BEREA — The first day of Browns training camp open to the public since 2019 was saved by the team’s self-appointed director of fan engagement.
Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett provided the entertainment Friday as many of the team’s stars were given a break from team drills with the Browns in the third of a five-day on-field acclimation period.
The crowd at the CrossCountry Mortgage Campus, capped at just under 2,000 by COVID-19 protocols, was starved for thrills. Quarterback Baker Mayfield did not deliver, overthrowing the likes of Anthony Schwartz, Alexander Hollins and Ryan Switzer.
So Garrett eventually took matters into his own hands, perhaps coerced by a boy’s plaintive plea, “What’s up, Myles?” followed by a faint, “Please answer.”
When fans yelled his name, Garrett sometimes turned and gave them a tiny wave.
Early in the session, Garrett teased as if he were throwing a football into the stands. Near the end of practice, he came through, tossing his black glove into the bleachers. The young man who won the scrum dashed toward the stairs to preserve his prize.
Garrett also began engaging in small talk. When one man said to an idle Garrett, “How’s your retirement going, Myles? The Cavs need you,” Garrett responded, “So do the Mavericks,” referring to the NBA team that plays near his hometown of Arlington, Texas.
Another man followed up by saying, “I want to dunk like you,” and Garrett replied, “You’ve got to eat oatmeal, drink milk and maybe eat a little bit of spinach.”
The man of the people took care of his own.
While running back Kareem Hunt drew clapping when he burst through a pack of defenders, the crowd’s second-favorite was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who signed a one-year free-agent deal in April. As practice began, fans chanted Clowney’s name, although Jadeveon didn’t make for an ideal sing-song cadence.
That fulfilled a prophecy from left guard Joel Bitonio, who said earlier, “Oh, yeah, they’re ready. You usually get the name chants the first day and stuff like that, so we’ll see what they’ve got today.”
As practice wound down, one man yelled “Welcome to Cleveland,” to Clowney and he answered with a smile and a “Thank you, sir.”
The atmosphere at 76 Lou Groza Boulevard was not the same as before the pandemic. Due to NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 policies, fans are not permitted to seek autographs. The Browns are giving away pre-signed training camp posters to some randomly selected, with youth being prioritized.
Children are not supposed to stand at the bleacher railing. There are clear demarcation lines for the players area. When Garrett began tossing a ball of tape toward a garbage can — sparking the basketball conversation — he could not cross a red line in the grass to retrieve his miss. A member of the media, wearing a Kinexon device to maintain social distancing and track close contacts, was restricted by a white line and could not help when Garrett asked. A security guard graciously grabbed the rebound.
A few fans in the stands wore masks, although they were not required.
None of that put a damper on players’ and coach Kevin Stefanski’s appreciation of being able to practice again in front of a training camp crowd. Friday was the first of 13 open sessions, including one at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We’ve got the bleachers out. I know it’s not the same, but it’s going to be exciting,” Bitonio said. “You know you’re starting up; you know you have fans out here. I remember last training camp it felt more like practice because we just didn’t have the same atmosphere.
“Training camp, it’s the fans, it’s kind of the theatrics that go along with it and it kind of gets you through the day seeing some of those things. To have nothing there, I didn’t realize it was going to prepare us for the season because some of those games last year were unbelievably quiet, and it was so weird.”
Cornerback Denzel Ward, a Nordonia High School product, said the Browns need the fans in the Berea bleachers to prepare them for the season.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting the fans back and just that atmosphere, getting ready for the games,” Ward said. “I feel like that’s what gets you prepared because at least this year it’s not going to be quiet come game day. So getting the fans back and feeling their energy and everything going into the game will be good.”
Stefanski said he’s been around big training camp crowds during his 14 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and during a summer stint in the operations department of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. But the second-year coach was eager to see, hear and feel the atmosphere at a Browns camp with fans.
“I think there will definitely be some juice out here. I know the players will enjoy it; they enjoy being applauded,” Stefanski said. “I’m excited to see it, first time for me. I can tell you the oohs and aahs, the players definitely feed off of it.”
General Manager Andrew Berry also sounded enthused, saying the fans “bring a special kind of energy for our players and really everybody in the organization. I think we all know we have the best fans in the NFL and we’re excited to welcome them back this afternoon.”
“Here We Go Brownies” broke out on several occasions, with one man drawing laughter for his hoarse voice as he led it. There was barking and one “Dawg Check.”
Most surprisingly, there were no Super Bowl chants. At least for a day, the great expectations attached to the team that made its first playoff appearance since 2002 last season did not surface.
Perhaps the fans needed more than Garrett’s banter. They lusted for Mayfield bombs, one-handed catches by Odell Beckham Jr. and a breakaway run from Nick Chubb to revive them. None of those materialized, but they should soon.
“The fans are rightfully excited. They [haven’t had] much to cheer for, so they’re coming out firing,” Bitonio said. “We’re going to try and work and put on a show for ‘em.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at [email protected] Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.