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Browns Backers

Fans find togetherness far from their spiritual home of Cleveland

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Every Wednesday or Thursday between August and December a next-day-air package arrives at Ron Burger's downtown office. It's a package from dad back home in suburban Cleveland.

Burger rips it open. All's well. Dad's videotape of the previous week's Cleveland Browns game has arrived safely.

On Saturday Burger rises at about 7 AM and gets the coffee brewing. He unplugs the phone, turns down the volume on the answering machine, and slides in the tape. Dad is pretty good about editing out commercials and halftime, so the tape is about an hour and a half long. But with all the rewinding Burger does to savor the highlights, often in slow motion, it takes him about five hours to watch the game.

Every summer when the Browns are at training camp, Burger visits his father to deliver blank tapes and envelopes. Every envelope is already stamped and addressed. He doesn't want anything to go wrong. But the weirdest thing is that when Burger watches the game on Saturday he's already watched it live the previous Sunday, in the company of 100 to 200 other frothing Browns fans in a private room at the Cubby Bear Lounge. And that's the problem. That's just too many people to watch a Browns game the way the good Lord intended it to be watched. Anyway, the networks replay the best plays only 4 or 5 times instead of 10 or 15.

Burger is president of the Chicago chapter of the Cleveland Browns Backers, the most insane of all sports fans. There are 85,000 of them, with chapters in Canada and Japan. On the main floor at the Cubby Bear different games play simultaneously on dozens of televisions, and cheers and groans rise from pockets of fans gathered around each. But the only way to accommodate all the Browns fans is in their own room upstairs on a giant screen.

The 300 or so official members of the Chicago and suburban chapters are accountants, hotel doormen, cardiologists, social workers, and everything else you can name. Some aren't even from Cleveland--the founder of the Chicago chapter is from Alabama. On game days they transform like werewolves.

My first exposure to the Browns Backers was a few years ago, when I visited my friend Wade in Denver. He wasn't your typical football freak; a long-haired, radical political organizer, he ran an advocacy center for people with disabilities. When I arrived at his house the police were on the phone. A Laotian client of Wade's who was retarded and hard of hearing and spoke little English had managed to get arrested. The police wanted Wade to bail him out, but Wade said he had to watch the Browns game first.

And this was only the exhibition season. The Laotian guy waited till past midnight. When Wade died a couple of years later he was buried in his Browns jacket.

Burger spends about 40 hours a week during the football season executing his duties as chapter president. One of the things he does before the season starts is buy about 40 cheap white handkerchiefs, dye them yellow, put pennies in them, and tie the ends off with rubber bands so they're like the weighted yellow penalty flags football refs throw. The Browns crowd at the Cubby Bear throws the flags when the refs miss an obvious penalty committed by the opposition.

Burger has a hard time explaining the addiction. He shrugs and says, "It's therapy. We share with our friends in our own private ways, similar to religious beliefs." Watching the game together is an immense "spiritual pleasure."

Burger moved to Wrigleyville just to be near the Cubby Bear. He has dozens of Cleveland Browns shirts and hats. He sends out a Browns Christmas card. He has Browns Post-it notes.

But he says a lot of guys are much worse than he is. Some have season tickets and fly back for every home game. They spend thousands.

Any true Browns fan can recount in vivid detail, as if it were the Kennedy assassination, where he or she was during the suicidal moments when the Browns lost twice to Denver in the last minutes of the AFC championship game. When Denver put together an excruciating closing touchdown drive in 1987 Burger was in a north side bar. He gets misty-eyed when he talks about it. "It was wall-to-wall Browns fans. I took pictures galore, and all you could do was hold the camera above your head, aim it down, and hope for the best." All was glorious until "the omega." That final drive. Burger says the place was like an el car during morning rush: packed with people in total silence.

But the Cubby Bear Sundays aren't the only thing Burger does for therapy. He has Backers bring food and clothing donations to every game between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The donations pile up in his studio apartment until he gets a chance to take them to the Lakeview Pantry. But he keeps some of the blankets and clothes and on frigid nights roams the streets of Wrigleyville looking for homeless people to give them to.

He says there's a science to it. "You don't walk up and say, 'Hey, you need a blanket?'" That's too much like charity. Some would rather freeze. First he tries to get some rapport going with an opening line like "Shit, man, it's cold out here!" Just talking for a bit lets them accept his offerings. "Sometimes all a guy's got is a light sweater. Sometimes you slip a guy a couple smokes. If he's sleeping, put a blanket over him. Put it over his head. Maybe the cops'll walk up thinking he's passed away and take him to a shelter."

Once while he was out, dressed in numerous layers, he stopped at a Starbuck's. They didn't want to serve him until he pulled out a $20 bill.

Burger says it's therapy because he once lost a job and spent about six weeks living in his car over the Christmas holidays. He had lots of friends and family who would have gladly helped, but he was too ashamed to ask.

Life is sweet now. The Browns are winning this year, and he knows that one day before he dies they'll win the Super Bowl. "If it's against the Bears," he says, "there's a God!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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