Unless they have their AARP cards, ardent followers of a certain team in Ohio probably don’t remember the words “Cleveland Browns fan” without the words “long-suffering” in front of them.
The Browns haven’t won a division title in 30 years. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1994.
In 1995, owner Art Modell even absconded with the franchise to Baltimore.
So give the large Browns following among professional wrestlers a lot of credit: They have stood by their team. They are hardcore fans through and through. They remember Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, the Dawg Pound, Cleveland Stadium ... hanging Modell in effigy.
The wrestlers who are unabashed Browns fans include WWE superstars The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Johnny Gargano and EC3, wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler and Impact Wrestling star Dave Crist of the tag team oVe, which stands for Ohio Versus Everything. And despite their own successes, they’re all basically fanboys when it comes to talking about their team.
All of them were born in Ohio save for Lawler (though born in Memphis he spent some portion of his formative years in Lorain, Ohio, after his father was transferred to a Ford assembly plant there), and all of them save for “The King” are in their 30s. ESPN spoke to The Miz, EC3, Gargano and Crist about their Browns fandom, their earliest recollections and the future of the franchise (hint: they all agree it’s bright).
WWE superstars The Miz (Mike Mizanin) and Ziggler (Nic Nemeth) are both 38. When they were discovering football in grade school, Kosar was putting the Browns in the playoffs annually.
Miz said he can remember riding the bus to school in the fifth grade and the students singing to the tune of The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” with the words, “Bernie, Bernie, ohhh ohh ... Super Bowl!”
“Bernie is my first recollections of the Browns and of a quarterback,” said Miz, who despite the extraordinarily busy schedule of a WWE superstar manages to get to a game or two every year. “I’m too young to remember Jim Brown.”
Miz acknowledges how hard it has been over the years to be a Browns fan, with the harassment from his friends who root for other teams. But he said when you’re from the area, it’s ingrained that you stick with the Browns, come what may.
The Browns are now the pick of many to win the AFC North, and Miz cut a promo on the rest of the division moving forward.
“Baker is the real deal,” said Miz, who was born in Parma, Ohio. “And the young crew that we have will make heads turn. The North is going downhill. The Steelers are a mess with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. They just can’t figure that stuff out. You’ve got two All-Stars who don’t want to play there. Why is that? The Bengals are already downhill. I don’t think the Ravens can sustain it. I don’t think Lamar Jackson is that guy. Baker is. He’s the guy people will talk about for years to come. I’m excited. I say playoffs this year.”
One of Miz’s fondest Browns memories actually occurred last season, and he documented it on Twitter.
Miz was at his then-new home in Austin, Texas, when the Browns broke their losing streak with a 21-17 victory over the New York Jets on Sept. 20. Ziggler was there, too.
Anheuser Busch gifted Miz one of its Bud Light refrigerators set to open when the Browns ended their losing streak. The problem for Miz -- well, really for his wife, former WWE competitor Maryse, who is French Canadian -- was that the lock for the fridge took some assembly.
“I was setting up the lock," Miz recalled, "and Maryse was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you locking the refrigerator?’ I said, ‘You don’t understand.’ She said, ‘No, I get it. But I don’t get it. Why would you lock it? Why don’t you just drink the beer?’ ‘Because we haven’t won a game in a long time. When we win, we get free beer.’
“It was a whole discussion. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. What a great idea by Bud Light. I didn’t think it would even open. It was legit five seconds later when the lock dropped.”
Miz said he, Ziggler and another friend proceeded to drink all of the beers that very night.
At 31, “Johnny Wrestling” is the baby of the group with which ESPN spoke.
And speaking of babies, Gargano’s ties to the Browns go back literally to the womb.
He was born on Aug. 14, 1987, which in and of itself isn’t an especially significant date in Browns history. But what it does mean is that when his parents attended the 1986 AFC Championship Game between Cleveland and the visiting Denver Broncos on Jan. 11, 1987 -- the game known for “The Drive” -- Johnny was there, too.
In his mother’s belly.
“I guess you could say I experienced my first Browns heartbreak while I was in the womb,” Gargano said.
Cleveland fans could do without the details of “The Drive,” but it’s interesting to note that Gargano’s father was there to root on John Elway, his favorite player. Despite also being born in Cleveland, he just had an affinity for Elway, who engineered a 98-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to tie the game. Denver won in overtime on a field goal.
Gargano’s first real recollection of anything Browns-related was running around at the wild scene in Cleveland when Modell was hung in effigy in December 1995 after announcing he was moving the Browns to Baltimore.
“My parents brought me downtown. Everyone was going crazy,” Gargano said. “I was like 7 or 8, so I didn’t really understand the execution of a mannequin.”
Gargano said his father had Browns season tickets from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. He said he bought the jerseys of players such as Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Charlie Frye.
“I distinctly remember going to training camp a lot,” Gargano said. “I got Jeff Faine’s autograph and was super pumped about it.
“I started getting really into the NFL draft because as a Browns fan, that’s our Super Bowl. Every year it was new hope. ‘We got Luke McCown! We got Charlie Frye!’ I was such a big draft guy and still am to this day. Every April I would hone in on a player I wanted the Browns to go after and just hope and hope. Then they would draft somebody else and I’d talk myself into him, like all Browns fans do.”
The Browns' first-round draft history pre-2017 is spotty at best. But they’ve added four building blocks since, with 2017 No. 1 overall Myles Garrett, 2018 No. 1 overall Baker Mayfield, David Njoku (No. 29 overall in 2017) and Denzel Ward (No. 4 in 2018). Their other first-round pick during the recent span, Jabrill Peppers, was traded to the Giants in the deal that brought Beckham and Olivier Vernon to Cleveland.
The acquisition of OBJ took the excitement of Browns fans for the upcoming season to a whole new level.
“The first thought that went through my mind was, ‘Oh man, our bandwagon is gonna be full this season!’ To go from the team that everyone clowned on year in and year out to America's new must-see team is quite the jump,” Gargano said. “On paper, our offense looked great before OBJ. And now it's a straight-up video game with him included. It's literally 'Madden.'”
EC3 (Michael Hutter) is 36. He was born in Cleveland, and his father is a diehard Browns fan.
“My dad started taking me to games back when the Dawg Pound was the real Dawg Pound,” EC3 said. “My favorite player and one of the first ones I remember was Leroy Hoard. I liked him and Eric Metcalf.”
EC3 recalled sitting close to the front row of the Dawg Pound at one of his first games as just a boy. He said he wasn’t aware of all that was going on around him, but that it was loud.
“It could get nasty and messy, and there were beers flying all round,” EC3 said. “I was almost like a mascot for the day. But I can remember Michael Jackson caught a touchdown on our end, and he pulled me out of the Dawg Pound and gave me a bear hug.”
EC3 also holds the distinction of having been banned from Cleveland Stadium by then-Browns owner Randy Lerner.
“I may have gotten a little unruly once. I have a letter from 2006 that says I’m not welcomed back,” EC3 said. “I got it framed, and it hangs in my office. I sent a letter saying I won’t be coming back due to your management.”
Apparently, the ban was lifted at some point. EC3 and Gargano were invited guests on the field last year for the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“The energy was completely different,” EC3 said. “You could feel the change coming.”
Impact star Crist, one half of oVe with his brother Jake, is 36. He was born in New Carlisle, Ohio, just outside Dayton.
He also is the proud, first-time owner of Browns season tickets for 2019. Club seats, no less.
The Browns noticed Crist mentions them on social media. A lot. Almost every time he tweets or posts on Instagram. So they invited him to tour the facility in Berea and ended up convincing him to get all the way on board for the upcoming season.
Crist, whose father is a Browns fan, was blown away by the invitation.
“Being a lifelong Browns fan, it has always been a dream of mine to visit the practice facility to see where they hone their craft,” said Crist, who made it to four home games in 2018 and road games at Cincinnati, Oakland and Baltimore. “Larry Ogunjobi was literally 5 feet away from me. I missed Baker by like 10 minutes. I was just ... it was an amazing situation. When I was talking to them, they were like, ‘You’re a pro wrestler, but your knowledge of football is pretty good.’ I was like, ‘This is what I do.’ Football season, I submerge myself in football.”
Not wanting to miss his 1 p.m. appointment in Berea, Crist and his fiancée arrived at the facility 30 minutes early and sat in the lobby. He said she told him this was going to be the longest 30 minutes of his life. He just stared at the jerseys and photos on the wall.
They went on their tour. They took loads of pictures. Crist had a goofy smile plastered on his face from start to finish.
“The entire time," he said, "my fiancée was like, ‘You need to calm down. I love that you’re this happy, but like, you just need to calm down a little bit. You’re coming off as though you might be a little off.
“When we sat down to talk -- this was the craziest thing -- when we sat down to talk about pricing, and they were like, 'How would you feel about club seating?' I was like, 'She’ll never be about this. I’ll never be able to get these.' So they said, 'They’re extra-wide chairs, better cushions ...’ and she goes, ‘OK, we’ll take them.’ I was like, ‘What?!?’”
Crist and his brother, along with fellow oVe member Sami Callihan, were in the front row of the Dawg Pound for the season finale last year when Gargano and EC3 were on the field. Fortunately, a battle royale didn’t break out.
Crist sees a bright future for his team. He’s all about the quarterback.
“Baker is my dude,” said Crist, who recently started a podcast called “Wrestling with Sports” with former MLB All-Star Jason Kendall in which they talk to wrestlers about their love of sports and to athletes about their love of pro wrestling. “The thing I like most about Baker is he just has that intangible, that 'it' factor. When he cut that promo and said, 'I woke up feeling dangerous' (after the Browns beat the Falcons), that literally woke up Cleveland. That was the spark that Cleveland needed. From that point on, the team followed him and he was ready to rock and roll. I think he’s a natural-born leader.”