Not many cities still have trolleys. Cleveland does.
Plastered in dark green paint and making continuous laps around downtown, Cleveland's trolleys are poetically comparable to the city itself: Cozy, retro, inviting – and still flourishing.
After nibbling on a grilled cheese sandwich, Donte Whitner grabs a seat in the back row of a trolley right outside of Town Hall on West 25th street. The restaurant is a wildly popular spectacle in the middle of Ohio City, a revitalized neighborhood right outside of downtown Cleveland.
Clothing, cars or his famous hard-hitting playing style on the field don't tell you who Donte Whitner is. The look on his face of nostalgia and optimism about his hometown of Cleveland does.
The trolley hangs a right on the Detroit Street bridge – the iconic blue one with the paramount view of the buildings, the warehouses, the smoke stacks, the stadiums. The memories come flooding back for Whitner.
When he was a kid, the trolley didn't ride out to Whitner's neighborhood on the East side in Glenville. Any bus trip downtown came from extra coins his grandmother could scrape together. Voyages into the heart of Cleveland were special for Whitner. They weren't an every-week kind of thing.
In the hazy Ohio summer air after a football practice, or in the winter with snow overflowing into his boots, Whitner made the trips downtown. He'd gaze up at the terminal tower. He'd walk past Panini's to get a whiff of their pepperoni pizza.
"People don't realize Red's steakhouse, which is very big in Miami, it actually originated here," Whitner said proudly, peering out of the window and perked up in his seat.
The trolley stops momentarily right outside the golden-plated doors of Tower City. For the teenaged Whitner, Tower City was the crown jewel of downtown. The luscious tiled floors inside the mall sparkled. Busy Clevelanders would bustle in and out of the doors to their penthouse offices or to pick up a gift for their wives.
When Whitner arrived to Tower City he would beeline straight for Foot Locker. He would stare at all the shoes and hats on the wall. Nike Shox were popular at the time. But Whitner never arrived back to the East side with any bags or boxes. It stung.
"Maybe I had a little money for candy one time," said Whitner.
That's why everything is so surreal now for Donte Whitner. The people, the places, the Foot Locker in Tower City; they're all still here. They're all still Cleveland.
And Cleveland is sizzling. In a matter of months, the breezy town on Lake Erie became one of the most high-profile cities in sports. The Browns' quarterback competition has led SportsCenter many a night this summer. The frenzy surrounding LeBron James' return to the Cavaliers, and specifically his hand written letter about Ohio in Sports Illustrated, sparked a reinvigorated romance with Cleveland and the people who live here.
Confidence and pride are literally tangible – Cleveland inspired t-shirts are flying off the racks. It's visible too – citizens actually enjoy debating the bright futures of the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians. And all the fans who've stayed loyal throughout the years sense they're about to be rewarded for all of the agonizing seasons.
Believe this Cleveland: Whitner's desire to restore the Browns to greatness matches the passion you carry for your sports teams.
"If we can come back here and help win football games, and sell tickets, and get excitement, and make people happy, that'll mean everything to me," said Whitner. "This is only the pre-buzz. The real buzz is when you start winning football games. Our plan is for this buzz to never end."
The trolley makes its way towards the West end of town. Whitner frequents West 6th street in the offseason, regularly tweeting out his location to mingle with the community. His community.
The trolley glides over a bend on West 3rd street. A radiant blue sign appears out of nowhere: FirstEnergy Stadium. Whitner walks through the tunnel and out towards the grassy knoll. He stares intensely at the 73,000 empty orange seats. A slight smirk appears on his generally serious face. The pace of his walk slows until it eventually reaches a halt, right on the 30-yard-line.
When scholarship offers from big time schools like Miami and Ohio State packed his mailbox as a teenager, Whitner already had the NFL in the back of his mind. His wildest daydream as kid involved Whitner picking off a pass, returning it for six points and pointing straight in the stands to the Dawg Pound section. He's so excited to see himself in a Browns jersey, Whitner said he will be DVRing the first regular season home game against the New Orleans Saints, just so he can re-watch it over and over.
Whitner turns towards the gigantic new scoreboards in the stadium and envisions the public address announcer calling his name. Goosebumps crawl onto his neck and back. He becomes overwhelmed just imagining about the moment.
"I think first and foremost I'm going to be emotional," said Whitner of what running through the Cleveland Browns tunnel will feel like. "With our product that we plan on putting on the field, I think it's just going to be the best atmosphere in the National Football League. I've played up in Seattle, I've played in New Orleans. These are a lot of the places that they say are the loudest. But when you get the Dawg Pound and you get them winning, we will rival all of these places.
"You know back in the 1980s the Dawg Pound was the number one place that nobody wanted to come and play. There were some AFC Championships played on this field. There were some playoff games played on this field, and that atmosphere can't be matched. So with winning comes along that atmosphere, so that's what we can look forward to accomplishing."
When he played in Buffalo and San Francisco, Whitner would religiously check the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Akron Beacon Journal, just to keep tabs on Northeastern Ohio.
And as much as Whitner loves Cleveland, he wouldn't have returned home if he didn't think his city's football program was ready to win right away. Whitner thought about signing with the Browns when he was a free agent in 2011. But it wasn't the right fit at the time.
When free agency dawned again on Whitner in 2014, he was thinking Cleveland, but it took a phone call from general manager Ray Farmer to whet Whitner's appetite for his eventual return. Farmer told Whitner he envisioned the safety turning into legendary Philadelphia Eagles defender Brian Dawkins for the Browns, one of Whitner's football idols and a close friend.
"After he made that call, I didn't hesitate," said Whitner. "I didn't check back with San Francisco. I didn't call any other teams my agent was talking to. I said, 'I'll come and be a Cleveland Brown.' I knew what it would mean to my family, to my friends, for me to be a Cleveland Brown. To actually win as a Cleveland Brown? The city would be so happy."
The trolley makes its way back to where Whitner's car is parked. The 12-minute ride is perhaps a similar one the Browns would make if they did one day win their first-ever Super Bowl.
"Someone is getting a statue the minute the Lombardi Trophy gets hoisted around downtown," said Whitner. "It would be that big of a deal."
Whitner poses with a fan for a quick picture. He gets into his vehicle and heads home, to the place that will always be his real home. Cleveland.