Chud’s hire hits homeroom

I didn’t expect that my lifelong allegiance to the Cleveland Browns would suddenly, in one day’s time, vibrate at an entirely new emotional frequency. I’ve lived, felt, and shared all the hopes, heartbreaks, inspirations, and frustrations of decades under the peculiar pull of this football franchise. I still fantasize how my inner life might transform when the Browns someday win the Super Bowl. 

Though I’ve invested dozens of weeks following this team and written over a million words to both justify and propel this absurdly intensive capture of my attention, it all came at comfortable psychological remove. It’s just sport. It’s reality TV. These hulking heroes are characters in some serialized postmodern opera, their plays and games and careers mere notes, movements and acts. I’m in the audience, a consumer, a critic. My sensitivities resound within the safely framed fiction that any of this matters a whit in the grand scheme of things.

But yesterday brought a new chord into the score, changing the tenor of my connection with the Browns. I knew Chud had been an assistant and a coordinator with the Browns before. Surely he’d someday become an NFL head coach. Now there he was, my high school classmate, accepting his dream job leading our favorite team. For me, this hire hits homeroom. 

There’s nothing like seeing a peer of yours reach the pinnacle of a public profession — and top $3 million per year — to make you question just what you’ve accomplished with your life. But comparison soon gave way to inspiration. It is indeed a small world, not just as a Disney ditty or in Baconesque degrees of separation, but in the awareness that amazing success is still possible. Real life needn’t intimidate. The high notes remain in range.

Chud and I weren’t close friends or anything. I haven’t spoken with him in a quarter century. But for those four formative years at St. John’s in Toledo, we had much in common: the same dress code, the same classes and assignments — essentially the same grades, putting us both in the National Honor Society. He was a foot taller and starred on the football field and basketball court. Meanwhile I sweated and grunted in the windowless wrestling room and, later, the windowless newspaper office. 

Despite his outsized stature at this jockish, all-boys prep school, he was never arrogant or bullying. Just an affable, seriously talented, somewhat quiet figure several seats away as we absorbed so many lessons of nature from Fr. Lotze, Fr. Sweeney, and Mr. Simmons, and explored the world’s great writing with Mrs. Fitzpatrick, Mr. Harms, and Dr. Demarkowski, among our many sterling teachers. To hear Chud at his presser recall the influence of the late Fred Beier, who coached him in football and me in wrestling, was to revisit a tender age with a tried but still tender heart. 

We grew through adolescence within a distinct community stressing certain core values: academic excellence; the importance of balanced, well-rounded development; our privilege both empowering and morally requiring us to be of service to others. If I thought that Chud somehow survived St. John’s without getting that, if he were a jerk or a spoiled snot, I wouldn’t be writing this, and he wouldn’t be where he is today. 

As we made college plans senior year, our paths diverged. My scholarship took me a little liberal arts enclave hidden in the hillier part of Ohio, while his, surprisingly, came from Jimmy Johnson’s brash and boorish Miami Hurricanes. It didn’t seem like a good cultural fit, but, hey, it is a small world. Chud made it work. Decades later, without the profile or pedigree, he’s poised to bring more greatness to the Browns than Kellen Winslow II ever did.

This is a real guy —  and his Browns team — well worth rooting for. And maybe even worthy of all the wait.

I understand how so many years of ineptitude, of disappointment, of even treachery have jaded the mindset of so many Browns fans. From apathy to anger, I’ve been there. But now the callous slurs so casually cast at these characters strike me differently. 

My connection to the Browns remains vicarious, true, but I realize anew that their identity overlaps some essential part of my own, and it always has. It may be skewed too much toward the mercenary and gladiatorial, yet there is something authentic and resonant about the striving, the strategy, the self-imposed suffering and sacrifice, the struggle for coordinated effort, the patience and persistence, and the exciting unknown of the wide-open, goal-oriented field itself that stirs me in a way that today feels both strangely new and profoundly archetypal, even totemic.

I am, I can, I shall, I must. 

We will do this, someway, somehow.

Together, we’ll be champions, each in our own ways, but ultimately under a flag we all recognize as our own.