A year ago I began teaching at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., which has a football stadium but no football team of its own. This struck me as funny—until it became part of a trend. When Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore last February, he left Cleveland with a football stadium but no football team. He also left me, a Browns fan for 30 years, disenfranchised. So I did the only thing I could think of: I declared myself a free agent.
I immediately notified the NFL head office. (I didn't receive a response.) I then wrote all the teams in the league—except the Baltimore Ravens. I explained that I had been a good and loyal fan of the Browns, following them as I moved from Ohio to Tennessee, to Florida, to Iowa, to Ohio, to Florida, to Ohio yet again and, finally, to Virginia. But I would not follow them as the Ravens. What, I asked, could these other teams do for me? What guarantees could they give me that they, too, wouldn't move? Then I got down to business: I said, "All serious offers would be considered."
Of the 29 teams to which I wrote, 10 replied. Someone in the Washington Redskins' public relations office called and promised that the team would never leave Washington. He also said that the Redskins had been in five Super Bowls—five more than the Browns, he pointed out—and had won three, and that the team's owner was committed to winning more titles. This was a nice change from the Browns' owner, who simply should have been committed.
The Dallas Cowboys sent six 1996 schedules. The Minnesota Vikings mailed the team's schedule, ticket information and an application to become a member of its fan club. The Kansas City Chiefs sent a team photograph and a list of their fan clubs throughout the country. The Carolina Panthers mailed a media guide and a bumper sticker that said THANKS FOR BEING A #1 CAROLINA PANTHERS FAN!
I began to wonder if anyone had read my letter. The Denver Broncos sent an autographed picture of John Elway! What kind of sadists are these people? Sending a photo of Elway to a Browns fan is cruel and unusual punishment.
Rusty Kasmiersky, director of media relations for the New Orleans Saints, wrote the following: "We have received several letters like yours. Some have solicited 'goodies' as inducements to become fans of the Saints. I perceive your letter does not." He explained that I apparently didn't have the emotional bond with the team to be a Saints fan. "Best of luck finding a new home for your affections," he said in closing. I had been rejected by New Orleans, a team traditionally so bad that its fans have worn bags over their heads at home games!
If you're a Browns fan, either you hate the Pittsburgh Steelers or you hate the Cincinnati Bengals (or you hate both teams, if you're a particularly hateful person). Growing up in Dayton, I chose to loathe the Bengals. But I will never be able to hate them again. They sent me an envelope with a media guide, a spirit flag, a pennant and two team photographs. Two weeks later I received another envelope from the Bengals, with another media guide, another spirit flag, another pennant and two more team photographs.
The Jacksonville Jaguars sent a bumper sticker, a team photograph, a media guide and a copy of the team's weekly Jaguars Inside Report. Dan Edwards, Jacksonville's executive director of communications, wrote, "We are hopeful you will become a Jaguars fan so that you can root against your former team, which is still a rival of ours in the AFC Central Division." This was the kind of thinking that could make me a Jaguars fan.
The best letter, however, came from Charlie Taylor, director of public relations for the Atlanta Falcons. Taylor wrote, "As an old Browns fan who first got hooked on the NFL in the late 1950s watching Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Milt Plum, Lou Groza et al., I can understand how you wisely 'got hooked' on Cleveland. While winning is important, it's the men under the helmet as people; it's the family going to the game together; it's the group meeting to watch it on TV; it's the trading card collection; it's fun."
Taylor added that he once lived in Norfolk, where he had watched Old Dominion play basketball. (If he had said football, I would have been suspicious.) And he reminded me that the Falcons have former Cleveland player Eric Metcalf. So I had to make a decision: the Falcons or the Jaguars? But why couldn't I cheer for both teams?