CLEARWATER — Not all true believers simply head to church on Sundays.
One particular parish gathers at Quaker Steak & Lube on 49th Street North. They come to this restaurant for their ritual, for what, to the rest of us, might seem like serial madness.
They come to watch the Cleveland Browns play football.
It happens all over the country, a secret society almost.
Fans jump on and off the Bucs bandwagon all the time.
"There's no such thing as Browns bandwagon fan," said Brian Zura, 35, who grew up in Cleveland (didn't they all?) and lives in Dunedin. "Nobody chooses to be a Browns fan. You're born into it. We come up from the roots."
There will be hundreds, thousands of Browns fans at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday when Cleveland visits Tampa Bay in the regular season for the first time since 2010. The Bucs are still struggling to return to the postseason for the first time since 2007. Poor them. Browns fans can only smile softly.
The Bucs won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, which was the last time the Browns made the playoffs. Nobody knows the trouble they've seen.
"Are hearts are always breaking," said Chuck Papcke, 56, a Cleveland native who lives in Clearwater. "I can't even count how many times the Browns have broken my heart. But this is our team."
Which explains the conclave at Quaker Steak, home to the Browns Backers of Pinellas, a 25-year-old Browns booster club that boasts 380 members and which last Sunday, when Cleveland hosted San Diego, filled the restaurant with fun-loving lovers of the orange. The Browns were on all the big screens. Bucs-Falcons was showing over in the corner.
Best of all, Browns Backers of Pinellas comes with its own cheerleader. That would be Judy.
Judy B. Goode is a local entertainer, singer and impersonator — Liza, Lady Gaga, Dolly Patron, Janis Joplin, Judy she does them all. But Sundays are for her Browns.
Judy answers to "Leader of the Pound." An original club member, she wears a necklace of dog bones, or dawg bones. She wears dawg masks. Between sips of tequila, Judy cheers and screams and works the crowd. She can get crazy. Judy is 63, a grandmother of four.
"The Browns taught me to never stop believing," said Goode, who is originally from — yes — Cleveland. "I'll be with them until the day I die. This is what I bleed. I like the Bucs. When they went to the Super Bowl, I was there for them, too. What I don't like is that when they're not good, their fans go away. Our fans don't leave. We've been through everything — everything. We stay with our team. That's what you do."
Bucs fans could learn a thing or two from Browns fans. Once upon a time, the Browns were veritable football kings, championships everywhere. Paul Brown's Browns, Jim Brown's Browns, were cutting edge. They were Lombardi's Packers before Lombardi's Packers. But Cleveland's last NFL title came in 1964. The Browns have never been to a Super Bowl. They've teased and tempted, but broke hearts all kinds of ways — Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble. The Browns always found a way.
There’s more. The Browns were swiped from Cleveland in 1995 by the dastardly owner Art Modell, who moved them to Baltimore — where they won the Super Bowl twice. The Browns fired their coach before leaving Cleveland. That coach, Bill Belichick, only became the greatest coach ever. Then there are Browns starting quarterbacks. They’ve gone through 29 of them since being reborn in Cleveland in 1999. Tim Couch. Brady Quinn. Johnny Manziel. We’ll stop there. The Browns went 1-15 in 2016. Last season, they went 0-16.
"It was like jumping into a dark, dark hole every Sunday," said Bill Church, a Cleveland native who owns Quaker Steak.
"It was hard to watch sometimes," said Kristin Anderson, president of the Browns Backers of Pinellas. "But it makes you a stronger person."
These good folks are with the Browns win or lose — and lose.
Only now they might not know what to do with themselves. The Browns are back, or at least reasonably competitive at 2-3-1, behind rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and a swarming defense. In late September, the Browns beat the Jets on a Thursday night. It had been 635 days since their last win. Church unchained a cooler that had been loaded with free beer just for such an occasion.
"The night we beat the Jets, people are comparing that to the night the Cavs won the (2016) NBA title," said Browns backer Chris Bauders, 47, of Largo. "If the Browns won the Super Bowl, it would be utter mayhem."
The Browns have one of the largest, most loyal fan bases in the NFL. Browns Backers has more than 100,000 registered members, with nearly 400 chapters worldwide, including the Holy Devoted Biblical Browns Trackers in Israel and the Antarctica Browns Backers (membership: 1). Browns Backers of Pinellas was named chapter of the year a few years ago. Members of the Browns front office and former players came down to honor the club. What a night that was.
Browns Backers welcomes all, and we mean all. That’s why Brian Zura sucked it up and watched Sunday’s game with his girlfriend, Stephanie Witowski, despite their religious differences. You see, she is a Steelers fan. The Pittsburgh native wore her Steelers jersey and watched her Steelers game on her phone as the Browns game raged all around her.
"You need a new team" Zura said.
"You need a new team. I've got six rings," Witowski said.
I asked for Judy's dawg mask and put it on. It smelled like the inside of Lou Groza's kicking shoe.
Meanwhile, up on the big screen at Quaker Steak, the Chargers were plastering Mayfield and the Browns, 38-14.
It was getting late.
"I still believe," Judy said. "You've got to believe."
She smiled. Then she took another slug of tequila.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029