It’s been 25 years since the Browns broke Cleveland’s heart and left for Baltimore

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CLEVELAND — Chris McNeil’s earliest memory of being at a Cleveland Browns game goes back to 1987. McNeil was 7 years old. The Browns trailed the Jets by 10 with just four minutes remaining in the AFC divisional playoffs. “But I’m standing up on my chair,” McNeil recalls, “yelling, ‘We’re going to win!'”

Sure enough, Bernie Kosar engineered a pair of dramatic late scoring drives, and Cleveland prevailed in double overtime in the third-longest game in NFL history — the “Marathon by the Lake” — for its first playoff victory since 1969. McNeil, there with his parents and uncle, watching from around a beam blocking his view, was hooked.

“That magic has never left for me, even as the team left, even as the team has scuffled,” McNeil said. “I always go back to that 7-year-old me, standing on the chair at old Municipal — and we’ve been chasing that magic ever since.”

Tonight, 50 years after staging the first Monday Night Football game in history, the Browns face off against their former selves, the Baltimore Ravens, in the biggest regular-season game Cleveland has seen in decades (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Twenty-five years ago to the week, the former Browns played their final game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium before owner Art Modell shuttered the Dawg Pound and shattered Cleveland’s soul, relocating the franchise to Baltimore.

Cleveland football eventually came back. But the Browns have yet to recover.

Until — potentially, finally, mercifully — now?

Going into this showdown with the Ravens, Cleveland boasts its best record (9-3) since returning to the NFL in 1999. The Browns technically can’t clinch a playoff spot with a victory. They can, however, all but ensure an end to the NFL’s longest postseason drought — while, as a cathartic bonus, dimming the playoff chances of an entity at the root of much heartache by the lake.

“I don’t think there’s a fan base that’s gone through more suffering in pro sports in the last quarter century,” said Joe Thomas, Cleveland’s former All-Pro offensive tackle who experienced one winning season as a rookie in 2007 before retiring two years ago and now considers himself a “full-time” Browns fan. “When you go through that much strife and that much pain and you’ve come that far, the payoff and the emotion and the feeling of joy, I believe, is going to match that feeling of sorrow.

“But I’ve been around Cleveland long enough. … You’ve kinda got to guard your heart a little.”

The Drive. The Fumble. The Move. Watching Modell hoist that elusive Lombardi trophy, but with Baltimore. Thirty different quarterbacks. Going 1-31. Nosediving into a laughingstock of the league.

“We’re the kids at Christmas with no toys. That’s what it’s like to be a Browns fan,” said longtime Cleveland radio host Tony Rizzo, of WKNR 850 AM. “But the resiliency of the Browns fan is unmatched by any in sports. … And the playoffs would be the biggest Christmas present we could ever get.”

One the city has been waiting for 17 seasons.

“One of the best things about the NFL is Cleveland,” said ESPN’s Mike Tannenbaum, who worked in the Browns’ front office in 1995. “That city loves its team — it lives it.

“And it definitely deserves a winner.”

PHIL SAVAGE WAS DRIVING to the Browns’ practice facility for coach Bill Belichick’s Saturday morning staff meeting Nov. 4, 1995. Savage had been doubling as an on-the-road scout during the week and assistant coach on the weekends. As he flipped on the radio, he almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing: Modell was moving the Browns, igniting one of the most tumultuous times in both Cleveland and NFL history. “That’s how I found out,” said Savage, who ultimately followed Modell to Baltimore before returning to Cleveland in 2005 as general manager. “That’s almost how all of [the football staff] found out.”

To that point, Cleveland had been riding a renaissance after becoming the first major city to suffer an economic default since the Great Depression in 1978. From the Kardiac Kids of 1980, to Kosar’s deep playoff runs, the Browns embodied the city’s comeback.

“We were rebuilding our self-esteem,” said Fred Nance, who, as city attorney, would fight to bring the Browns back in 1999. “And the Browns were a big part of that.”

In 1994, the city and Cuyahoga County built a new arena to bring the Cavaliers back downtown, and a new baseball stadium, so the Indians wouldn’t have to share Municipal with the Browns anymore. But as those money-making venues debuted, Municipal literally was falling apart. Coaches and players had to hang their clothes on nails in a wall. The grounds crew, unable to get grass to grow on the infield after baseball season, would just paint it green. The plumbing barely worked.

“The radio guys up on the roof didn’t even have indoor plumbing,” said Doug Dieken, who set a record for consecutive starts as a Browns offensive tackle and has been the team’s radio analyst since 1985. “They had an outhouse instead.”

Though the city technically owned the stadium, Modell had agreed to incur the operating and capital improvement expenses in a 25-year lease signed in 1973.

“Art was in deep, deep debt. He had to have his wife take out a loan just to sign Andre Rison,” Rizzo said. “He wanted to stick it to the people that were not playing ball with him on that new stadium.”

Nance and Cleveland mayor Mike White had been orchestrating a $175 million renovation to Municipal while rallying support for a sin tax to help pay for it, though that summer Modell had called for a moratorium on negotiations until after the 1995 season.

Going into the weekend, Nance and White were in their office preparing for the ballot measure the following week when they saw footage of Modell on television. They, like so many Browns fans, felt blindsided.

“It was the most amazing sucker punch I’ve ever seen a city take in regards to a sports team,” said Jim Donovan, a longtime Cleveland sportscaster who has called the team’s radio play-by-play since 1999. “Because it was a haymaker that just coldcocked the town out of the blue.”

The following day, the Browns ironically played the Houston Oilers, who just two weeks later would signal their own move to Tennessee. Sponsors immediately bailed on Modell and had their signage blacked out with paint before kickoff.

“It basically looked like the stadium had been on fire,” Savage said. “And of course, it was a morgue atmosphere. And we got beat and just sort of staggered through the rest of the year.”

At the final game played at Municipal later that season, fans brought hammers and saws to dismantle seats and bleachers to take home, tangible memories of a soon-to-be magical past. Players like Earnest Byner, who’d fumbled away the ball against the Broncos in 1988, but who’d also helped deliver Cleveland those playoff runs in the first place, circled the stadium high-fiving fans before heading into its dilapidated locker room for a final time.

“I just remember being dumbfounded, not understanding how the Cleveland Browns franchise could be going to Baltimore,” said Kevin Mack, Byner’s cohort in Cleveland’s dominant backfield during the 1980s. “I just couldn’t comprehend it. … It was just mind-blowing.”

Over the next two months, the city successfully fought to keep the Browns name, the team’s colors and the history in Cleveland. Modell agreed to pay damages and a penalty for breaking the stadium lease. And the NFL promised to give the city a team within three years. But as Cleveland prevailed in those battles, Modell ultimately won the right to immediately bolt for Baltimore. A year later, Municipal was demolished, so FirstEnergy Stadium could be erected in its place for the new Browns. It was a physical sign of the end to a beloved era.

“Going to a Browns game, standing next to your dad, in the freezing cold was a rite of passage in Cleveland,” said Nance, who has been LeBron James’ personal attorney dating back to when James was in high school in northeastern Ohio in 2002 — the last time the Browns were in the playoffs.

To this day, Nance, now a managing partner with Squire Patton Boggs, can’t discuss Cleveland’s losing the Browns without getting emotional: “I still feel it. There was just so much on the line. There were so many people for whom this struggle defined what Cleveland is all about.”

Belichick — who’d already fallen out of favor in Cleveland for cutting Kosar two years earlier, news so impactful local schools announced it over intercoms during morning bulletins — was fired after the season as Modell sought a fresh start. That paved the path for Belichick to later win six Super Bowls with Tom Brady in New England.

Savage and a handful of other front-office staffers who would make the move to Baltimore, including former Browns tight end great Ozzie Newsome, actually remained in Cleveland through April to prepare for the draft. With its first two picks, the team that would eventually be renamed the Ravens selected offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis. Both would become Hall of Famers and the backbone of a Super Bowl champion five seasons later.

For Cleveland, which has never even been to a Super Bowl, the struggle was only beginning.

THE BROWNS RETURNED TO THE FIELD as an expansion franchise in 1999 for a preseason game, 60 miles to the south in Canton, Ohio. There, Cleveland auspiciously defeated the Dallas Cowboys in overtime. Four years earlier, expansion franchises Carolina and Jacksonville had also met in the Hall of Fame Game. A season later, they were both in the playoffs.

“We obviously were very naive, but I think everybody just kind of felt they were going to pick up right where they left off,” Donovan said. “[New owner] Al Lerner was a billionaire, everybody knew that he would spend a great deal of money. And there was this 49ers influence [in the front office] with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. At least to the eye, everything said, this is going to be easy.

“And that soon ended in the opener against the Steelers when they got absolutely flattened [in a 43-0 loss]. And I think at that point, everyone kind of went, this is going to be a lot harder than we thought.”

The Browns have had three different owners, 10 different general managers and 12 different head coaches since, resulting in two winning seasons and only one playoff appearance.

“When the Browns went back, they had like a full roll of string to get the kite in the air,” said Savage, the GM behind one of those winning seasons in 2007. “Some of that string got used up the first few years and then more of it got used up. And with each successive regime, there’s been less and less string to work with.

“There’s been less patience and more pressure to get it turned around quickly.”

Eric Metcalf, an All-Pro on the last Cleveland team to win a playoff game in 1994, believes the burning desire to restore the Browns to their former glory has created a “vicious cycle” of turmoil instead.

“Everybody who has been there has definitely wanted to bring a winner to the city of Cleveland,” Metcalf said. “But in wanting it so much, it’s created a problem. Because there’s never any stability in the organization. We don’t win in two years, the coach is gone, new coach, new coordinators, new offense, new quarterback.”

Cleveland endured 30 different starting quarterbacks since 1999 — after Brian Sipe, Kosar and Vinny Testaverde essentially manned the position over the same amount of time prior.

“The right quarterback is everything in football,” Thomas said. “It’s the single most important position in all of sports, because it has the most influence over wins and losses by far, and not getting that position right over and over again. … It’s impossible to win consistently.”

AS THE LOSSES PILED UP during the 2016 season, McNeil floated the idea to his massive Twitter following of staging an 0-16 parade at the end of the season, if only as a coping mechanism for all the losing.

“I kind of expected nobody to take it seriously,” he said. “I’ll just make a $25 donation to the local city hall. But sure enough, the Browns continued to lose and then the pressure started building like, ‘Hey, is this thing going to happen?'”

The Browns finally bailed McNeil out with a victory in Week 16. But they couldn’t do the same in 2017 on the way to the second 0-16 finish in NFL history. The same week the playoffs were about to begin, McNeil led a parade of more than 2,000 people circling around FirstEnergy Stadium.

“It was cathartic,” said McNeil, who raised thousands of dollars for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, with sponsors like Excedrin chipping in. “Even though our team sucks, we were still out there supporting the idea of the Cleveland Browns … with the message that we as fans deserve better.”

That historic stretch of losing, however, provided another opportunity for the Browns to finally get it right.

The following draft, Cleveland selected quarterback Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 pick overall. The Browns also grabbed Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward. The year before with the top pick, they drafted Myles Garrett, now a contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Then this past offseason, owner Jimmy Haslam hired general manager Andrew Berry, who transformed Cleveland’s offensive line into a strength, and Kevin Stefanski, who has emerged on the short list for NFL Coach of the Year behind spectacular play-calling.

“It’s been a long, hard road,” Haslam said. “But we think we have the right people in the right place.”

The Browns enter Monday Night Football coming off their most impressive win in years, demolishing the Titans in Tennessee last weekend. In a fourth straight win, Mayfield delivered Cleveland’s finest quarterbacking performance since perhaps Kosar was behind center, with four touchdown passes in the first half alone — the most for the franchise since Otto Graham in 1951 — restoring hope that the third-year Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma can be Cleveland’s long-term answer at the position.

“I had heard about the Cleveland Browns … and how much it means to this place,” Mayfield said afterward. “I didn’t truly believe [it] until I really got here. It means a ton to the city. When I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ This is a passionate fan base that lives, breathes and dies football, and Cleveland Browns football at that.”

Mayfield boldly then added the time has come for Cleveland fans to “reset their expectations,” because the team is “definitely trending in the right direction.”

“Hopefully we’re through with the bad,” Donovan said. “Because when it was great here, you never knew what day of the week it was because you were just following the team and you just knew soon it was going to be Sunday and that was going to be the best day of all.”

McNeil also wants to talk about what it might feel like should the Browns make the playoffs. Especially, if they happened to take out the Ravens on the way.

But like so many other Browns fans, he doesn’t want to jinx it, either.

“The football gods love to crap on Cleveland, and as soon as I say things like that, even in my head …” McNeil says, before stopping himself short. “But just thinking about it takes me back to 1987. And I can’t wait.”

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