On Sunday mornings — when most folks are sleeping off Saturday night’s adventures or getting ready for church — an early-morning ceremony takes place where thousands of the faithful dress in their finest gear, arrive early for a good spot and prepare to sing (and sometimes shout) the praises of our town’s revered, modern-day gladiators: the Cleveland Browns.
With chants of “Go Browns,” and the distant howl of “dawgs” barking, the loyal tailgaters pull into Cleveland’s Municipal Lot along the Memorial Shoreway — some as early as 6 a.m. — to begin preparations for the party that’s been going on since 1946 (when the team played its first game, a 44–0 victory over the Miami Seahawks in front of 60,135 people).
Converted school buses painted bright orange, recreational vehicles with flags waving, campers, vans and cars decorated with slogans and Browns signage transport the worshippers — along with their provisions and party supplies — to the hallowed ground.
The congregants form friendships over food, fanaticism and the changing seasons. Of course, the attire changes from barely there for hot September games to Michelin Man chic for the dead of winter.
To most, the celebration looks more like a carnival midway than Sunday worship services. In the Muny Lot, The Pit on West Third Street and in the stadium parking lot, fans gather to eat, drink and get excited about the Browns.
Everyone, it seems, has a role. The clowns in orange face paint scamper through makeshift kitchens. Barkers, trick dogs, hungry newcomers juggling sausage and beer, fat ladies and gentleman relaxing on lounge chairs with televisions and gamblers trying their luck at games of chance — poker in this case — make for an extreme party atmosphere that’s rare in today’s litigious climate.
“Beer, food, friends and football,” says party bus owner Mark Davis of Bedford, explaining why he and six friends gas up their converted school bus for home games and nearby away games during football season. Davis, along with buddies Jim Byrne of Garfield Heights, Anthony Canzoni of Walton Hills and Paul Miraglia of Bedford, say they’ve been tailgating since 1999 when the team returned after being stolen away to Baltimore in 1996.
Like most regular tailgaters, the group tries to get the same parking spot each week. For this crew it’s curbside at the top of the hill on West Third Street across from the entrance to the Justice Center parking lot. The guys rotate cooking duties, and this week the entrée is beer can chicken.
“It’s so easy,” Canzoni says. He takes a dozen Tyson Cornish game hens and balances them over half-filled cans of beer. They steam to golden-brown perfection over the grill for about two or three hours, he says.
About 1,000 feet west of the Davis camp, the Hutcherson posse grouses and beams dirty looks at Stroup and company. Brad Hutcherson, of Avon Lake, claims the Stroups have stolen their regular tailgating spot.
“This is the first time we haven’t been in that spot for six years,” Hutcherson says. “This is definitely a controversy,” he adds with a smile.
Tom Stroup, of Marietta, Ga., and about 15 family and friends have taken up temporary residence in a prime location on the edge of a ridge overlooking the stadium from the west. Stroup, his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Suzanne, have been making the regular trip from Atlanta to Cleveland since the team returned in 1999. Despite the friendly rivalry, both the Stroups and the Hutchersons are busy cooking and eating up copious amounts of gourmet food. Hutcherson and Sue Campana of Medina show off their thick lobster tails and New England clam chowder. The two met six years ago and have been tailgating together ever since. Their respective families even spend time together during the off-season.
Stroup’s camp includes a reveler playing a trombone, an over-sized, portable deep fryer and a campfire. On the day’s menu: deep-fried beef tenderloin.
Like the Davises, Stroups and Hutchersons, many of the fans only started joining in the fun in 1999 when the team returned. At the same time, a number of longtime tailgaters started new traditions.
“I bought a brand-new bus when we got the team back,” says Tony “Mobile Dawg” Schaefer of Sandusky. Schaefer, a Browns die-hard all of his life, attends all of the home games in the same spot in the Muny Lot and brings 20 or so friends and family members for a potluck feast.
“I ate seven hot dogs today, Seven,” says Super Fan, a seemingly homeless man who meanders around Schaefer’s converted school bus. Schaefer says he’ll feed just about anyone. “I think we feed six or seven cops at every game,” he says.
In fact, that sense of connection among its fans and to its team is important to the Browns franchise.
“It’s a unique way for people to connect and get together. Week after week people know where their friends are on game day. It’s a given and it draws people together,” says Bill Bonsiewicz, Browns vice president of communications. He adds that team owner Randy Lerner installed a painting of the tailgating party at the Muny Lot on the lobby wall of the Browns corporate office.
“We really see tailgating as an important tradition in Cleveland,” Bonsiewicz says.
So do tens of thousands of loyal fans who wouldn’t dream of doing anything else on game day.
When the Browns played their last game in Cleveland in 1995, Schaefer and Roy Maxwell of Apple Creek, Ohio, vowed to continue their tailgating on football season’s opening day until the team was returned.
Maxwell was caught on Schaefer’s shoulders by a photographer one Sunday afternoon when a group of revelers — fresh from the mini-party at the Muny Lot — proceeded to bang on the doors of the shuttered stadium. The photograph ended up in the New York Times.
“This is our tradition,” Schaefer says. “And no one is ever going to take it away from us again.”