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Browns' re-debut has Cleveland a-rockin'

CLEVELAND - It was a big night in Cleveland last night. It was the first time they have ever had Tibetan nuns in the city. "We've had Tibetan priests before, but not nuns," said Jean Francis, spokesman for the Cleveland Public Theatre. The nuns performed a program last night of "colorful masked dances and vibrant harmonic chants." Fran Mohoupp, the nun who narrates the program, was hopeful a large crowd would show up. Had she ever heard of the Cleveland Browns? "What is that?" she asked.

Football, I told her. "Oh, yes, I've gathered that's a big deal here," she said. Did she know that their program would be competing with the first official Browns football game in three years. "That might be interesting," she said.

What would have been really interesting was if they could have combined the two, with the halftime show at Cleveland Browns Stadium last night being the Tibetan Nuns of Kathmandu. After all, being a Browns fan is a religion in this town, and harmonic chanting might have been a nice break from barking. And they were barking last night, more than 72,000 of them, led by the rabid hounds howling in the new version of the Dawg Pound (there's a whole generation of children in Ohio that are growing up not knowing the right way to spell `dog') in a celebration the likes of which they probably have never seen in Tibet. The Cleveland Browns were back, and, they were playing their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It is the feel good football story of the season, especially since everyone felt so bad when Art Modell left this football-crazy city after the 1995 season for Baltimore. "This is a triumph for the fans of Cleveland," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "They insisted that they would not lose their team, and they motivated everyone." Now the Browns are bigger and more beloved than before. They can do no wrong, and are treated like a powerful religious institution. Take, for instance, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was reported in the weekly alternative Free Press this week that some derogatory comments about Browns owner Al Lerner - the same Al Lerner who owned the old franchise with Modell and whose plane Modell used to make the deal at BWI Airport to move to Baltimore - were ordered removed from a columnist's copy. Among the comments was a reference to Lerner, who owns the credit card company MBNA, as "Daddy Chargebucks." So this paragraph is for every writer who ever had their article changed to protect the rich and powerful: Daddy Chargebucks, Daddy Chargebucks, Daddy Chargebucks, Daddy Chargebucks, Daddy Chargebucks, Daddy Chargebucks. What's that sound? That's the press, baby, the press. All week the Plain Dealer ran this behind-the-scenes front-page series about the "Battle for the Browns," with the final version headlined, "Lerner Triumphs, Modell sobs." Another weekly alternative paper, Cleveland Scene, ran a piece about the days when Browns team president Carmen Policy was representing mob figures as a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio. Blasphemy.

Nobody cared about any of that last night. These people have had enough of the dirty politics of the game. All they want now is the football.

The crowd was whipped up into a frenzy by game time, with Browns colors everywhere and more bones being waved around than are buried beneath the Meadowlands. They had to keep Drew Carey from climbing up into the Dawg Pound from the field before the game, and he, appropriately, led the crowd in a chorus of "Cleveland Rocks." The noise from the fireworks blasting off was nearly drowned out by the roar of the fans as their Browns ran out of the tunnel. They then proceeded to take the worst shutout beating in franchise history, as the Steelers annihilated them 43-0. But it really doesn't matter how good these Browns are this year. Everyone here is just happy to have their team back, and there is only one team they have to beat this year - Modell and the Baltimore Ravens, Sept. 26 in Baltimore and, most importantly, Nov. 7 in Cleveland. "I don't care what else happens, but they have got to beat Baltimore," Browns fan Brad Taylor said. For those members of the First Church of the Dawg Pound, those are contests with biblical implications, the ultimate battle of Good vs. Evil.

Let the harmonic chanting begin.

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