As Browns fans across the world have watched and waited for 18 years to see their team get back in the playoffs, several prominent Browns alumni have watched and waited with them.
They, too, know how it's felt to sit in front of the TV in anger as the losses piled up season after season. They've been there in the stadium and have heard the groans and anguish of fans as the losing pains persisted. Many of them remember how it felt on the field when a game ended with a loss and how the city mourned with them when a season would end.
Now, the wait for everyone is over. The playoffs are back in Cleveland, and for the former players who remember what it was like to have the postseason in Northeastern Ohio, the celebration is just as sweet.
"It's been a long time coming for us," said Kevin Mack, who was a fullback with the Browns from 1985-93, a span that included five trips to the playoffs, and is fifth in franchise history with 5,123 rushing yards. He is currently the head of alumni relations with the team.
"At the end of the game (Sunday), I just had a really big smile on my face," he said. "Amid all of what we're dealing with as a society with COVID-19, I think it's been really amazing that the guys have gone in and done what the coaches have asked them to do."
All alumni shared Mack's sentiments — this season has been truly unlike any other in NFL history, which makes the Browns' playoff berth even more special. Among all the virtual changes and unexpected roster fluctuations due to COVID-19, the Browns have stayed afloat. They've received contributions from all corners of the team and, with the guidance of coach Kevin Stefanski, have forged a tight bond despite the restrictions that have limited person-to-person contact beyond the practice fields this season.
All of that work has led to the culmination of the most successful season the Browns have had since the franchise was brought back to Cleveland in 1999. The Browns posted their first 11-win season since 1994 and have smashed several barriers that have defined the longest playoff drought in the NFL.
"Coach Stefanski has really done a great job in keeping things together and making sure the team has stayed on task," said Dick Ambrose, who played linebacker for nine seasons from 1975-1983. "It really is a great testimony to a coach in their first year to get their team to the playoffs. This is a team that I think has really good bones and building blocks, and it's going to be a force to be reckoned with this year and in the future."
For Browns alumni, attending games at FirstEnergy Stadium has always been the best way to reminisce about their playing days. That wasn't possible this year.
Only a few thousand fans have been permitted to attend games this season, and many alumni have chosen to instead watch each game from home. They've kept in touch with emails, text messages and phone calls — how could they not when the team has played so well? — but have missed the interactions and gameday roars they've heard for decades inside the stadium.
In a pandemic-free setting, each of the orange seats at FirstEnergy Stadium would have been filled. The Dawg Pound would have been as raucous as ever, and the scene many Browns alums remember from the days of the Kardiac Kids or the 80s era of Browns football, when the team made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, would've been replicated.
"The Dawg Pound is where it all started," said Hanford Dixon, a former cornerback who played nine seasons with the Browns from 1981-89. He and Frank Minnifield gave the Browns their "Dawg" identity in 1985 when they made barking sounds at a training camp practice to fire up the defense. Fans around the practice fields followed their lead, which has stood as the primary chant of Browns fans across the world.
"Frank and I came down that tunnel, and the first thing we did when we got on the field was go to the Dawg Pound," he said. "We went there to shake hands, high-five and just let them know we were ready for the game that day, and they'd let us know they were ready.
"I just hate them not being able to be there inside the stadium for any of these home games."
Eventually, though, the city will have a time to properly celebrate the 2020 Browns. This year will be remembered for the success the Browns brought under an unprecedented season, but the alumni know the job isn't done.
There's a playoff game to win Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team with rivalry roots that have been growing for decades. A win would be the franchise's first in the playoffs since 1994.
"That's not going to be an easy task," said Thom Darden, who played 10 seasons with the Browns from 1972-1981 at safety and still owns the franchise record with 45 interceptions. "We have more work to do. I'm not in the celebratory manner until they beat Pittsburgh again."
The success must be sustained beyond this season, too. Browns alumni know that if a standard is to be set, it must last beyond a single season.
The wait for the playoffs may be over, but the challenge to keep the success in Cleveland has just begun.
"The whole goal here is to get to the Super Bowl," Dixon said. "Don't get me wrong — I'm excited. Once you get an invitation to the party anything can happen. … But I want to go a little farther.
"Once we win the big one, now we're talking about popping a bottle open."