Jai'Vier Robinson walked to the podium in front of the Shaw Stadium football field and glanced at the hundreds of people smiling in his direction.
Robinson, the quarterback of the Shaw High School's football team, was standing a few feet away from a flat spread of dirt with 10 shovels dug into it. Behind the dirt was the field, which had patches of grass grown several inches high and was in need of maintenance.
Robinson didn't want to look back at it.
"We had to play on that field. We had to practice," said Robinson, a junior. "We didn't have water. (Our coach) would have to buy us water. We had no weight room, and we'd lift weights on the field.
"It was terrible."
Now, Robinson and future players of the Shaw football team will have a new state-of-the-art surface to play on.
The Cleveland Browns began the process Friday of installing a high-quality synthetic turf field, the 10th field that the Haslam and Johnson families and "Browns Give Back" have installed in Northeast Ohio since the field initiative launched five years ago.
The ceremony was commemorated with appearances from several special guests.
Jimmy and Dee Haslam were in the front row when Robinson took the podium. NFL Network's Chris Rose, a Cleveland native, moderated the ceremony. Ohio state senator Kenny Yuko and Whitney Haslam Johnson, who is part of Haslam Sports Group's family ownership, spoke as well. Dr. Henry Pettiegrew, Superintendent of the East Cleveland School District and Melran Leach, Community Development Department Director of East Cleveland, were present and spoke on behalf of the community.
To Robinson's right was Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. He told Robinson and the rest of the football team that they'll make "lifelong" memories on the new field.
And to Robinson's left? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was in town for the 2021 NFL Draft hosted in Cleveland. He gave his draft jacket to Robinson before speaking later in the ceremony and commended the workers who helped make the field installment possible.
"It's so important to do things for our kids and have an opportunity for each of us to help one another and have an impact," Goodell said. "When we come to the draft in each city, one of the things we really try to do is make an impact and leave a legacy. That's what we're here today to do and to support the Cleveland Browns foundation and the Haslam family."
The impact of the field installment will bring positive change far beyond the realms of the football team, though. It will serve as a premier athletic setting for the East Cleveland community and will be among the best places for youth athletes to practice and play. The field, which hadn't been replaced for decades and was even used by the Cleveland Rams of the NFL in 1938, will now require much less maintenance than a grass surface. It will host other sports beyond football, too, and will serve as Shaw High School's central athletic hub for boys and girls sports.
"We are so excited about the space behind us," Haslam Johnson said. "It is the 10th field we have installed over the last five years and is part of our commitment and focus around education and student engagement. Today is symbolic of the connection between academics and sports. We believe if you have education, opportunities to represent your school through athletics, whether you participate in athletics or the band, you strive in the classroom so you can wear your uniform."
The field wasn't the first step the Browns have taken to improve the athletic and educational landscape in East Cleveland. East Cleveland City Schools is a partner district of the Cleveland Browns Foundation's "Stay in the Game! Keep Learning, Every Day!" Network, and through the program, the Browns distributed $350,000 to East Cleveland last season to address educational needs related to the digital divide as part of the NFL's Inspire Change grant initiative.
"We're so thankful to the Haslam and Johnson families and 'Browns Give Back' for supporting us and donating a field and a stadium," Pettiegrew said in an interview with ClevelandBrowns.com. "They used to play on a field that was 100 years old. We've been asking for a new field for probably 20 years, and the Browns stepped up and were able to partner with us so that we can make it a reality."
No one is more excited about the new field than Robinson and his teammates. He believes the upgrade will help improve the performance of the football team, which snapped a 10-year playoff drought last season, and encourage more students to try out for sports.
The grass is gone. Now, Shaw High will have a new field surface that will improve the East Cleveland community for years to come.
"It means everything," he said in an interview with ClevelandBrowns.com. "Having a new field, that's just even better for us and the community."