This past Christmas season has come and gone, and for the first time in 18 years my wife and I didn’t have to keep the idea of Santa real in our home. In some ways it was a little sad and empty on Christmas morning, but in others it might have been the most rewarding Christmas ever to see our children as young adults give each other truly thoughtful and generous gifts while giving thanks to us, instead of an imaginary guy in a red suit. That strange Christmas morning without Santa was preceded by the most lifeless Christmas Eve mass that I can ever recall, so top all of that off with temperatures in the low 50’s in northern Indiana on Christmas, and the seasonal spirit wasn’t exactly resonating with me.
Watching your kids open gifts on Christmas might be one of the best things you can experience in life, second to watching their excitement when someone is opening a gift that they have purchased. That helped restore some of the spirit of Christmas on that unseasonably warm day, but it wasn’t until about 4:30 on Christmas that I was really reminded of the Christmas spirit and the power of belief.
At approximately 4:30, the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers kicked off a regular season football game. It’s not uncommon for NFL games to take place on Christmas Day, as the season runs through December and the holiday falls on the weekend a couple of times every 5-6 years. However, this was the first time my middle son’s favorite football team was playing on Christmas Day.
He is now 16 years old, and was undoubtedly our first non-believer in Santa. He was the first that caused us to change how my wife and I had to approach the holiday. We had to ask him not to say anything to his older brother and younger sister. We had to take even more precaution with hiding presents, because he was seeking conclusive evidence that the north pole didn’t have elves making toys year round. He is also the very typical middle child in the way that when most of us go left, he decides to go right, which is most likely how he became an absolute die-hard Cleveland Browns fan.
Most of us become fans of certain teams based primarily upon two things, and most likely in this order: who do your parents root for and where do you live? If you are a passionate sports fan, it is most likely because it is part of your family’s fabric. You’ve seen your dad yell and cheer at the TV when his favorite is playing, and that looked exciting to you, or as a little kid you couldn’t figure out why your dad didn’t want to be bothered when a certain team was playing. Your choice was to get in on the ritual, or distance yourself from it. If your parents weren’t a sports loving family, but that appealed to you, it is typically only natural to start following the local team. That is the team that is always on TV, that you can easily find apparel for, and the easiest thing to talk about with your friends. It’s the reason my 16 year old son is a St. Louis Cardinals and Blues fan. He saw his dad watching all of their games, wearing their apparel, and living and dying by the successes and failures. He even enjoys going to Illinois sporting events and watching their games on TV, not as much as supporting my alma mater Purdue, but he’s carrying on the same rooting interests of myself and my father before me.
This brings us to the Cleveland Browns. As a child, professional football was never a big deal in our family. The football Cardinals were never very competitive in the 80’s when I was growing up, and their owner’s threats to leave St. Louis turned off fans even more. Eventually the team did leave, and I never got to go to a game because nobody in my family, or the city, really cared. I sort of followed them once they moved to Phoenix, but it was pretty much the same team in a different town, so it wasn’t long before I lost interest in the NFL. Not terribly long after the Cardinals left St. Louis, the city got another franchise with the Rams. Again, I passively followed them, but wouldn’t consider myself an actual fan until I happened to move back their during their Super Bowl run. That season and the few after that I made sure to have the NFL Sunday ticket so I could watch all of their games, but this was before I had any kids. By the time my kids were born and actually old enough to start following sports, the Rams had become one of the worst franchises in football and were amid a streak of 12 straight years without a winning season. After the 2015 season, their snake of an owner, Stan Kroenke, had negotiated back door deals with the league to get out of town. It had been a long time since I really cared about the Rams, and now the only thing I cared about was them losing every possible game afterwards.
In 2015, my now 16 year old son was 10 years old. He hadn’t seen his father root for an NFL team or watch an entire NFL game of one team in his entire life. He wasn’t a football player either, but he just started to gravitate towards the game as a fan. He wanted to have a team to cheer for on Sundays. He was looking for his own sports identity, because rooting for all the same teams as the rest of his family just wasn’t acceptable. The middle child always has to do something to stand out! So, he found his team with the Cleveland Browns. I have no idea what drew him to the Browns, but if I had to guess based on his personality, he was likely drawn to the fact that nobody else outside of Cleveland seemed to like them. He wanted his own team that would be different from everyone else. He has family that are die-hard Packers fans, but that would have been too easy. The Colts should have had great local appeal as they rarely have losing seasons, but he looked elsewhere. The Bears didn’t make much sense because as a St. Louis guy, we just don’t like Chicago teams, so the Browns it was for him.
His first season as a true Browns fan was 2016, when the team won just one game. We smiled at Christmas when he wanted apparel and humored his desire to be unique. The following season the Browns managed to be even worse that the previous one and lose every game that they played, but that only caused him to dig down even deeper with the Browns. The more someone made fun of him and his choice of teams, the more it drove him towards them. Suddenly he wasn’t just a casual fan, but now he started breaking down the draft and what the Browns should do. He memorized the roster and the schedule. That next season when he was in 7th grade, the age when kids really seem to cement their passion and following of the teams they’re going to follow for their lifetime, the Browns did something strange, they won 7 games, something they had only done one other time in the previous 11 seasons. They gave their fans, and my son hope. The following season was a major disappointment at 6-10, but it didn’t matter. By this point my son was all in on HIS team, the Cleveland Browns.
He relished being “the Browns fan.” You know, there is always one guy in a group that roots for a certain team or teams that are different than the rest of their friends, and despite how well you know them you’re still not 100% sure why they began rooting for that team in the first place. He was that kid, and he seemed to enjoy it. He became the face everyone pictured when the Browns would do something to lose a game, like they so often have done throughout their history. When Baker Mayfield has a new commercial, he is the fan you think of. By the time he moved on to high school, he had enough Browns gear and jerseys to wear every day of the week. While he doesn’t do that, he certainly has gameday apparel that he makes sure to wear when they are on a winning streak, and new apparel to start a new streak with the following Sunday after a loss. He was the kid you admired for being bold enough to be different, and vulnerable enough to subject himself to such ridicule and ribbing by other NFL fans. The Browns are famously known for torturing their fanbase with losing seasons or almosts. They never can seem to get over the hump, just like their divisional rivals the Bengals.
When the 2020 season began, most of us expected another season of disappointment ahead for my son and other Browns diehard fans, but then something started to happen, they were winning games. By mid-December they were 9-3, and the Browns were no longer a joke. My son had predicted their success because of their drafts and signings, but we all dismissed it as blind hope, the kind that keeps fans of lovable losers coming back each season. However, by the end of the year the Browns were 11-5 and managed to go on the road in the playoffs and knock off their long time nemesis (for the second week in a row), the Pittsburgh Steelers, before falling in a great game at Kansas City. My heart broke for my son that day, as he had literally adopted a team that won 1 game in two seasons as a boy and had rode them and all of the ridicule that came with it to the near mountain top as a young man. He deserved to see them win, but my grandfather who was a die-hard Cubs fan and lived into his 70’s deserved to see them win and he never did.
Either way, 2021 set up to be a year for the Browns to build upon their success. Just about everyone was back, and it seemed as if their mercurial quarterback was settling in to the role of franchise icon. It was suddenly ok for other “fans” to start wearing gear and proclaiming to be a longtime supporter. My son had no idea so many people he knew liked the Browns, probably because unlike him when the team was losing they didn’t want to face the ridicule of wearing their gear in public. Either way, 2021 was going to be the year that my son got to see his team among the NFL elite, and other casual fans might gravitate towards them. He would get to say, you’re welcome on the bandwagon, but I’ve been here all along. His friends and neighbors that were Steelers fans wouldn’t have the strong upper hand that they have held for years over him. Bottom line, his team was no longer a laughing stock, but 2021 hasn’t played out the way most of us thought it would.
2021 has been a season of the Browns, being the Browns. They were dominating the Chiefs on the road in the season opener until their punter dropped a snap which lead to an agonizing loss, but then they managed to win 3 in a row. Finally in Week 5 their sputtering offense got going against the Chargers, but their solid defense got torched for 47 points in a loss. They then lost again to an undefeated Cardinals team to fall to 3-3. Since that point in the season, the Browns have alternated wins and losses each week, despite having one of the best offensive lines in football and a top defense. In Week 15 Covid started to impact the team, so they were forced to start their third string quarterback. Somehow, someway, despite all of the disappointment leading up to this point, the Browns held their own playoff destiny in their hands. A win would vault them to the top of their divisional standings, and a loss would drop them to twelfth in the conference. In typical Browns fashion, their third string quarterback managed a late come-from-behind drive to give them a two point lead in the waning seconds of the game. The Browns would just need their defense to get a stop to seal the win. Instead, they allowed the playoff desperate Raiders to quickly move into field goal range and break their hearts as time expired. Even though I was out of town and with friends at the time, my heart broke for my son because I knew where he was likely sitting in our house, undoubtedly wearing his Browns gear, as his heart was ripped out again by the team he adored.
My son who was the first to question whether Santa was real or not, had allowed himself to believe in the Cleveland Browns. He opened himself up to the special hurt that only true die-hard fans know and can experience, so it was even more painful but special as a father to watch my young son on Christmas day cheer on his favorite team. The first of my kids to not believe in the magic of Christmas was now sitting in a room full of Packer fans during the game on the most special day of the year for children and young adults. He didn’t eat dinner with the family, and that was okay, because he was watching his team, the same team he believed in when they won 1 game in the first two seasons he was a fan. He was watching them play the almighty Packers, a model of stability in the NFL. Instinctively, those people in the room without a rooting interest began cheering for the Browns along with him. We all wanted to see him be rewarded for his faith and belief, except his older brother who relishes in his anguish.
Most people didn’t give the Browns much of a chance heading into the game. They felt like a disjointed team that had been given the knockout blow to their season just five days earlier. Meanwhile, the Packers could move even closer to securing home field advantage, and more importantly the only playoff bye in the NFC. There wasn’t much reason to believe in the Browns, despite them getting Baker Mayfield back from the Covid list; but there was my son, sitting, watching, believing. None of us that have followed my son’s journey, and become secondary Browns experts by default, should have been surprised by what we saw. Despite three first half turnovers, the Browns were not only right in the game at the end, but they had the ball with a chance to win.
I sat right by my son’s side, hoping that the Browns would find a way to deliver the magic of Christmas back to my son and give him the best gift he could have received that day, a victory over the Packers and his uncle and grandparents favorite team. I hoped that despite three interceptions that the Browns wouldn’t turn it over again. I hoped that despite having all of their timeouts that the Browns wouldn’t mismanaged the clock. I hoped that their rookie kicker making his NFL debut wouldn’t miss the game-winning attempt if he had the opportunity, despite missing an extra point which entirely changed the game script from the first quarter. I hoped that all of the things that made the Browns the Browns wouldn’t happen, but most importantly, I hoped!
I wanted to believe that things were going to end differently for the Browns than they typically do in these type of games. I didn’t care about myself, I was rooting for my son. I wanted to see him rewarded for his dedication, rewarded for his stress on a day when kids should be enjoying themselves. For a few minutes in that second half, I became a young fan again. I saw all of the things that my son had been saying all season long. I got upset with the questionable play calling. I was frustrated by the inconsistency at quarterback. I commented to him before and after every play. One play we connected on a clutch pass into a tight window, the next play we couldn’t hit an open receiver. We! Who had I become? Suddenly I was commenting on my frustrations to my son, who was now acting like the sage father and trying to explain to me that he completely understood my frustration because he had been watching this all year and trying to get me to understand. His months of complaining to me about his team and his coach all made sense to me now, but I still believed that they were going to pull off this Christmas miracle.
The more we started to cheer for the Browns, the more cynical my son started to get. He started to become like Randy Quaid in Major League II, just waiting for his team to find a way to blow it. He tried to explain to the rest of his family that was suddenly pulling for him and his team that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. He was the expert in the room, and he knew we were going to be disappointed, but he just didn’t know how. Would it be mismanaging the clock or a missed field goal? Or would it be, yep, it would be the fourth interception by their lightening rod of a quarterback.
When Mayfield threw that interception, my son didn’t get mad and slam the chair. He just quietly dropped his head. He had sensed the outcome before it happened, but for all of us newcomers who were wishing him this miracle, we were saddened and stunned. The once lively room went quiet, as even the Packer fans felt sorry for the lone Browns fan in the room.
It wasn’t long after that when our family was out the door with our most recent gifts in hand. It had been a great day with family, topped off with tremendous gift giving from our kids. We tried to analyze the game and console our son, but he just wanted to be left alone. As an avid sports fan, I understood exactly what he was feeling. Even though he didn’t want to admit it, he believed. It’s the power of sports, the power of life. When we believe in something or want something so badly, we expose ourselves to the dangers or vulnerability, and is there anything in life that makes us more vulnerable than sports?
As a man in my mid-forties, I have been deeply wounded by the outcome of sporting events countless times. I have seen my teams come so close and not quite make it. I know that heartbreak, but it doesn’t stop me from getting hurt by them again in the future. However, as we get older we start to change. Maybe the team and the games aren’t as important to us as they were when we were younger, or maybe we just don’t open ourselves up to being hurt as much as we did when we were younger. The more you watch sports, the more you start to understand certain realities. As a kid, you didn’t care if the other team was better or had more talent, you just rooted for your team and believed that if they played hard enough they could beat anybody. It was difficult to understand why they couldn’t win every game. As adults, we tend to temper our expectations before the games are even played. It’s a way to keep ourselves from getting hurt like we did when we were younger. Understanding the situation before the game is played helps us justify a loss, and can prevent us from doing something stupid as a result. Even when you know your team is the better one as an adult, we can cope with a loss because we know that sporting events aren’t always won by the better team, which is likely why we watch the games in the first place.
However, there is just something special about having that belief when it comes to sports. I’m not sure that ever fully leaves us as true fans. Heck, maybe the reason my son is a Browns fan is because he watches me sit and anguish over Illinois football games every Saturday each fall. Maybe he wanted to find his own team that others seemed to laugh at or dismiss, and ride with them until they are on top. Either way, I’m thankful for his unknowing gift he gave me on Christmas. Even though he might not believe in Santa, and hasn’t for a long time, he reminded me of how great it is to believe on Christmas Day. Sports is the one thing that can turn grown men into kids again, and it is the reason why I love them so much. For the first time in my life, I was a Cleveland Browns fan on Christmas Day. I cheered for them and got destroyed by them, but it felt great.
That is the power of belief, and the power of sports. While the pain of following a sports team can be agonizing, it’s what makes the magic of them winning a big game or championship so special. The longer you suffer and go without that satisfaction of winning, the more joy you experience when they do. People who are not sports fans truly miss out on this aspect in life, and it is not something that can be explained in words. It is why so many times women get frustrated with how the outcome of a simple game can have such a significant impact on their man’s emotion state for the rest of the day, or even days.
While all men outgrow the power and belief in Santa, most of us still hold onto the magic of sports. That belief may fade or wither as we get older, just like with the big fat man as we grow out of childhood. However, there is nothing better than allowing yourself to be a fan and cheer for an outcome we have no control over. I’m thankful for my 16-year old son for reminding me of this. He had no idea at the time, but his belief that day gave me a reminder of the magic of sports, and Christmas.