Browns-Steelers: A Love-Hate Story for the Ages

Jim ClarkCorrespondent ISeptember 10, 2008

As week two of the NFL season approaches, I looked at the Browns' schedule and immediately, my muscles began to tighten.  My heartbeat elevated slightly.  My blood began to boil.


What could possibly bring about this change of physiology in one short moment?  Is it Sunday Night Football?  Is it the national stage?  No.  None of these things bring about this catharsis, yet my adrenaline level continues to rise.  There is only one explanation for this transformation: The Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Steelers are coming to Cleveland, and they must be destroyed.


I’m not the only one that feels this way.  In fact, you don’t need to be from C-town or the 'Burgh to appreciate this rivalry.  It has been called the greatest rivalry in football.  It has been called the biggest rivalry in all of sports.  Everyone knows that when the Browns and Steelers clash, it will be ugly, it will be bloody, and it will be smash mouth football the way God intended. 


It does leave me somewhat curious.  Why do we feel this animosity, abhorrence, and downright hatred for the Steelers?  Why is it that the site of Steeler paraphernalia evokes emotions only seen when the Greeks fought the Romans?  How do you explain that sick, nauseous anger you get when you see a Steelers bumper sticker on a car with an Ohio license plate?


And although you quickly dispel the feelings, you wonder what bodily harm should be inflicted on that guy who is shopping at your grocery store wearing a Roethlisberger jersey.


There is only one explanation.  No, it’s not that Steelers fans are lower life forms (although the research continues), or that they’re bad people; in fact I’ve met a few that I genuinely like. Well, until I found out they were Steelers fans. 


There is only one answer: history.  The storied history between these teams goes back more than 50 years.  In my family, it’s impossible to sit around the dining room table at Thanksgiving or Christmas and not hear a story that begins: “Well, when the Browns played the Steelers back in…”  The history is as rich and thick as chocolate mousse.  The stories are endless because the memories are endless.


Everyone remembers Turkey Jones body slamming Terry Bradshaw to the ground.  It lives in Browns lore as one of the dirtiest, yet most sickly wonderful, moments of that era.  The Steel Curtain, led by Chuck Noll (a former Browns player…how could you Chuck?), was a force to be reckoned with, and the Browns had no answer for their dominance in the '70s.


However, the previous 20 years belonged to the Browns.  In fact, the fist 40 meetings saw the Browns take 31 victories to only nine for the Steelers.  From Otto Graham to Jim Brown, the Steelers had no chance against the juggernaut Browns of the '50s and all the way up until the late '60s.


The '80s were good to the Browns as well.  A hometown boy returned from Miami University to lead the Browns to numerous division titles and three championship game appearances.  In fact, it was Bernie and the boys that lit up Pittsburgh for their worst loss in franchise history.


It was a gorgeous opening day at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989.  And like every Browns/Steelers affair, it was assumed to be a battle for the ages.  Instead, the Brownies put up 51 points on the “no-longer-steel curtain,” and shut Pittsburgh out for just the fifth time in the history of the rivalry.


However, Cleveland may have awoken a sleeping giant that day, because after that, Bill Cower (a former Browns player…how could you Bill?) led the Steelers to numerous division titles, and eventually a Super Bowl Championship.


Cower and Pittsburgh couldn’t wait to be the first game against the “expansion” Browns.  It was opening night in 1999, when Cleveland came back into the league.  Pittsburgh, coldly and without reservation, systematically dismantled the Browns to the tune of 43-0.


The rivalry was reignited in the new Cleveland Browns Stadium, and stronger than ever.  That is what made it such sweet revenge when, just a few weeks later, the Browns went into Pittsburgh and stole one from the Steelers on a last-second field goal as time expired.  It was a moment that made Browns fans feel whole again.  At least as whole as we had felt since Art Modell had unceremoniously moved our beloved Browns to Baltimore in the spring 1996.


Currently, the Steelers have managed to win the last nine contests.  Last year, the Browns had their best record since coming back into the league in 1999, but still managed to lose to Pittsburgh twice.


A love/hate relationship is the only way to describe the rivalry.  We love to hate them, and they love to hate us.  Sometimes, they hate us so much that they love us.  Let me explain:


It was Monday night in 1995 and the Browns were traveling to Pittsburgh for what would be another hard-fought close game with Pittsburgh edging out the Browns 20-17.  But what I remember most about the game was not the score, but the fans.  I think it was in the second quarter when the camera panned around Three Rivers Stadium to show the Steelers faithful wearing orange arm bands.  They were wearing these arm bands in tribute to their rivals who were being so wrongly taken from the city that loved them so much and so well.


Banners and signs filled the stadium, but not the usual banners taunting the Browns or the players.  Instead there were banners such as: “We’ll miss you Cleveland” or “Modell Sucks,” and “No Rivals, No Rivalry”.  But I’ll never forget one sign that was held by a young girl sitting with her father.  It read: “Not even Cleveland deserve this!!!” 


I started to cry.  Maybe because I was losing the team that I had loved since before I could remember.  Maybe it was because I couldn’t imagine a world without Browns football.  Or maybe it was because for that brief moment in time I loved the Pittsburgh Steelers for hating us enough to care.