I grew up on the Illinois side of St. Louis in the 70s and 80s. Needless to say, I was a huge sports fan and so were my best childhood pals.
I also happened to grow up with the most beleaguered NFL franchise of its time, the St. Louis Cardinals.
You won’t believe it when I tell you, but I don’t remember a single fan of the Big Red attending class at Brighton Elementary. Not one. Not a jersey. Not a t-shirt. Not a single boy living in the shadow of the Gateway Arch proved brave enough to be seen supporting the laughable Cardinals.
Sure, my Dad liked the Cardinals. He tried defending the team when my brother and I would complain about how many other good games CBS could be showing us instead of the stupid Cardinals. But his was the last generation in St. Louis that was going to support that franchise. And that’s all there was to it.
The Cardinals had been so bad for so long, they became a community punchline. They had bungled so many high draft picks, football fans under 30 had given up on the notion that they’d ever be good. My older brother grew up a Houston Oilers fan, his best friend chose the Bengals.
Do you know how bad the local team had to have been for it to have been cooler for a 13-year-old to love the Cincinnati Bengals?
And with each passing year of Cardinal futility, younger fans gravitated to support other teams, winning teams. My friends were Steelers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Giants and Eagles fans.
The relationship between the Cardinals and football fans in St. Louis became so badly deteriorated that when the day came that Bill Bidwill threatened to move the team to Arizona, the community practically pitched in to help the team pack their bags.
And in 1988, the Cardinals left and moved to Arizona. And although things are good now between team and community, it was certainly touch-and-go for nearly 20 years in the desert as well.
I bring this up because of what happened Wednesday in Cleveland. The Trent Richardson trade to Indianapolis had a familiar ring to me. Only people who’ve heard the sound before can recognize the dubious toll. And once you’ve heard it, you don’t ever forget it.
It’s the unmistakable sound of “the last straw.”
The combined sounds of doors being slammed, of jerseys being tossed in the trash or burned, of phone calls cancelling next year’s season tickets, of little kids crying, of grown men crying, of talk show hosts not being able to censor their commentary, of old men who’ve been fans for life surrendering to the reality that they’ll never see their team play in the Super Bowl.
It’s not that Trent Richardson is some proven superstar or even a lock to become one. The ire in Cleveland, which is being heard throughout the country, isn’t about one player being traded or a new regime giving up on the 2013 season just two games into the schedule.
This is about an abused fan long plagued with optimism having given chance after chance to the local football franchise to deliver on their promise of success only to finally realize in one blockbuster trade, one crystallizing moment, how empty all those promises have been.
Just one year ago, the Browns fan was being asked to forget about never having reached the Super Bowl in 47 years, to forget about having the team they doggedly supported moved to Baltimore so unceremoniously in 1995, to forget about 12 losing seasons out of 14 since Browns football returned to Cleveland, to forget about the last in a long line of failed attempts at building a winner, and to put your faith in yet another new plan, another new hope for the future.
“Get your tickets now,” they screamed from Browns headquarters. “Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden are here! Be the Browns fan who can tell future generations I saw those two play together as rookies! Yes, Cleveland, the Super Bowl is nigh!”
And because Browns fans want so desperately to believe that’s true, they pulled out their cash, and they purchased expensive tickets and pricey #33 jerseys with the name “Richardson” on the back. A blue-collar fan bought into the notion of a blue-collar approach of building a team around defense and a franchise running back. And the team finished 5-11 in 2012, and still the fans believed.
Wednesday, the Browns traded Richardson for the chance to replace Weeden in next year’s draft. Two games into a brand new season, 18 games into the career of a highly-popular third overall draft pick, Browns fans were notified by a new regime that the plan they bought into just last season was a terrible one and that you should now trust in OUR plan, which shall begin in earnest eight months from now.
At the very least, the Browns’ new front office and coaching staff owes the fans of Cleveland an honest explanation.
Did Richardson just not fit the new offense?
“No, that’s not it,” says Team President Joe Banner. (I’m paraphrasing here)
Is he just not a good player and Mike Holmgren was a washed up fool who couldn’t tell where the league was headed offensively?
“No, that’s not it. We think Trent Richardson is a fine player,” says Banner.
Were there some off-field things we’re not aware of? Is Richardson a clubhouse cancer? Or a diva?
“No, that’s not it at all.”
The Browns denied every plausible explanation for why Trent Richardson was traded. All Banner kept saying was, “We felt the value of an additional first round pick was too good to pass up.”
That can’t be it. No one in their right mind would trade a productive 18-month-old 3rd overall pick in hand for a future first round pick of undetermined positioning.
There’s another reason. There simply must be. And at the very least, you owe the fans of Cleveland an honest explanation for why you ripped their hearts out again and in the same breath are asking them to believe in a new direction 18 months after they were sold on buying into the last new direction.
Why would Browns fans trust the organization now or ever again?
Why would a longtime Cleveland football fan remain devoted?
Why would a young fan/future customer living in Cleveland choose the Browns as his/her favorite team?
In 1986, the lowly St. Louis Cardinals held the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft. They selected Michigan State linebacker Anthony Bell, who was projected as a late second rounder. Cardinals Player Personnel Director George Boone was officially dismissed by fans and media as a bonafide football dope for his latest in a long line of awful first round draft selections that were undoubtedly resulting in the annual tradition of losing Cardinal football teams.
Then, the next year, it came. The sound. I remember it vividly.
April 28, 1987. With the seventh pick in the NFL draft, the St. Louis Cardinals select Colorado State quarterback Kelly Stouffer.
Stouffer was a projected second round pick whose stock was on the rise. The Cardinals took him because they thought he’d accept less money since he was projected to go much later in the draft. But Stouffer was the seventh overall selection and he and his agent wanted him to be paid like the seventh overall selection.
He never signed. He never played a single down.
“I never sat down with a coach, never saw a film,” said Stouffer of his Cardinal experience.
The last straw.
Two St. Louis community groups tried salvaging the team’s standing in the city by proposing new stadium deals, but Bill Bidwill dismissed them both. He’d heard the sound as well. He knew the city was done supporting anything with the Bidwill name on it.
Eleven months later, the announcement came that Bidwill was relocating his franchise to Phoenix. A few tears were shed in St. Louis, but it was mostly cause for celebration. The city was willing to wait for an expansion team or never have professional football again rather than give the Cardinals one more chance to disappoint them.
I’m not saying that’s going to happen in Cleveland. The Browns fan is diehard through and through. And like an abused dog, they might accept the lashings for the occasional scrap of food until the day they die. But that sound Wednesday was undeniable, so frightening and so ominous that it apparently scared Cleveland GM Michael Lombardi under his bed. After all, he didn’t show up at the press conference to explain his controversial trade, nor did he call Richardson to tell him he’d been dealt.
The newest Indianapolis Colt had to hear about the trade on the radio.