Finally, Back to Football

The date was Nov. 6, 1995. The scene (somewhat bizarrely) was Oriole Park at Camden Yards, downtown Baltimore. And the image that remains seared into my brain all these years later is that of the late Art Modell, old and broken down and apparently damned near broke, striding up to that podium and pitifully mumbling a few disingenuous words about having "no choice," about feeling sorry for what he was about to do to the City of Cleveland.

Then he went ahead and eviscerated the football culture that had thrived in (and in many ways, helped support) that city for the better part of five decades.

I was 19 years old at the time, a college sophomore, young enough and idealistic enough to have not yet become completely jaded about the world of sports. Though I kinda-sorta knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that most of it was a complete sham—a business like any other business, wherein the pursuit of money forever and always trumps what is "right" or "just"—I did not yet actually have to live in the real world.

I was just a college kid. An idealistic, hopeful college kid. Which is why I could allow myself to believe that there was still some kind of non-fiscal order to the sporting world, that things like "loyalty" mattered, that a businessman like Modell would actually concern himself with things like "culture" and "tradition" and "family," that because Browns fans loved their team so deeply and filled that stadium every week and just loved the hell out of those Browns that the Browns simply would not and could not be allowed to leave. I honestly remember telling people, "This can't happen," and I kept telling them that, even as it was happening, even after it happened.

It was perhaps the single most important sports-related experience of my life, because from that moment on, I ceased caring about the league that seemingly everyone else in this great nation of ours cares about: National Football League.

I did not consciously decide to stop caring, mind you. Rather, the choice was made for me; it was if all of the passion and heartbreak and joy that I had poured into that sport and that franchise for the first 19 years of my life—Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble—suddenly and completely disappeared; from that moment, and in terms of the Browns and the NFL, I was an empty vessel. That feeling of emptiness carries on to this very day.

For those few years when there was no Cleveland Browns, I barely watched any NFL football at all, and when the "new Browns" returned in 1999, I tried mightily but failed spectacularly to recapture that feeling I used to have, back when I really believed that the Browns belonged to Cleveland, and always would.

There have been years since where I’ve not even watched the Super Bowl, not because I’m still angry, and not because I’m still bitter, but rather because I quite honestly don’t care. Even over the past two years, as I've slowly begun to watch some NFL football once more, I do so with a completely detached perspective; at times, the strategy fascinates me, and often the talent of the players astounds me, but never at any moment do I find myself wrapped up in or lost in a game. Never do I watch the Browns and feel even a fraction of the joy or misery I used to feel back in the glory days of the 1980s—the days of Kosar and Byner and Slaughter and the Dawgs.

Just two weeks ago, the new Browns played the Eagles and, as a result, made a rare television appearance here in Philadelphia, I watched the game, and almost enjoyed the game, but when the Browns lost, as they inevitably did, I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I knew I was supposed to be disappointed, but I wasn’t.

Because the damage of Nov. 6, 1995, you see, was ultimately irreversible. My life as a fan of that team and that sport died that day.

I know it’s never coming back.

***

In the immediate wake of the Browns move, I comforted myself with the following thought: "Yes, the Browns have left. And yes, that is terrible indeed. But there is always college football, and there is always Penn State football, and at the very least, that can never be taken away from us."

Then, of course, it basically was. It took 27 years, but eventually, the single sports-related thing that I truly never thought could ever happen happened.

The Worst College Football Scandal Ever broke, everything went to hell, the Penn State community was proclaimed to be a collective evil, Louis Freeh wrote up his report, the NCAA acted beyond all precedent, and, as of July 23, 2012, Penn State football was not Penn State football, and college football was not college football. At least not for me. At least not for most of us.

No, the program had not been killed. But it had been shamed, and sent into exile, and we had to adjust to a new reality. We would keep playing college football at Penn State, but we would be playing outside the world of college football. We existed but we didn’t.

I won't lie to you. For the first few weeks after the NCAA sanctions came down—as I attempted to come to grips with The Suddenly Diminished State of Penn State—I really didn't want to think about college football, or talk about college football, or write about college football.

The month of July, which would have usually have seen me poring through those preseason mags and spending untold hours watching reruns of classic old games on Big Ten Network, came and went without me even thinking about the sport, and though I bought a copy of Phil Steele's 2012 preview mag, I never opened it up. I just didn’t feel like it. The month of August, which would have usually seen me counting the days until kickoff, or making travel plans, or drawing up tailgating menus, or writing thousands of words about the season to come, passed without any sense of excitement at all. By the time late August rolled around, I realized to my horror that, mentally, I had returned to 1995. This was like the Browns leaving Cleveland, all over again.

There was mostly just emptiness. And apathy. So when the time came to write my annual season-kickoff column over at my other site—a site that has never made me a dime, but I’ve maintained for the past 14 years nonetheless, because I just loved the game so much—I knew what I had to do. I had to say good-bye. I wrote a long, rambling piece in which I proclaimed my enduring love for this great game, the greatest game we Americans have, and I tried to believe what I wrote. But I really didn't. I haven’t written there since.

Then Week 1 came, and nothing changed. Penn State played, I watched, I kind of enjoyed it. But as the rest of the afternoon unfolded and college football afternoon turned to college football night, I found that I had to force myself to watch the rest of it. I watched Alabama-Michigan not because I wanted to, but because I felt obligated to.

Next came Week 2, as Penn State headed down to Charlottesville. Again, I watched, and for a quarter-and-a-half I saw Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson and all the rest play some pretty damned good football. It was fun to watch. Then I had to leave, because I'm coaching my son's soccer team this fall, and we had a game on the road, and we had to get there early to get all set up. I got in the car and didn't think about the game until a few hours later, after the soccer game was over.

I called my sister and learned Penn State had lost, that Sam Ficken had missed four field goals, that a game that could have been won had been lost in truly heartbreaking fashion. I remember feeling awful for Ficken, and terrible for the team. But the loss didn’t sting at all, because the emptiness remained, and I just didn't care.

***

Something changed in Week 3. And I don’t know exactly why.

Maybe it was because the noon games that day were just so utterly captivating, so utterly college football-ish—Pitt thumping Virginia Tech, Cal pushing Ohio State to the brink, Louisiana-Monroe throwing a scare into Auburn. Maybe it was because I didn't have a soccer game to coach, or any other distraction, for that matter, which is rarity these days; you know, four kids and all. Maybe it was because Penn State played so incredibly well against Navy, or because the Penn State fans—thousands and thousands of them, clearly more loyal than I—made such an impressive showing up there at Beaver Stadium, filling that place almost to the brim, supporting that team that so clearly deserves our support. Maybe it was just that, for whatever reason, I finally came to accept where it is we find ourselves at the moment.

Whatever it was, Sept. 15, 2012 was the first college football Saturday that felt normal for me since "It" happened way back in November. On that day, I watched the games, I enjoyed the games, I cheered Penn State's win and I sincerely cared about the other results of the day.

It was college football, just how it always was.

I am guessing that many of you will read this and consider me a fake fan—disloyal to the school and disloyal to the sport—for my inability to weather these past few months without wavering in my support. I don’t begrudge you the thought.

But you should know this: For so many years now—at least the past 20, and perhaps even more—college football has formed the very center of my sports life. If there has been one sport that has brought my friends and family together more than any other, it has been college football. Unquestionably, it has been college football.

We have loved it for its traditions, for its rivalries, for its history. We have loved it for the tailgating, for sunny mornings up in Happy Valley and surreal afternoons down in Oxford, taking in all of the sights of The Grove. We have debated college football, discussed college football, praised college football, complained about college football. We have, for every autumn in recent memory, lived college football. For that, we make no apologies.

And now we find ourselves in this strange new world. For some of my friends, and for some of my family, the emptiness is still there, lingering and real. For one of them, the emptiness has given way to anger, and so the only joy that can be derived on a Saturday is the joy that comes along with the defeat of a particularly hated rival. For another—a guy who made the four-hour up-and-back trip to Beaver Stadium every Saturday for years, who held on to his season tickets even when he moved to Chicago, and on to Atlanta, and on to Boston—the emptiness has led to apathy; he has sold his tickets, he has not watched Penn State this season, and he says he really has no interest in doing so. For a few others, there is simply that nagging feeling—that nagging feeling that it just isn't the same, and maybe never will be again.

I empathize with these people. Maybe you do, too. Because maybe you're one of them.

But as for me? Well, I'm back.

I didn't always think I would get here. But I'm here now.

I'm done talking about "It."

I'm done writing about "It."

"It," for me, is a thing of the past.

It's time to get back to football—to the enjoyment it can bring, and will continue to bring, no matter what the critics say.

And that's what I intend to do.

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