We love you, Corey!" yells a local Brownie troop to five-foot seven-inch receiver Corey Bridges. Red-faced and fidgety in the 90-degree heat, the girls score free tickets to the stadium opener on August 21. And free oversized T-shirts, for them to put on over their clothes and be even hotter.
Slightly more thrilled with the scene are their troop leaders, Kelly Brant and Joanna Pompa: "We're a brand new Brownie troop from Brook Park," says a beaming Brant, "and we thought the new Brownies should meet the new Browns."
As the afternoon session winds down, only a handful of fans remains. Once surrounded by a pack of spectators, Kevin Wilson sits alone on the white-hot aluminum bleachers. "I used to work at Plymouth Locomotive," he says, "so I've been a lot hotter than this." The plant recently closed, he adds, so he's got time on his hands.
As the automatic "Juggs" quarterback machine throws futile passes way beyond the reach of the players, human or superhuman, one realizes the complexities of a start-up organization. The first test in this newfangled relationship comes Monday at Canton's Hall of Fame Game against the tradition-rich Dallas Cowboys. Talk about high-pressure first dates. Tim Piai
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