Being a Cleveland Browns fan has been a mostly thankless proposition since the city got its NFL team back in 1999. But quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski have given the faithful reason to cheer. The Browns are going to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.
Wrapping up their postseason spot with a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in NFL Week 17 brought joy to the city. The moment also brought out the best in hardcore fans looking out for one of their own.
The Cleveland Browns are back in the NFL playoffs
Fresh off their 24-22 win against the Steelers to close the regular season, the Cleveland Browns are staring at an immediate rematch with Pittsburgh on Jan. 10 to cap off the weekend’s six wildcard games. The Browns finished one game behind the 12-4 Steelers in the AFC North and are seeded sixth in the conference playoffs.
The last time Cleveland reached the playoffs, quarterback Baker Mayfield was seven years old. That 2002 Browns team was coached by Butch Davis and featured Tim Couch at quarterback. They lacked a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver but found a way to win five of their final seven games to finish 9-7 and advance.
That season ended with a 36-33 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wildcard round, and it was the sort of heartache that Browns fans would come to know only too well in subsequent years.
The playoff loss was followed be nearly non-stop losing
The loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 5, 2003, at Heinz Field came in devastating fashion. The Browns had clinched their playoff spot a week earlier by beating the Atlanta Falcons. In the process, however, they lost quarterback Tim Couch.
When Kelly Holcomb connected with Dennis Northcutt from 15 yards out 2:49 into the third quarter, the Browns held a 24-7 lead against Pittsburgh. However, Tommy Maddox responded with three second-half touchdown passes, and the Steelers won on a short Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala run in the final minute.
The downward spiral was immediate and drastic. The Browns finished with losing records in 16 of the next 17 seasons. The losses piled up into double-digits in 14 of those seasons.
This season’s 11-5 record finally ended the futility.
Baker Mayfield’s wife reaches out to a longtime fan
When the Cleveland Browns clinched their playoff berth on Jan. 3, 2021, they had a special guest in attendance. Columbus, Ohio, native Tom Seipel returned to the United States for good in 2019 from missionary work in Nicaragua following a 2017 diagnosis of kidney cancer. At the behest of his wife, Baker Mayfield recorded a personal video for Seipel two days before Christmas.
However, Emily Mayfield and a bunch of Browns fans decided that didn’t go far enough. They raised more than $24,000 through a GoFundMe campaign intended to raise $5,000 to bring Seipel to Cleveland from Georgia, where he has been receiving in-home hospice care. Seipel watched the Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 from the Mayfields’ stadium suite.
“If I’m going to die freezing my butt off at FirstEnergy Stadium,” Seipel told Cleveland.com, “what a way to go out.”
Seipel expressed gratitude for the personal interest that Emily Mayfield has taken in him, frequently messaging to see how he is feeling. After the playoff-clinching victory, she put her husband on the phone to speak with Seipel.
“I told you we were doing it,” the quarterback told him.