It was one of several defining moments that solidified my love for football.
It was a balmy night on Sept. 24, 1979, and getting my right Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star sneaker stuck in the ridges at the top of an escalator while running to catch an RTA Rapid Transit train at East Cleveland’s Windermere station wouldn’t stop me or my mother from getting to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch the Browns take on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
All of 14 years old, I bragged to friends and anyone who would listen that I was going. Despite being late because of my foot wrestling with an escalator, we entered the stadium just in time to see safety Thom Darden intercept a Roger Staubach pass and return it 39 yards for a touchdown. The Browns won 20-7.
That sealed the deal for me.
That moment made it easier to explain to my friends from Ohio State who weren’t Cleveland natives why Monday Night Football was special in Cleveland when we attended a game against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 26, 1987, just after the NFL player’s strike ended. We walked around taking in the atmosphere on the East Bank of the Flats.
They expressed dismay when an obviously elated Browns fan who looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a year or more sauntered up to me and uttered the magical, mystical words: “You want some Dawg Juice?”
“Well, hell, yeah,” 22-year-old me said, gulping down a sweet, but obviously spiked concoction.
“You don’t even know him,” Missy, a college friend, said.
My attitude was: It’s Cleveland. It’s Monday Night Football. It’s a party. We’re just going to roll with it.
I don’t think the same people roll with MNF any longer. It’s become the elder statesman of pro football with respect to telecasts since its birth in Cleveland 45 years ago, courtesy of the foresight of Browns owner Art Modell and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
In that regard, MNF and the Browns share a common ground — both are long on tradition [although some would argue these aren’t those Browns], with some of the luster lost.
“It’s so hard to figure out what it is, given what it was,” said Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated’s reporter covering the sports media landscape of MNF. “It’s still a national game and it still has the trappings of an important game because it’s the only game played that night. It’s a prime-time game. It’s unique given its history, so it feels different than your average game between 1 and 4. That said, it certainly does not carry anywhere near the cachet that it once did during the glory days of that program.”
Once the signature broadcast property of the NFL, MNF isn’t even close to that any longer. Of the league’s three prime-time games — Sunday, Monday and Thursday — the broadcast of the granddaddy of them all consistently comes in second in the weekly ratings.
The most recent release from NFL Communications puts the league’s Sunday Night Football viewership at 23.1 million, Monday’s at 12.9 million and Thursday’s at 9.4 million. The quality production and a top-notch broadcast team in Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden contribute to the fact that MNF consistently ranks No. 1 on cable television. But that move to the pay side of the television spectrum didn’t necessarily help overall ratings.
Former die-hard fans, including myself, don’t necessarily go looking for it the way we did during the program’s heyday. If the Browns — who are appearing in a MNF home game for the first time since 2009 — and Ravens weren’t playing Monday night and I was not helping cover the game, I couldn’t tell you who’d be playing. If I were sitting at home watching television, my largest screen would be set to Fox TV’s Gotham. It just doesn’t register in my realm.
Why is that?
Friday is about high school football. Saturday is about college football. Sunday is about professional football. And the NFL and NBC recognize that fact with Sunday Night Football. They get the marquee matchups among other tasty tidbits that allow ratings to soar.
“I think part of that is that its schedule no longer is what it was,” Deitsch said. “The key game for the NFL as far as prime-time is Sunday Night Football. That’s their signature prime-time game. That’s the game that gets the best schedule by far. The NFL gave them flex [scheduling], so they’re even protecting that.”
This year, MNF has helped ESPN win Monday nights in the ratings race, enjoying some stability this season and in recent years. It’s reaching the audience and demographic groups ESPN wants. It, at least, is a model of stability.
The same can’t be said of the Browns.
Growing up in Cleveland and its suburbs and watching what the Browns were, and what they currently are, makes one wonder if that will be the case for them anytime in the near future. The franchise has been a rock of instability, second-guessing and internal power struggles. Given the recent Johnny Manziel issues and general losing, that might not change in the near future — especially if the team undergoes another regime change at the end of the season.
I’ll be in the press box for Monday night’s game, but part of me will wonder if there’s a 14-year-old experiencing the pure joy that was Monday Night Football. Of course, there will always be a 22-year-old enjoying his own concoction of “Dawg Juice.”
Reality tells me, however, there’s no raucous party or a lot of wonderment. It’s just another Browns game with a potential sense of dread attached to it.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.