On the May day that ESPN released its latest 30 for 30, “Believeland” — about the now-52-year championship drought in my hometown — it snowed in Cleveland. Well, of course it did. The two giant questions that swung over my childhood like some swinging axe in a James Bond villain death contraption, were: (1) When will Cleveland finally win something? (2) When will it stop snowing? You didn’t want to know the answer to either.
“Believeland” is a heartfelt look at Cleveland’s sports heartbreaks. All the familiar characters are there:
There’s Red Right 88 — Brian Sipe’s horrifying interception when the Browns were in game-winning field-goal range. “Just throw it in Lake Erie,” Browns coach Sam Rutigliano had instructed Sipe if no one was open. He did not.
There’s The Drive — John Elway’s 98-yard stab through the wind and Cleveland’s soul.
There’s Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo (At some point Ehlo, a fine player who had scored the go-ahead basket, says something in the documentary about how his hand was “right there” when Jordan shot the ball. To be clear: Ehlo’s hand was not right there. But how could anyone expect that? He was Michael Jordan. And he was Craig Ehlo).
There’s the best hitting team I ever saw, the 1995 Cleveland Indians, running into the extraordinary pitching of the Atlanta Braves at exactly the wrong time.
There’s Jose Mesa’s blown save and Tony Fernandez’s staggering error to blow the World Series after officials had rolled the champagne into the Cleveland clubhouse.
There is LeBron James, taking his talents to South Beach — this was when his talents were at their peak.
And there are the wounded Cavaliers last year, led by the game but more-earthbound LeBron, losing to a charmed and indomitable Golden State team.
And, yes, there’s The Fumble. We will come back to The Fumble.
Sports fans want to believe that we are special, that our teams are special, that our experiences are unique and monumental. That is at the core of fanhood. This is why you will hear fans actually arguing about which sports town has endured the most heartache. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve had the “You think YOU have suffered?” argument with Buffalo fans or Jets fans or Cubs fans or Maple Leafs fans (and right now there are fans from a dozen or more star-crossed teams screaming, “Wait! What about our suffering?”). Why would anyone argue about something that stupid? Why would anyone even want to be the hardest-suffering fan group?
We want it, I think, because the suffering is all we have. We endured all that agony. We deserve something for that.
The “Believeland” documentary — featuring my friend, the superb writer Scott Raab, who I just had as a guest on the PosCast to talk Cleveland pain — has a few stunning moments. I suppose the most stunning of them is when David Modell sits below a huge portrait of his adoptive father Art and claims that, in fact, the Browns never really left Cleveland because, you know, the new Browns came so quickly after. That was a staggering bit of logic jujitsu, and it reminded me of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lame attempt to say that he didn’t lie when saying that Darth Vader had killed Luke’s father. “What I told you is true from a certain point of view,” Obi-Wan said. Sure it was. No wonder the Jedi died out.
But the moment that got me in the gut was when former Browns running back Earnest Byner looked into the camera and tearfully apologized for fumbling the ball.
The Fumble — Byner’s fumble late in the 1987 AFC Championship game against Denver — has come to take a prominent place in the laundry list of Cleveland sports horrors. In many ways, it’s the most famous moment on that list. But, in retrospect, it never belonged there. The Fumble, painful as it was at the moment, wasn’t like those other moments.
You look at Red Right 88 or The Drive or Mesa’s blown save or even Jordan’s shot — Cleveland should have won those games. They were in command. They had the lead or they were in ideal position to take the lead. All they had to do was finish the job. And they did not.
But The Fumble, well, let’s be candid: The Browns had no business even being in that game. The only reason they were in that game at all was because of, well, Earnest Byner. He was Superman that game. Byner, you should know, was a 10th-round draft pick. They don’t even have 10 rounds in the NFL draft anymore. He was 5-foot-10, he was not especially powerful, he was not fast, he was supposed to be a special teams kamikaze who cashed a few paychecks and crashed a few helmets before getting a real job. That day, though, when the Browns fell behind 28-10 n the third quarter, Byner took over. He gained 187 yards and scored two touchdowns. It was was a one-man show by a football player who was all heart, all guts. The Browns somehow tied the game at 31.
Then, John Elway promptly drove the Broncos for another touchdown to make it 38-31.
That’s important: The Browns could not stop that Broncos offense. They were never going to stop the Broncos’ offense. Yes, it’s true that even down 38-31, the Browns somehow pushed the ball down the field. Byner was the star. And with a little bit more than a minute left, Byner got the ball one more time, and he seemed to be going into the end zone. Yes, there was elation. Yes, there was hope. And yes, he was stripped of the ball by Denver’s Jeremiah Castille, and the elation and hope drained out instantly, like breath disappearing after a hard punch to the gut.
But, two points:
1. If Byner had scored, the Browns would only have TIED the game. His fumble did not cost the Browns the game. It cost the Browns a CHANCE at the game.
2. There was still a minute left. Elway would have gotten the ball and driven the Broncos to the game-winning field goal. This is not a mere possibility. It’s not even a probability. It’s an absolute certainty, and every Cleveland fan knows it’s true. Instead of being called “The Fumble,” the game would have been known as “The Drive II.” No difference, really.
Byner could not have won that game by himself, though he tried. There were tears in Byner’s eyes as he talked about the very angry letter he got from an old Cleveland fan. The fan said his heart had been torn out of his chest. Byner’s voice cracked as he talked about his own heart, missing from his chest ever since that day. I started crying, too. I was crying because Earnest Byner did not deserve that.
Then again, maybe I was crying because none of us in Cleveland deserve that. Right now, you know, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the best basketball in the NBA playoffs. And right now, the seemingly invincible Golden State Warriors are looking a bit worn down and vulnerable. There’s hope once again, and it’s a growing hope. Maybe it will end the way every hope has ended in Cleveland in 1964. But maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the team. All I can say is that if this team does win, I hope Earnest Byner gets a spot at the front of the parade.