Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Finding Holiness in the Pigskin

Cleveland, Browns, NFL, football, huddleby Adam Metz

If I close my eyes I can still smell the roast in the oven. Grandpa had one special meal that he made for our family on holidays - a Midwestern recipe handed down through the Great Depression: one arm roast, one loaf of bread, one medium-sized onion, one egg, salt and pepper to taste, and the rest of the pan filled with potatoes. My grandmother fell victim to cancer long before I took a breath, so instead we all grew up on Grandpa's cooking - at least on special occasions. We just called it Grandpa's roast and dressing.

For our family, Grandpa's roast and dressing was a sacred meal and the corresponding family time was a sacred gathering. Memories of bygone civic holidays and Thanksgiving and Christmas continue to stimulate the olfactory nostalgia of the roast in the oven. We would fill our plates and with our first bite, each of us would let Grandpa know how good it was. And it was always good.

More times than not, the sacred gathering commenced at 1:00 on Sunday afternoons. If there was a holy time in our family it was 1:00 on Sundays . . . after church. The secret ingredient to Grandpa's roast and dressing wasn't the onion or the egg; I think it was the orange helmets and the brown jerseys on his television. For our family, autumn Sundays were holidays because they were football Sundays.

My Grandpa instilled in me a love for football. He never played. He never coached. Far removed from the violent and aggressive nature of football, Grandpa was the gentlest of men. But he loved football, and more than football itself, he loved the Cleveland Browns - a love that he has bequeathed to me.

Cleveland, Browns, football, fans, stadium, family, NFLI learned to love the Browns so much that when I moved away from Ohio, people assumed I grew up in Cleveland. Cleveland was over a hundred miles away from Defiance, but for three hours each week our house might as well have stood on the shores of Lake Erie. We cheered for the Buckeyes, we didn't hate the Lions or the Colts, but there was no mistaking that we were a Browns family. Through and through.

That's what made January 17, 1988 so hard. Maybe it was because we failed to partake of the sacred meal on that fateful Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was because we felt that devastation and misery could never befall us two years in a row. But whatever the reason, on that day over 25 years ago, the football gods decided to urinate on the city of Cleveland and on Grandpa's house in Defiance.

The memories of an eight-year-old, 25 years removed, are far from reliable, but whenever I do remember that day it was always dark. Through the darkness I remember that we recorded the game on our VCR so that we could relive the big victory over and over again. I remember that the Browns were playing the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year. I remember that if the Browns won, they were finally going to go to play in their first Super Bowl. I remember that John Elway had devastated us the year prior with what NFL lore has termed The Drive. I remember thinking that it was going to be different this year, that this was our year. 

I know that with 1:12 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Browns were behind by a touchdown but had the ball at Denver's eight-yard-line.

I know that Bernie Kosar handed the ball off to Earnest Byner.

I know he got hit hard by Broncos linebacker Jeremiah Castille at the two-yard-line.

Earnest Byner, 1988, The Fumble, Cleveland, Browns, NFL, playoffs, Jeremiah Castille, Denver BroncosI know Byner fumbled the football six feet short of scoring a game-tying touchdown.

I know that the Broncos recovered the fumble.

I know that Grandpa pushed "Stop" on the VCR to end the recording.

I know that we never watched that game again.

I know that 25 years later, the Cleveland Browns still have never been to the Super Bowl.

A few years ago Bill Simmons wrote an article attempting to enumerate the most cursed sports franchises in America. He put the Browns at number four, behind the Bills, the Vikings, and, the darling of all futile sports teams, the Cubs. The fact that Cleveland's other two professional sports teams make the same list in the top ten easily makes Cleveland the most cursed sports city in the country. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why did Grandpa do this to me?

It was a little surreal going through Grandpa's things after he died in February. His health had been failing for quite some time, so he had already gotten rid of most of his material possessions. It's safe to say that most of what was left was the stuff he really wanted to hold on to. Not surprisingly most of what we found had an orange helmet on it or was trimmed in brown. There's a mini Riddell helmet that sat in his living room for all those games of heartbreak we endured together. It's found a new home now in my office.

I will forever be struck by the irony of the fact that the last football game my grandpa ever watched was the 47th consecutive Super Bowl that the Browns weren't playing in. And the last Super Bowl champion he ever saw was the team that used to be the Browns . . . that team whose name shall not be mentioned in an article about my grandpa.

Joe Thomas, Cleveland, Browns, NFL, footballThere's a lot about football that bothers me. It is utterly ridiculous that I invest so much money and, especially, so much emotional capital into whether or not my sports teams are successful. There's a lot about the American obsession with football that is troubling. Anything as big and as powerful as the sport of football is sure to be riddled with flaws. Amidst the billion dollar contracts, sold out college and NFL stadiums, and off-the-charts television ratings, it's sometimes easy to ignore football's dark side. Persistent player arrests, devastating injuries having become widespread, and chronic post-concussion symptoms highlight that there is much that football must improve. The very quarterback from that 1987 AFC Championship and my childhood hero, Bernie Kosar, serves as a poster child for the dark side of football. Recently, Kosar has had some very public embarrassments, attributed to his many concussions.

But in our haste to condemn the ills of football, we should be cautious not to overlook the beauty of this game. As the Cleveland Browns take the field on September 8, 2013 against the Miami Dolphins I will once again put on my Browns jersey. 1:00 pm. Sunday afternoon. Holy time.

I'm older now and I watch the game differently than I did back in the 1980's. The game itself is actually quite a bit different from what it was in the 1980's. Our family is dispersed so we no longer have a regular holy family gathering, and we will have to find a new way to celebrate the holy meal.  And for the first time in my 34 years, I won't be able to talk to Grandpa about football.

The odds-makers say the Browns are a 60-1 shot for winning the Super Bowl, but I plan to root them on as if they were the favorite. There's a lot wrong with football, and I'll spend a good deal of my time focusing in on that. But what's right about football is that it helps usher in some of my fondest memories sitting alongside my grandpa cheering on our team - a team that happens to lose more times than it wins. Maybe sports is about more than winning and losing after all. It has to be, or I would have given up on the Browns a long time ago. I wish I could ask Grandpa what he thinks about that. 

Adam is the minister of the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, OH where he lives with his wife Mary Beth and their three children: Clark, Clementine, and Cecilia. You can find more of his writing at Theological Vacillation and you can follow him on Twitter @CrasslyYours.

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