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Dawgs have their day

After three-season hiatus, Cleveland Browns take the field again.

On the shores of Lake Erie just west of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits another shrine made of concrete and glass.

The new Cleveland Browns Stadium could easily be viewed as a memorial to the greats who made NFL history on the Lakefront, but it's really a tribute to the fans of this fabled team. It was their indomitable spirit that sustained the legacy of the Browns even though owner Art Modell moved the original franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

"It's a way to tell the country that, hey, we're real people who care about our city," said John "Big Dawg" Thompson, the team's official No. 1 fan and the mask-wearing leader of the Browns' infamous Dawg Pound.

"We fought to keep our team, and we won. We are the only city to have a franchise leave and come back with the same name, colors and history. That's what's so important. It links the old to the new. That's why it was so important that this town win the victory."

With the win comes a victory party, and it's already started in Cleveland. Countdown clocks can be found all through the city. Banners with "Welcome Home Browns" dot the landscape. Anchors wave orange pompoms in the middle of newscasts. Stories give fans tips on how to avoid straining their vocal chords.

For Browns coach Chris Palmer, a simple shopping excursion can become an adventure.

"You really can't go any place without the feel of the Browns," Palmer said. "I went to the mall with my 18-year-old daughter. She gets back and tells her mom, "People were looking at him like he has three heads.' You lose your privacy, but people mean well."

Tonight at Fawcett Stadium in nearby Canton, Ohio, the celebration begins when Cleveland plays Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game. It's the debut of an expansion team, but sports has never seen an expansion team like this one.

First-year franchises typically have to introduce their sport to uninitiated fans. The Lightning taught Tampa Bay about hockey, the Magic turned central Florida residents into NBA fans.

Here, the new Browns are getting lessons from Northeast Ohio natives about history, tradition and passion. Palmer began training camp with an eight-minute video about the team's days of grandeur.

"I don't think the guys have really grasped the Browns' tradition, really what it means to people here in this state and particularly for these true Browns fans," said nose tackle Jerry Ball, one of only three current Browns who played for the original franchise. "They haven't actually driven to a stadium and been swamped in the parking lot, going and coming.

"These people, they love us. They (the players) see it, but I don't think really many of us visualize the magnitude of the fans. You can maintain a certain level of privacy, but for the most part, you actually belong to the Cleveland Browns and their fans."

It's not just the Browns, it's the sport itself that has enchanted the area for generations. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue describes the adoration Ohio has for football as a "cradle to grave love." Canton is the birthplace of pro football, high school programs such as Massillon and Cincinnati Moeller are the fabric of lore. Ohio State football is a religion which holds services every Saturday in the fall.

"I think it's just part of our culture, like gumbo is part of Louisiana culture," said Browns linebacker Chris Spielman, who was born in Canton and played for Massillon before attending Ohio State. "Football is part of northeast Ohio. It's what Friday nights are made of, it's what kids do. At least, it's what I did when I was growing up, even in the winter. We played football forever, all the time."

Yet that overwhelming devotion was not enough to stop Modell from moving the Browns to Baltimore after reaching an impasse with the city on a new stadium. He announced his plans with four home games remaining in 1995, and became forever vilified. Modell and his family received death threats, and even four years later, the anger has not subsided. The Ravens owner declined to attend Saturday's Hall of Fame enshrinement of former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome in part because he fears returning to Ohio.

In the last game at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1995, the Browns beat Cincinnati 26-10, but there were no real winners on that day. Bleacher planks were uprooted and chairs were thrown from the upper deck.

"When I left here, the last thing I remember is a picture of everybody crying," said tackle Orlando Brown, who played for the Browns from 1993 to '95. "That was a sad moment for all the guys playing even though we won the game."

Devastating is the word most often associated with the Browns' departure. Fans mourned as if a family member had died. Thompson describes that time in the gravest of terms.

"It was like finding out that your best friend has been diagnosed with a terminal illness," Thompson said. "We had four opportunities to visit our friend and tell them goodbye before the inevitable happened. Now it's like after all that hurt and dismay, we're getting our friend back.

The Browns' rebirth was spawned by a historic public-private partnership between the NFL and the city of Cleveland. Although Modell took the franchise, the city retained the colors, nickname and records, many produced by the 15 Browns in the Hall of Fame.

Tagliabue and then-mayor Michael White authored the agreement, but the fans inspired it with an emotional protest. Faxes flooded the offices of NFL teams, Clevelanders marched at league meetings and the Internet became an electronic rallying hall for Browns fans around the nation.

Absence has made the orange and brown hearts of Clevelanders grow even fonder. For the first time in history, all 10 home games are sellouts. Tickets for each game went on sale last month and were gobbled up in 65 minutes. Tickets to the regular-season opener were gone in eight minutes.

After tonight, the Browns play in Tampa, then return for their first game in Cleveland on Aug. 21 against the Vikings. fans can't wait, and neither can the players.

"We get to come back and see them roaring, hollering, barking," Brown said. "That's going to be a touchdown for me."

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