BEREA, Ohio — For the last seven years, Steve Hodge has driven from his home in Westerville the night before the Browns open training camp and set up outside the practice fields so he can be the first inside.
But in the wee hours Saturday morning, a skunk nearly foiled his tradition.
The 52-year-old president of the Westerville Browns Backers said his girlfriend had left to find a bathroom and he dozed off. When he woke up around 4 a.m., he thought there was a cat underneath his chair. Soon he wished it were a cat, even a black one.
“I was afraid to leave,” Hodge said. “Eventually, it meandered off looking for food.”
Thankfully, Hodge emerged unsprayed. When the gates opened at 8:30 a.m., he installed himself in the front row, nabbing a corner spot so he could show off his orange No. 2 jersey with glittery green dollar signs pasted on it. It was a recycled Tim Couch, with Manziel pasted over Couch’s name.
Hodge wasn’t the only one who had “Money Manziel” (the moniker on one of Nike’s Johnny Manziel T-shirts) on his mind. By 8:50, the bleachers were packed. Theon Smith said when he and friend Bob Murtha, both of West Akron, arrived at Browns headquarters at 8:15 a.m. there were 100 to 200 people ahead of them in line.
The official attendance was 3,702, the highest on the first day since at least 2005. Last year, 2,692 attended. The crowd was undeterred by a new online registration policy requiring tickets.
But it wasn’t just loyal fans who came. So did the national media. USA Today and the New York Post sent their NFL writers. ESPN’s Bob Holtzman broadcast updates throughout practice, and Browns coach Mike Pettine sat down with him afterward.
“No makeup, though,” Pettine joked.
The practice was shown live on NFL Network, with ex-Browns linebacker Willie McGinest, one of its analysts, grudgingly accepting a media armband.
“It was just great to walk out the door and feel the energy,” Pettine said. “I’ve said all along that we have the best fans in the league. They’re passionate. They’re loyal. They love football. They’re knowledgeable, and that was evidenced [Saturday].”
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The evidence may have been their silence. While running back Terrance West and receiver Andrew Hawkins looked good as pass-catchers, the defense dominated, acting like they wanted the ball more than the offense. Strong safety Donte Whitner noted that fans “only want to cheer for the offense.”
“But that’s OK, we’re all Browns fans,” said Whitner, a product of Cleveland’s Glenville High School.
Contributing to the quiet may have been the lack of big throws called for Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and the 22nd overall pick from Texas A&M, who has taken Browns’ fans love of the backup quarterback to a new frenzy. His jerseys were everywhere — along with a sighting of an Andre Rison, Reuben Droughns and William Green.
The latter three represent glimpses from a past that fans hope to forget. Manziel is the future, even if he doesn’t start a regular-season game this season as he sits behind quarterback Brian Hoyer.
“It’s not just my number, my name on the back. It’s Cleveland. It’s the Browns,” Manziel said of so many supporters wearing his jersey. “It’s awesome to have the fan base we have. It’s a great turnout [Saturday], and I’m sure that won’t stop any time soon.”
Cheryl Brown, 55, of Cleveland, brought a group of 20 that arrived at 7:30 a.m. Attending games for 20 years, Brown fumbled to remember the name of Pettine’s predecessor, Rob Chudzinski, who lasted only a year.
“I’m excited about this season,” Brown said. “They’ve got a new coach and he’s not their daddy. He’s about business and building a winner.”
Brown has been through the constant starting over too many times to count. Pettine is the Browns’ seventh coach since 1999. But with Pettine and new general manager Ray Farmer in charge, Brown is predicting playoffs.
Owner Jimmy Haslam also praised Pettine, saying he thinks the coach will be in Cleveland “for years to come.”
Haslam refused to predict the Browns’ record in 2014, calling that “unfair.”
“This is a long process. This is a team that has not been very good for a long time and despite what a lot of people think, we’re actually patient and feel we have the right group in place,” he said. “I think we’ll have a better football team this year and we’re all going to be disappointed if we don’t.
“If we were 12-4 last year, it would still be all about getting better. I think Ray and Pet and [executive chief of staff] Bill Kuharich did a nice job with free agency and the draft. We probably need another year or two like that to have really the kind of roster we need. In my terminology, we’re directionally correct.”
For fans following a team that has had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in 15 years, directionally correct might sound fine as long as it doesn’t start with a 4 or a 5. Season ticket holders like Hodge or Pumpkinhead, roaming the end zone with a buddy in a winged helmet, orange cape and breastplate made of EVA floor mats, seemed undeterred by the Browns’ previous failures.
Pumpkinhead, aka Gus Angelone, 38, of Parma, made headgear for himself and one of two sons from Halloween decorations from Jo-Ann Fabric. His friend Josh Jansen, 30, of North Olmsted, said he had “a lot of free time over the summer” to fashion a new costume for Browns games.
The first practice of a new regime could have felt like deja-vu. But Johnny Football’s in town and optimism reigned. Even a skunk couldn’t spoil the party.