Our parents dressed us in terrycloth onesies with orange helmets sewn in the corner of the chest, close to our hearts. They dragged us to training camp in the sweltering heat of summer and games at Muni Stadium in the bitter winds of winter. We still show off that photo of us with Bob Golic from when we met him at Applebee’s in ’98. We get on social media and blast “hack journalists” we felt had put a target on Johnny Manziel’s back. Our brothers, cousins, classmates, and coworkers are Browns fans.
So what about those of us decked out in brown and orange that otherwise have no connection to Cleveland, or even America?
Steve Maybury, 51, lives in Southend-on-Sea in Essex, England, forty miles east of London. He has been supporting the Cleveland Browns for over thirty years: “In the early/mid 1980s, a new TV channel started screening NFL highlights. Many new fans in the UK followed the big sides such as the Raiders, Dolphins, Redskins, etc., but we were not following the crowd and wanted to identify with a team. The TV programme did a show on the Dawg Pound and Bernie Kosar. Cleveland seemed to be a blue collar city with rabid fans that really cared about their team – pretty similar to where I grew up in an industrial area of South Wales.”
By the “Most Excellent Order” of the British Empire, Steve Maybury now holds the prestigious title of President of the British Bulldawgs, the UK’s chapter of the Browns Backers Worldwide, the Cleveland Browns organization’s official fan club. Chapters exist as far away as Australia and New Zealand; even Antarctica has hosted a chapter, though it was only one (very dedicated) person strong.
Cristoffer Becker, 43, from Oslo, Norway, is the President of the Browns Backers of Scandinavia, with seven official members and over 300 Facebook followers. He became a Browns fan on an extended trip to the US in 1995. “I bought an old car, a 1978 Dodge Aspen for $500, and started my journey across 39 states. I lived most of the time in hostels and at places where I was invited to stay for a couple of nights. On this trip, Cleveland stood out as the nicest place, with a whole lot of warm and friendly people. It was in talks with local people in Cleveland that the Browns seemed to be the NFL team I should root for. That year, it looked promising for them, but to my surprise, the Browns moved to Baltimore! For me as a European, that seemed so crazy that you could actually sell a team and move it. So I decided to let the NFL rest for a while and got into it again in 1999 when the Browns started their second era.”
Browns fans from Cleveland have done their part in sharing the love worldwide. Many of the international groups include American expats. Ryan Urbon, 26, is from Akron, now living in Iceland. He says, “We have a permanent spot in downtown Reykjavik called Bjarni Fell Sports Pub. They have been very generous letting us watch the games there and it is growing. People see us cheering and come and sit with us, it’s awesome. Some would rather just watch the soccer match, but I think it is drawing attention to us and I love it.”
Alvaro Ramos, 44, of Zaragoza, Spain, has been supporting the Browns for ten years and was brought into the fold by an American. “I was a casual NFL fan until one US friend of mine explained the history and facts of the Cleveland Browns to me,” he says. “I realized there was no supporting club here in Spain, so I did it myself.”
Most international fans use NFL GamePass to watch Browns games. For around $70 US dollars, you can order all the regular season games for one team and watch them at your leisure, a perfect setup for those living in time zones where what we call the “early” games in the US don’t start for them until 3 or 4 a.m.
Many of them have traveled to Cleveland to see their favorite team in action. Steve Maybury says he has been to Cleveland a number of times and has also taken in games in Phoenix, Denver, New York, Green Bay and several other cities, but they’re not like Cleveland. He says Cleveland is a “very underrated city”, he loves visiting, and is “always amazed at the passion and loyalty of Browns fans.” Cristoffer Becker was just in Cleveland last year, got field passes from the Browns’ front office and met with General Manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam.
Despite the Browns’ mediocre, often disastrous seasons, international fans remain steadfastly loyal. For those of us in Cleveland that have suffered through the more dismal years, the concept of people becoming Browns fans by choice can be a dumbfounding one. The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, The Factory of Sadness — why would a person intentionally put themselves through all that?
Cristoffer Becker has asked himself that question many times. “ It’s like a marriage, one stays loyal no matter what. I have cheered and cried with my team. It’s the feeling of excitement every August before the season starts, hoping this year will be better than the last, the joy of every win.” Being from Norway, Cristoffer knows he could switch his loyalties without any repercussions, but says, “The thought of switching to any other NFL team has never crossed my mind.”
“Old European genetics,” claims Alvaro Ramos. “The times we win feel fantastic, way better than if I was a fan of a team that was used to winning. I could change my favorite restaurant, change my girlfriend, but quitting my team because they play horrible would be the worst kind of treason!”
Browns fans in general are among the most passionate in the league. It was that display of passion that led Steve Maybury to become one of us, that brought Cristoffer Becker into the fold, and that sparked interest in Alvaro Ramos. The lack of a homegrown connection to the game and this team makes their dedication even more special; they chose to be one of us. They are our brethren in brown and orange, transcending cultural, language, and location barriers that would otherwise divide us. They are us.
American Football Without Barriers (AFWB)
Speaking of barriers, let’s break some more….
Fans aren’t the only ones representing the Dawg Pound on distant shores. Browns’ tight end Gary Barnidge started “American Football Without Barriers” with two college buddies in 2011. They’ve held training camps in Brazil, Turkey and China to spread knowledge and appreciation of American football across the world with the ultimate goal of bringing talented youngsters to the US to be scouted by collegiate teams. “We want to spread the sport we love all over the world while also visiting and helping charities in the other countries”, says Gary. “We want to give kids the opportunity to do what they want to do.”
The likes of DeAngelo Williams, Marshawn Lynch, Golden Tate, Browns’ linebacker Barkevious Mingo and center Alex Mack have all participated in the overseas camps. Details about their mission and adventures can be found at www.afwbcamp.com.
“We did our first women’s camp this past year in Turkey, and it was amazing,” Gary says. “You could truly see how much they loved playing the sport and were eager to learn everything that we could teach them. We actually held their camp at the same time as some of the boys’ camps and watching them compete with the boys and seeing how hard they worked was amazing. They even worked harder than many of the boys and were pushing them, which just goes to show there are no barriers or boundaries that can’t be crossed.” We know all work and no play makes for dull boys, so the guys made sure to have a little non-football related fun while on their travels, including a mass snowball fight at the Great Wall of China after AFWB’s inaugural camp in Shanghai in 2013.
“It’s a great memory that won’t be forgotten. One of the craziest things was the ski lift ride you have to take up to the Great Wall. It was foggy and high off the ground and a few of the guys were a little scared but no one backed out. It was an awesome trip. We take in the culture of all the places we visit.”
Thanks to satellite broadcasting, the internet, and the efforts of the NFL’s marketing department, the popularity of American football abroad has grown substantially throughout our lifetimes. Browns’ players like Gary Barnidge and fans like Ryan Urbon have gone global as our ambassadors, selling our team and our city to others, while expanding the Dawg Pound into places most of us will never see and to people we will never know. Like distant 12th cousins you’ll never meet, you still know the connection is out there. They wear the same colors, watch the same games, suffer the same lows and ride the same game-winning highs. They are family. They are us.
First LGBT Cleveland Chapter Starting at Twist
The Browns Backers Worldwide has their first official LGBT Cleveland chapter, Browns Backers With A Twist. The new group will be hosted by one of the city’s most well-known and longest-established LGBT-friendly venues, Twist Social Club in Cleveland.
Club President Scott Swaggerty applied to start the chapter in August with the support of Twist owner Constantine Katsaros and general manager Jack Messer. “Twist has always been heavily involved in sports for the gay community, supporting and sponsoring teams,” Constantine says. “Last season, we were getting a bigger draw when we were showing the Browns games; there’s a huge following for the Browns in the gay community. It’s nice to have a different vibe, people from all [parts] of the community coming together and watching the game.”
Because so many other Browns Backers organizations exist near Twist, Scott’s application was initially denied. He asked the Browns for reconsideration: “I emailed back and said, ‘We’re a LGBT organization, we don’t have any other representation.’”
Scott was told he would have to obtain permission to start the group from the thirteen other local chapters within a 10-mile radius of the club. He says, “I emailed all thirteen of these groups and within three days, all thirteen came back and said ‘Yes, we’re behind you 100%. Start your group’.”
The new chapter already has twenty registered members and nearly 60 followers on their Facebook page and is expecting to grow throughout the season as word of the group’s existence spreads.
Browns Backers With A Twist will host their first fundraiser for the Browns Foundation Thursday, September 24, at Twist, a “Drag Bingo” night will be hosted by Veranda L’Ni and will feature a special guest bingo caller, one of the Cleveland Browns’ most famous fans, The Bone Lady.
You can find more information about Browns Backers with a Twist by visiting their Facebook page. To register with this or any other Browns Backers chapter, go to www.brownsbackers.org.