A friend of his, described Nolan Conn as “very sad”—at least within this context. But within the first 2 minutes of talking to Conn, he seemed more pessimistic, even apathetic, than sad. “I know, I know, I know, I’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” Conn answers my claim of pessimist. By this, he means being a fan of Cleveland sports. And being a fan—even if a sad, pessimist, or apathetic one—he traveled from Cleveland to Arlington, Texas. This is where I met him and his friends, in the NFL Draft where the Cleveland Browns picked twice within the first four selections—the first and fourth picks.
By any measure, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. There’s a good argument they are the worse team across all major sport leagues. They didn’t win a single game in the 2017 season and only won once in 2016. In the past 3 seasons, they’ve played 48 games and only won 4. They lost 44 times. You need not be a football or even sports fan to understand the dreadfulness of that ratio.
But now, it’s late April, a few months from the 2018 season and the Browns have yet another chance to improve their team. Within the first 40 minutes of the draft, so long as they pick the right players, the Browns can drastically improve their future and along with it, the lives of their fans—especially if they pick a franchise quarterback.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really think it matters,” Conn answers when asked who he hopes the Browns pick. “Anybody that we pick is going to blow…we have no defined organization, meaning there’s no process in place. Whoever we take, it’s going to be dysfunctional. There’s no answer.”
The NFL Draft has become one of the most popular sporting events precisely because it gives the illusion that, unlike what Conn suggests, there is an answer. Whatever question a team and their fans may have, a potential answer is there. And yet, many supposed right players have turned out wrong. Again, seemingly no other organization has picked more wrong players than the Browns. Maybe it’s bad luck. Or, perhaps Conn is right, it’s an organizational problem.
At 7:07 pm, the large screen set up outside AT&T Stadium telecasting the draft, reads “Cleveland Browns On The Clock.” I’m not even a Browns fan and I can feel the anticipation. I look towards Conn and while his 2 friends look relaxed, he’s anxious. I was wrong about Conn, he’s far from apathetic. He continuously shifts his weight from one leg to the other. Every 30 seconds or so, he’ll look up at the screen to see how much time remains before the Browns make their first pick.
At 7:15, the screen says, “The Pick Is In.” Conn stands with his arms crossed. A minute later that pick is announced. “With the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft,” commissioner Roger Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma.” The crowd groans. It sounds like a loud, “OHHHHHH!” Some laugh. No one cheers. Some fans look at each other in disbelief. “The Browns shit the bed again,” someone says loudly. Conn walks away from his friends.
Maybe I should have left him alone, with his thoughts. But I didn’t and instead I asked him about those thoughts. “I think they wasted a pick,” he answered bluntly. “I know I said, ‘it didn’t matter’ earlier, but Darnold was the pick.” Sam Darnold, whom Conn thinks was the right choice, went to the New York Jets, 2 picks later. If Darnold becomes great and Mayfield does not, Conn and many others can say they always knew.
At 7:34, the screen says again, “The Pick is In.” Since Conn mentioned there were no answers and whoever they chose would fail, I don’t know what reaction to expect. I don’t know if there’s a player that would make him smile or nod in approval. I’m not sure he knows either. Still, he remains anxious. He walks around, pulls his pants up—as if it’s an exercise to burn the excess energy. He interlocks his fingers behind his Browns cap, and waits for the commissioner to announce the Browns’s 4th pick.
“With the fourth pick in the 2018 NFL draft,” Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Denzel Ward, defensive back, Ohio State.” The crowd, again, groans. Conn, eyes wide, smiles but not of satisfaction. He motions to his friends—a thumb point behind him and raised by his jaw—it’s time to go. Sensing his frustration, they don’t disagree. I move towards them. “Before you go, Denzel Ward?” I ask. Knowing what I meant by my poorly phrased question, only Conn answered. “That’s crazy,” he says while rapidly walking away.