Big Dan was a Browns fan.
He was much more than that, certainly, but he was unapologetically one of us.
He was born in the spring of 1959, and was only four years old when the Browns won their last championship. He wasn’t old enough to remember the glory years, but he always talked with pride like he had seen it all. His dad had no interest in sports, so it wasn’t until he started playing football in school that he really came to know the team he’d root for the rest of his life.
Big Dan hated Terry Bradshaw. He always talked about how that dumb hillbilly would scramble around and somehow convert each and every 3rd and long against us, and how Ben Roethlisberger was Bradshaw all over again. When Turkey Jones picked up Bradshaw and slammed him on his head, it became (and would remain) Big Dan’s favorite football play of all-time.
He loved Brian Sipe, Ozzie Newsome, Clay Matthews and the Kardiac Kids.
He loved Bernie Kosar, Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield and Michael Dean Perry. I remember as a kid listening to him talk on the phone for hours with friends and family, arguing how Bernie Kosar was the best quarterback in the AFC Central and Jerry Glanville and Sam Wyche were scumbags.
John Elway and Earnest Byner ripped his heart out. He’s convinced we would have won one of those Super Bowls.
He hated Marty Schottenheimer’s prevent defense.
In the week leading up to the opener in 1989, Big Dan taught me that we hated the Steelers. Why? Because they were the Pittsburgh Steelers, and if Big Dan said so, that was good enough for me. The Browns won that game 51-0. It was glorious.
Big Dan took me to my first Browns game. It was December at the old Stadium, the last home game of the disastrous 1990 campaign. I was 11 years old, and my anger burned at Deion Sanders for intercepting one of Bernie’s passes. Big Dan fit right in at Browns games. He was loud and rowdy and would talk to anyone in his section. The Browns held on to win 13-10. It was Ozzie Newsome’s last home game. We were seated in the upper deck, but we waited long after the game was over to cheer the Great Oz when he came back out to say goodbye to the Dawg Pound.
Big Dan loathed everything about Bill Belichick. Whether it was cutting Bernie Kosar, playing prevent defense or the infamous “Metcalf up the middle” during every 3rd and long or two minute drill, Belichick drove him crazy. Many of the Browns home games were blacked out during those seasons, and he would get out his golf ball retriever and move the antenna on the roof in a vain effort to get a fuzzy view of the game on Channel 13 from Toledo. He was convinced Vinny Testaverde was colorblind and could only see black and yellow.
He hated that Art Modell moved the team. And it certainly didn’t help when that new team in Baltimore would be sharing his last name.
Big Dan loved that we got the team back, but for him, the new Browns picked up where the old ones had left off: Butch Davis running the ball on every 3rd down with no hope of ever making it, Romeo kicking field goals while down three touchdowns, Mangini always punting in the opponents territory when we so rarely ever got that far and of course, getting Shurmured for the last two seasons. A decade of dropped passes, ultra-conservative play calling, bend-but-don’t break defenses, and lots of kicking.
The last game Big Dan attended was on a bitter cold Thursday night in 2009 against the Steelers. The temperature was around zero and the wind chills were much lower than that. The Browns were terrible, and the Steelers were fighting to make the playoffs. Somehow the Browns managed to pull off an ugly win on national TV and essentially end the Steelers season. Big Dan was so cold it hurt, but he swore it was worth it.
Early in 2011, Big Dan was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach and liver cancer. He fought it with everything he had and beat the odds. On Week 14 this season, Big Dan needed a win to make the playoffs in our fantasy league. We watched the Browns beat the stuffing out of Kansas City that afternoon, and his fantasy team, which had been limping through the whole second half the season came to life and he won. The next day, I took him to the cancer center for radiation and they had us take him to the hospital. His condition deteriorated rapidly. The next day he was on a respirator. One of his buddies came to see him and I took him back to the ICU. His buddy was having a hard time saying anything, so I told Dad that I guaranteed him that the league trophy would be staying in our family this year. His buddy added to the end of my statement that he was going to manage his team for him while he was in the hospital. Big Dan’s eyes opened and rolled and his lip curled. We knew exactly what he was thinking and laughed. It ended up being the last thing I ever told him that he was able to respond to. Dad passed away two days later. That weekend, he beat me in the first round of our playoffs and won the championship against his archrival the following week.
How many Browns fans in that great Dawg Pound in the sky can claim that the Browns beat the Steelers in the last game they attended, that the Browns won the final three games of their lives, and that they posthumously won their fantasy football league championship? Big Dan can, and I’m sure everyone in that section knows it by now.
The use of the terms “loved” and “hated” to describe how Dad felt about the Browns over the years is appropriate. This team of ours elicits strong emotions. Another word that characterized how Big Dan felt about the Browns was “hope”. Every season, every draft, every new coaching hire, he always held out hope that things would get turned around and that some day they would win it all, and when it finally happened, it was going to be awesome. He didn’t live to see it, but I just believe that someday, somehow, I will, and when I do, my first thought is going to be of him. Big Dan embodied the way we all feel about this darned team. Big Dan was a Browns fan.