CLEVELAND — It all started with a “woof.”
In 1985, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, cornerbacks for the Cleveland Browns, began barking at their defensive linemen — an unconventional rallying cry. Nearby fans overheard the antics and returned their own barks.
By the end of the season — after spending months popularizing the phenomenon in practices, games and during interviews — Dixon and Minnifield had established a new identity for the Browns’ defense: the Dawgs.
It wasn’t long before a large section of the Browns’ home field, Municipal Stadium, in the cheap bleacher seats beyond the stadium’s eastern end zone, was named the “Dawg Pound.” There, among a clientele that consisted largely of blue-collar Clevelanders, in a city characterized by its resilience and still gripped by the demise of its once-booming steel industry, grew something strange and wonderful.
The Dawg Pound was a kind of cultural caldron, and the people who occupied its bleacher seats were pioneers of a new form of fandom. First they barked. Then they donned dog masks and carried fistfuls of Milk-Bone dog biscuits into the stadium. Over time, their costumes and props became more and more outlandish: oversize bones, ornamental necklaces, hard hats, massive floppy ears. Then came the names and the fixed personas: D. Dawg, who wore a rabid dog mask and carried a cowbell. Dawg Face, who wore No. 30 and, no matter the temperature, always wore shorts. There was Big Dawg, who sported No. 98; Mobile Dawg, who was known for traveling to away games; Junkyard Dawg; Jam Dawg; Sick Dawg; Fly Dawg; Mad Dawg; and Ugly Dawg.
“We were Browns junkies,” said Mike Randall, who went by Dawg Pound Mike.
The Dawg Pound’s enthusiasm spread throughout Northeast Ohio. Fans recorded songs dedicated to the Browns — fawning odes that hit the market on records and cassette tapes and flooded the local radio shows.
“The Dawgs are barking; they’re all having fun,” went one chart-topper, a paean to the Browns’ beloved quarterback at the time, Bernie Kosar. Another consisted of a rock ballad interspersed with dog barks. Yet another celebrated — in the ’80s sense of the word “bad” — the “Bad, Bad Cleveland Browns.”
Within the stadium, though, things weren’t always lighthearted. There was a rough-and-tumble side to the Dawg Pound — a dark side, an overtly problematic side. “By today’s standards, it was a violent section,” said Vince Erwin, the man behind D. Dawg. Things often descended into hooliganism. Kegs were smuggled in. During contentious, heated games, fans were apt to hurl objects at the opposing team: dog biscuits, snowballs, beer cups.
“It was an intimidating group,” recalled John “Big Dawg” Thompson, who, at the height of his Dawg Pound fame, was one of the most famous sports fans in the country.
In 1995 — in what remains the most infamous moment in Cleveland sports history — the then owner Art Modell announced his plans to relocate the team to Baltimore. When the Browns played their final game at Municipal Stadium, fans in the Dawg Pound dismantled their wooden bleacher seats with wrenches and hacksaws. Elsewhere in the stadium, a whole set of seats was ripped out and passed overhead from row to row, and finally dumped onto the field in protest.
“That was a scary day,” recalled Denny Kochever, the man behind the Dawg Face persona, with an audible tinge of emotion. “Scary and sad.”
A year later, Municipal Stadium was demolished — and the original Dawg Pound section went with it.
By anyone’s standards, today’s Cleveland Browns — reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999, along with a new stadium and a new, fancier Dawg Pound — are the worst team in the National Football League. The Browns lost every game in the 2017 season, finishing 0-16, a low matched by only one other team in league history, the 2008 Detroit Lions. Their record over the last two years is an abominable 1-31. Since relaunching the franchise, the Browns have fielded no less than 28 starting quarterbacks and have burned through eight head coaches. (Hue Jackson, hired in 2016, is the ninth.) The last 19 years have yielded only two winning seasons and a single playoff appearance.
Nevertheless, an estimated 3,000 fans held a parade in January for the team’s “perfect season.” (For some, it offered a chance to show their undying support — or to finally be in on the joke. For others, it was less a celebration and more a form of protest.)
Mr. Kochever, 71, was recently standing over an odd assortment of football paraphernalia, all of it strewn throughout his bedroom: flags, dog masks, necklaces, rawhide bones. The pile covered half the room, and he had plenty more stored away. He’d laid it all out as proof of the depth of his loyalty.
“There are still a few of us who bleed orange and brown,” he said, referring to the Browns’ colors. “But the last 20, 25 years — it’s been tough.”
“When you’re winning, you have everything: team spirit, enthusiasm, the creativity to come up with trinkets and costumes,” he continued. “I used to get up and run across the Dawg Pound. I’d be yelling, I’d be waving my bone. But there’s not a lot to get us going anymore.”
There’s an old cliché in Cleveland, one that’s been minted on T-shirts and adopted as an unofficial Browns motto: “There’s always next year.” It encapsulates the city’s consciously misguided, yet enduring, sense of hope.
But at this point, so many next years have piled up that an entire generation of Browns fans has come to know the team only as perennial losers — and, by now, many of the Dawg Pound superfans who defined the city’s sporting culture in the ’80s and ’90s have vanished from the stands. Those who are left — fans like Dawg Face and D. Dawg — have become an ever-shrinking subculture in Northeast Ohio, custodians of the fading memory of the Browns as a gritty and formidable football team, one that, between ’86 and ’89, played in three out of four A.F.C. championship games, and, in the 1950s and ’60s, won four N.F.L. championships.
As the fan base has changed, so, too, has the nature of the Dawg Pound itself. Heightened security measures have made the section less rowdy and more family friendly, and have prevented fans from carrying in some of their more distinctive flair. Mr. Erwin, for example, was barred from carrying in both his large orange bone (a potential weapon) and his cowbell (a “noise maker”). Far from the intimidating fan section it once was, the Dawg Pound became, in the words of one commentator, “a surly collection of unsatisfied fans.”
“Back in the day, it was rare to see more than one, maybe two fans from the opposing team in the Dawg Pound,” Mr. Kochever said. “Now they come in like it’s nothing.”
“I try to keep the fire burning with my kids and with the younger fans,” said Mr. Erwin, a season-ticket holder since 1978. “But they don’t know what it’s like to be loyal to a team through bad times. For them, it’s easier to jump on the bandwagon of a team that’s winning — and laugh at those of us who don’t.”
When you ask Browns fans why they still support their team, you’re met with something of a refrain.
Cleveland is a football city, people around here say, and the Browns will eventually turn things around. There’s a sense of logical inevitability. This, after all, is “Believeland,” where residents who have endured a long series of devastating defeats — Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, Jose Mesa’s blown save in the ninth inning of the ’97 World Series — still find a way to hope against hope.
And in football, Browns fans say, the winds of fortune change — or can change — on a year-to-year basis. Look no further than Sunday’s Super Bowl, which includes the Philadelphia Eagles — the worst team in their division last year. One good draft, the collective belief around here goes, and it could all turn around.
But there’s something, too, about the enduring effect that Dawg Pound culture has had on the psyche in Northeast Ohio. All those Browns songs from the 1980s, the ones that were piped over the radio and into people’s cars and homes? “I still know the words to all of those,” said Susie Welch, who grew up in Cleveland’s West Side and attended games in the Dawg Pound at the old Municipal Stadium. “It was part of a culture that enveloped the whole city.”
And that culture, by way of a kind of Browns-fans diaspora, has spread through the country — and around the world. Ms. Welch, who left Cleveland for Madison, Wis., some 20 years ago and subsequently founded the Mad City fan club, is one of tens of thousands of registered members of Browns Backers Worldwide, a nonprofit organization with over 300 clubs in more than a dozen countries.
“We’re just always going to support the Browns,” Ms. Welch said, “win or lose — or lose even worse,” she said with a laugh.
“We’ve got two of the best teams in their respective leagues,” said Justin Eckert, a 32-year-old Dawg Pound fan, referring to the Cavaliers and the Indians. “But put on sports talk radio in the morning and what do you hear? Browns, Browns, Browns.”
“There’s a lot of fans out there,” said Dan Eckert, Justin’s father. “They have a real love for the Browns — they’re just lying dormant right now. But when we start winning again, everybody in Cleveland will be coming out of the woodwork. We’ll be bigger than the Cavs and the Indians combined. Just you wait.”