Fifteen months ago, Chris McNeil stood in the single-digit January cold of downtown Cleveland as thousands arrived for his unlikely, tongue-in-cheek, football creation – the “Perfect Season Parade” designed to “celebrate” the Cleveland Browns for their just completed 0-16 campaign.
The parade route was in the form of a zero, people marching round and round in honor of the Browns’ 2017 win total. “The no victory lap,” it was dubbed. Fans brought signs calling for the firing of the coach and the selling of the team. Another simply read: “#Why”. One group carried tombstones with the names of the team’s many failed quarterbacks.
There was an ambulance. There was a hearse.
“It felt good to have the hearse,” McNeil said. “We had a mock funeral. It was cathartic.”
McNeil was laughing that day. The 39-year-old purchasing manager for a metal fabrication shop and Browns season-ticket holder always wanted it to be a lighthearted response to the misery. And it was.
He is laughing even more now though because out of the depths of that despair has come the Browns’ new reality – a quickly rebuilt roster featuring star quarterback Baker Mayfield and newly acquired wideout Odell Beckham Jr. that has Cleveland suddenly, miraculously, a Super Bowl contender.
“The Vegas odds,” McNeil marveled, citing how in some sports books the Browns are now as high as 7-1 to reach the Super Bowl, a game the franchise has never played in. “Everything is a little overheated, but that’s OK. When we held the parade, I had no idea we’d be standing here right now. No idea.”
About the only thing rarer than wins in Cleveland is hope. Obviously, the Browns still need to do it on the field. No championships are won in March. Yet for the first time in a long time they’ve given their long-suffering fans something to be excited about.
The Perfect Season Parade was originally scheduled for the year prior, but the Browns won on Christmas Eve to assure a 2016 record of 1-15. It was a humble mark, but at least it was something. McNeil had gained the proper permits and raised money for security and facilities prior to the victory. He was pleased to donate $50,000 to the Cleveland Food Bank (Browns ownership even contributed $25,000).
“I was like, ‘OK, we’re done, that was a fun way to wrap up the story,’ ” McNeil said. “Then I’m at the  season opener, the first quarter of the first game, and people are like, ‘Hey, is the paperwork for the parade still good?’ And I’m like, ‘Here we go.’ ”
The Browns lost that game and then the following 15 to resurrect McNeil’s parade. It was actually met with mixed feelings in Cleveland. While many saw it as a farcical way to celebrate rooting for such a forlorn franchise, others thought it was embarrassing to the city. It wasn’t without precedent.
In the darkest days of the Detroit Lions’ futility – the only other team to post an 0-16 season – fans there staged the “Millen Man March” to call for the firing of general manager Matt Millen. Cleveland, though, was next-level stuff.
“It wasn’t just going 0-16,” McNeil noted. “It was 1-31 at that point.”
Who knows, maybe it worked?
“There was actually some optimism that day,” McNeil said. “We knew we had gotten John Dorsey [as general manager], so people were feeling good about that. Mainly though, it was the fact that it couldn’t get any worse than this. How could it?”
Then Dorsey drafted Mayfield No. 1 overall, despite plenty of doubters. That was a huge start, and not just because Baker morphed into a potent player as a rookie.
“He’s been great for the city because he brings a little swagger that we almost never have,” McNeil said. “It was nice when we had LeBron, but we never have it with the Browns.”
Coach Hue Jackson was finally fired in midseason and the Browns went 5-3 down the stretch to finish the season 7-8-1. Then came this offseason. Running back Kareem Hunt was signed (a controversial move considering his problems, but one that clearly brings talent). Defensive lineman Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson were brought in. Then came Tuesday, the capper, when Cleveland traded for Beckham.
The entire city has been drunk on expectations ever since.
“It’s at a fever pitch,” said Anthony Lima, a co-host on the morning show of Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan, comparing it to the 2014 return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers. “Fans haven’t had this level of anticipation and joy about the Browns in legitimately 25-30 years. There was excitement when Johnny Manziel was drafted [in 2014] but that was hope, that was fans trying to will something to happen. This feels real.”
As a joke, McNeil started the Twitter hashtag #BrownsFanID for fans to post old pictures of them in Browns gear – elementary school photos, dressed up for Halloweens long past, grainy shots with their grandfather. It was a way to prove they weren’t just jumping on the bandwagon.
“A bandwagon? How about that?” McNeil laughed. “We haven’t had a bandwagon since the mid-80s with Bernie Kosar. The photos are great. Everyone is like, ‘Hey, I had that shirt too.’ It’s a way to reclaim the Browns. This is the fan base we once had, before they left and before all those terrible seasons.
“In my opinion, there is no bandwagon,” he continued. “The more the merrier.”
Fifteen months … 180 degrees.
“Unbelievable,” McNeil said.
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