A Game to Remember
It is just one week to the Sept. 6 opening kickoff of the NFL season, although I’m not that excited about watching the Philadelphia Eagles play the Atlanta Falcons. Even if a trio of good friends are Eagles fans.
Instead, I await the Cleveland Browns’ Sept. 9 opener, when I will discover whether the team’s recent upgrades are for real or a bunch of ballyhoo.
I care because it’s tough to get over a lifelong fascination with the only pro team from childhood that I still follow.
An Historic Game
Among the many reasons are one of my most memorable sports memories—attending the first Monday Night Football game ever played in 1970.
I was one of more than 80,000 fans that night at Cleveland’s venerable Municipal Stadium.
Better known as the “Mistake on the Lake,” the aging relic deserved the moniker. The first time I saw a game there, I missed half the third quarter because of restroom lines.
However, the limited number of urinals paled next to the horrid sight-lines for everyone seated in the upper deck.
Invariably, in our group of four or five who went to games, at least one guy had to constantly strain his neck to see around the girders that held the roof in place.
Aside from the poor visibility, that 1970 game holds a warm place in my memory. Especially because—unlike so often in recent years—the Browns won 31-21, thanks to a late pick-six by linebacker Billy Andrews.
Watching a Great Passer
Despite my sometimes-blocked view, the upper deck offered a valuable perspective of the passing genius of Joe Namath. This was just 20 months after Namath had led the New York Jets to their history-making Super Bowl upset of Baltimore.
Until that night, I didn’t have a bird’s-eye view of the famed quarterback’s ability. His passes looked like laser bullets next to Browns’ QB Bill Nelsen’s wounded ducks (which made Cleveland’s victory that much sweeter).
However, it wasn’t the fact that the Browns won that makes the game so memorable.
Two things stand out, starting with the fact that four of us made the four-hour drive from Athens, Ohio to Cleveland—and back—in a long day that ended around 4 a.m. Tuesday.
Today, I’m hard-pressed to drive half that distance without at least one night to rest in between.
The other was the three guys who were with me.
Unfortunately, as so often happens over the years, I eventually lost touch with Artie and Bryan, two Ohio University students from New York.
But Ron, who I roomed with for three years, remains a friend to this day.
He drove us to Cleveland and back in his legendary Volkswagen Beetle, a car that got great gas mileage and lived up to its billing as a dependable vehicle.
Ron excelled in life, too. A casual fine arts major, he used to complete terms papers by using generous white spaces in the margins. But in graduate school Ron buckled down and eventually earned his doctorate.
Today he travels worldwide as a college professor and consultant at an age when many folks are searching for the nearest armchair.
Retaining Fan Status
Over the years, I stopped following most other professional sports teams that once held my interest.
Despite the fading fortunes of the Browns through most of the intervening 47-plus years, I retain my fan status, too.
They remain the primary connection to my second-grade year, when a classmate invited me to play football and touched off a lifelong love for the game.
If Cleveland would stop changing coaches as often as I do my underwear, things would improve.
But even their miseries of late can’t wipe out the joy I feel recalling that first Monday Night Football contest.