Linell Brookins recognized Browns General Manager Ray Farmer the minute he walked in the door Thursday morning at Panera Bread in downtown Indianapolis.
But Brookins, a 56-year-old maintenance director for a Cleveland apartment and condominium management company, had no idea their chance encounter while spiking their coffees with cream or sugar would make for a day Brookins calls one of the best of his life.
A former track and cross-country runner at Cleveland East High School and a Mentor resident, Brookins has been a Browns season ticket holder since 1999. He’s faithfully sat in Section 539 of the upper deck of FirstEnergy Stadium through rain, sleet, hail, snow and 163 losses in 15 years. Yet he refuses to give up his four seats because he fears the year he fails to renew might be the one the Browns go to the Super Bowl.
Farmer, 39, was promoted to Browns’ GM on Feb. 11, when owner Jimmy Haslam fired General Manager Mike Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner and elevated Farmer after 11 months as Lombardi’s assistant.
Farmer was in town for the NFL Scouting Combine, stopping on his way to pre-workout media interviews at Lucas Oil Stadium. Brookins always goes to Panera for coffee, a bagel and a few minutes of relaxation to start his day when he’s in Indianapolis overseeing upkeep on the The Block, one of five properties Brookins handles for Landmark RE Management LLC.
But on this morning, excitement replaced relaxation.
Brookins was seated, waiting for his food and drink when Farmer arrived. Brookins said he immediately knew who Farmer was after seeing his picture in the newspaper and his introductory news conference on television.
Brookins waited until Farmer got his order before approaching him “at the coffee filing station.” He told him he was a Browns season ticket holder. They chatted about a couple of subjects before Brookins wished Farmer good luck and handed him his business card.
Farmer said he was waiting for others to join him and asked how long Brookins would be there.
When those people left, Farmer approached Brookins’ table and gave him his card.
Brookins got up. Brookins was talking on the phone to his wife, Cynthia, who didn’t believe it was Farmer, so Brookins handed Farmer the phone and Farmer talked to her.
“Knowing my wife she was probably telling him ‘Make sure you get the draft picks right’ and that she was behind him 100 percent,” Brookins said in a telephone interview Monday. “She’s a true football fan, too.”
Part of the conversation included the vision Farmer and Brookins have for the Browns. Brookins said he and his wife attended the Super Bowl in February 2012 in Indianapolis.
“The experience is just so life-changing; I want that experience here,” Brookins said.
He and Cynthia also saw a Seattle Seahawks home game in December and visit friends in the Cincinnati area who support the Bengals. Brookins goes to Colts games when he’s there on business.
“I want that winning tradition here,” Brookins said. “I said, ‘Please, anything you can do. We’re patient. We’ll give you our blessing.’ ”
Of course the Browns’ fourth overall pick in the May 8 NFL Draft came up, too.
Brookins told Farmer whom he wanted, but added, “We’ll keep it a secret.”
When Farmer got to Lucas Oil Stadium, he told Northeast Ohio reporters of the encounter. When asked where Brookins was from, Farmer said, “Mentor,” and added, “See, I was listening.”
“Believe me, it was one of the best days I’ve had. It kind of made my day and it probably made his day a little bit, too,” said Brookins, still marveling Farmer kept his card. “You have to understand, everywhere they go I know they just get beat up, beat up, beat up. I didn’t talk about the wins or the losses, I just gave him some true encouragement from a true fan.
“I’m so shocked. He’s a man of his word. Who would have ever thought we’d meet in Panera.”
Asked why he believes Farmer is a man of his word, Brookins didn’t pin it on the fact he came back to talk again.
“I’m a pretty good judge of character,” Brookins said. “I just have that feeling that things are going to change. A few minutes with him, I think he knows the direction he wants to take us and we all want to go that way. You just have to be confident with him. I feel that way. I just do.”
Brookins’ attachment to the Browns has a visual aspect to it as well. In the 18 years he has worked for Landmark Management, which also has four properties in Cleveland’s Warehouse District, Brookins has kept an apartment downtown on Water Street so he doesn’t have to commute from the snow belt in bad weather. Before he downsized to a smaller one, his place overlooked Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He watched from his window as it was torn down and FirstEnergy Stadium went up. He took pictures daily, even rode over on his bike to get a closer look.
Now Brookins hopes his chat with Farmer will not be their last. He told Farmer they would have to get together for lunch or dinner. Being downtown so often, Brookins thinks they’ll cross paths again.
But if they don’t, Brookins believes in Farmer and his plan for the Browns.
“From my conversation, I think he’s going to be very successful here,” Brookins said. “I’m one of the guys who’s willing to tell everybody, ‘Just give him a chance. Just give him a chance.’ ”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.