Here, on the shores of Lake Erie, a gregarious local fixture is in uncharted waters.
Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz is a diehard fan of the Detroit Lions. His wife, Sarah, is a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns. Both teams are in the NFL playoffs.
But theirs is not a house divided.
“The Lions and Browns are the only two original NFL teams who haven’t made the Super Bowl,” said the mayor, who doesn’t count the relatively new franchises in Jacksonville and Houston.
“Typically, Sundays in the fall are a descent into misery and sadness. As a Lions fan, I see in the Browns the same history of heartbreak and tragedy, so there’s sympathy. Browns and Lions fans don’t hate each other, they empathize with each other.”
And, Holy Toledo, is that true here.
This city, the fourth largest in Ohio, is closer to Detroit than it is to Cleveland, and the NFL fan bases are fairly evenly divided between the Lions and Browns, who for the first season in the Super Bowl era have both compiled double-digit victories.
When the Lions looked to sell season tickets in Toledo and other parts of northern Ohio, the club put a twist on a 1977 Crystal Gayle pop hit to make its pitch: “Hey, Cleveland fans, let us make your Brown eyes Blue … at least for a season or two.”
There isn’t the border-war vitriol that percolates when Ohio State plays Michigan — passions for college football boil over here — but more of a misery-loves-company simpatico, even though the NFL history in these parts is impossibly rich. Every football the league ever used was made less than an hour down the road at the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio.
This season marks the first time that all three Lake Erie teams — the third being the Buffalo Bills — have simultaneously reached the postseason. Throw in the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it’s a glorious Rust Belt revival.
On Saturday, the Browns play at Houston, and Miami plays at Kansas City. On Sunday, it’s Pittsburgh at Buffalo, Green Bay at Dallas andat Detroit. The concludes Monday night with Philadelphia at Tampa Bay.
A wet snow fell in Toledo on Friday, coating the streets in ankle-deep slush. The skies were slate gray. In another year, the two nearby NFL teams would be irrelevant bystanders at this point, beginning their search for new head coaches and perhaps starting to replenish their front offices for yet another try.
But the dreary weather belied the sunny optimism in Toledo that this might just be the year. The Browns have a smothering defense and a onetime Super Bowl MVP quarterback in Joe Flacco, who against long odds has resurrected his career in Cleveland. The Lions have a high-octane offense and, by virtue of winning the NFC North, are hosting a playoff game for the first time in 30 years.
“Normally, our draft is our Super Bowl,” said long-suffering Lions fan Skip Carter, who lives in Perrysburg, Ohio, a southern suburb of Toledo. “When Jim Caldwell was here [as Detroit’s coach from 2014 to 2017] we had a brief taste of success, and then we tanked again. We thought we had turned the corner and we didn’t. But this is unbelievable. This feels like the Barry Sanders times.”
Mayor Kapszukiewicz remembers it well. In fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Lions history and not only can recite scores but also specific statistics from three decades ago.
He maintains a neatly-compiled scrapbook of newspaper clippings and other mementos from those glory years, including his ticket stub from that last playoff victory, a 38-6 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional game on Jan. 5, 1992. The following week, the Lions were stopped one game short of the Super Bowl by Washington.
Toledo is considered part of Detroit’s TV market, so Lions games have over-the-air priority. Typically, that isn’t a problem because the Browns and Lions are in different conferences, and their games usually appear on rival networks. Occasionally, however, there’s a broadcasting issue, such as this season when the local Fox affiliate was forced to switch away from the waning moments of Cleveland’s upset of San Francisco to show the start of Detroit’s game at Tampa Bay.
“And the Lions game hadn’t even started,” Sarah Kapszukiewicz said, still miffed by the memory. “Those players were warming up.”
All water under the Toledo‘s Veterans’ Glass City Skyway bridge now. Detroit and Cleveland — the only two NFL franchises with 0-16 seasons in their history — simultaneously have reached the promised land.
Well, there’s always hope.
“Of course, we are all hoping against hope for the biblical, Armageddon end times of a Lions-Browns Super Bowl,” the mayor said. “But as great as this year has been as a Lions fan, tying a team record for wins and all, there’s always a sneaking suspicion that something’s going to go wrong in a spectacular fashion.
Toledo mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and his wife, Sarah, talk about why Toledo represents the border between Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns fans.
“The joke that Lions fans are saying is, `Well, I always knew [Lions-turned-Rams quarterback] Matt Stafford would win a playoff game at Ford Field.’ And with a lot of people here there’s such a reverence for all things Ohio State, and a lot of people love [former Buckeyes and current Houston quarterback] C.J. Stroud.
“It would be very Browns-esque and Lions-esque for our runs to end at the hands of quarterbacks who we also kind of revere. So as fans of these teams, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Until then, for Toledo fans on both sides, that shoe still feels like a glass slipper.