Luke Schaefer was in his geology class late Tuesday morning at Perkins High School in Sandusky, Ohio, about 70 miles from Cleveland, when his cell phone buzzed.
It was a text message from his grandfather, Tony.
“We are screwed,” it read.
Soon as class ended, Luke Schaefer said, he saw the school lunch lady.
“She saw I was wearing my Browns shirt and she said, ‘Are you excited for the game?’ ” Schaefer, 17, said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, but I just heard the coach (is) out.’ She didn’t even know about that, so I had to break the bad news to her.’’
Less than 48 hours after the Browns ended their 18-year playoff drought came the painful news: Kevin Stefanski, head coach of the Cleveland Browns, had tested positive for COVID-19. And now long-suffering Browns fans are being tested again — existentially.
Stefanski willl miss the Browns wild-card game Sunday at Pittsburgh because of the NFL’s coronvirus protocol. At least two Browns players, Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, and two assistant coaches, also will miss the game because they tested positive for COVID-19.
For times like these, longtime Browns observer Tony Rizzo said, there is misery code: OIC.
“Only In Cleveland,’’ said Rizzo, who has covered the Browns since 1986 and hosts a weekday radio show. “We’d hoped that we were getting past all the OIC.
“Now we’re all waiting around now for the contact tracing. We’re just praying they’re not going to have more players out. But (Stefanski) comes in contact with just about everybody. So we’re hoping for the best but expecting the worst.’’
Fans of the Browns — victims of on-field calamities such as “Red Right 88,’’ “The Drive’’ and ‘’The Fumble’’ — find themselves trying to deal with the bittersweet moment. Finally in the playoffs! And, for crying out loud, more OIC!
“This is even surreal for us,’’ Rizzo said of a fan base that puts the die in diehard.
For example, when Scott E. Entsminger of Mansfield, Ohio died at 55 in 2013, his obituary included: “He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pall bearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.’’
When Paul Stark of Huron, Ohio died in 2017 at 80, his obituary reported that he passed away after a brief illness “exacerbated by the hopeless condition of the Cleveland Browns.”
When Donald Keith Miller died in 2019, his obituary noted that at the time of his death the team was 2-3. “There is some comfort in knowing he won’t have to endure the rest of the season,’’ the obituary read.
Those suffering now are the living, such as John “Big Dawg” Thompson, famous for a dog mask he wore in the stadium’s “dawg pound’’ section populated by raucous Browns backers. Thompson said he’s still waiting to regain his sense of taste and smell after getting COVID-19 in late November. And now this.
“It’s definitely a pin in the side of a beach ball,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able to patch it.
“But it’s been a long time for us to enjoy (a playoff game) and I’m not giving that up.’’
The tortured fans also include the likes of “Roy the Brownie Elf,’’ “Bam Phillips,” and “Buck Dawg,” who said he has put more than 100,000 miles on cars he has driven from his home in Columbus to Cleveland to watch Browns games over more than 35 years.
“I’m trying to be positive, but it’s like, ‘When does this stop?’ ” said Buck Dawg, also known as William Walters.
Then there’s Tony Schaefer, known for his Browns bus, complete with an Art Modell toilet bowl — a nod to the late Browns owner who moved the team to Baltimore in 1996. The NFL awarded Cleveland a new team in 1999.
Growing up, Luke Schaefer rode the bus to games with his grandpa from Sandusky.
“He talks about how he went to the 1964 championship game (when the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0) and how he’s seen them win,” Luke Schaefer. “He wants me to be able to see them win. That’s what he always talks about.’’
Butch Davis, head coach of the Browns during their last playoff game in 2003, said Tuesday he could count on the fans like Schaefer showing up even if it was 10 degrees below zero.
“Snow, sleet, they’re there to support the team,’’ said Davis, now head coach at Florida International University. “They’ve got people that absolutely love the Cleveland Browns, good, bad or indifferent.’’
It was more heartbreak at the last playoff game — Jan. 5, 2003 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh. Browns receiver Dennis Northcutt caught two touchdowns passes. He also dropped a pass late in the game that allowed the Steelers to rally for a 36-33 victory.
On Sunday, the Browns again play at Heinz Field, where they have a 16-game losing streak.
“Boy, wouldn’t it be something if the Browns broke a 16-game losing streak at Heinz Field without their head coach in the playoffs?’’ Rizzo said. “It’s setting up for a Disney story.
“But then we got OIC.’’
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