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CLEVELAND — Nobody, at least still living, knows for sure how Brownie the Elf came to be the first official mascot of the Cleveland Browns some 76 years ago.
Yet one fact is certain: It was Art Modell who put the elf on the shelf after buying the team in 1961.
“My first official act as owner of the Browns,” Modell told newspaper reporters at the time, “will be to get rid of that little f—er.”
Brownie is back — and bigger than ever.
Topping a preseason online fan vote, Brownie has returned as the team’s midfield logo, an oversized rendition of his original mysterious appearance preceding Cleveland’s inaugural season in 1946.
The latest caricature of Brownie spans the 45-yard lines horizontally, exceeds the hashmarks vertically, and can be easily spotted from airplanes passing overhead.
And if you’re bemused about Brownie’s existence as an NFL mascot, well, you’re not alone.
“I don’t know what to think about it,” Cleveland pass-rusher Myles Garrett said. “It’s original, it’s unique. But I’ve always been more of a fan of the dog. I mean, we’re the Dawg Pound, but we’ve got an elf?
“I think we’re a little bit confused on what route we want to go creatively.”
One of the most inexplicable losses in franchise history sullied Brownie’s grandiloquent midfield debut on Sunday. Cleveland became the first team in 21 years to blow a 13-point lead in the final two minutes. With 1:55 to play, the New York Jets scored a 66-yard touchdown, recovered an onside kick, then scored another touchdown to stun the Browns, 31-30. In another fan poll via 850 ESPN Cleveland, more than 5% of voters actually blamed Brownie for the defeat.
Brownie might be 0-1 as Cleveland’s midfield logo heading into Thursday night’s clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). But more than seven decades ago, Brownie was the boyish face of pro football’s most dominant dynasty. So prolific, he very nearly once became the logo on the helmet.
THE LEGEND OF the Brownies began in Britain and dates back to at least the early 16th century. According to John T. Kruse, an author and blogger of British fairy lore, the first published reference to the Brownies came in 1522.
“He’s a small, hairy … creature that lives in houses and farms with people,” Kruse told ESPN of the mythical beings. “He undertakes a range of domestic and agricultural chores on the understanding that he gets free board and lodging from the humans.”
Despite their diligence, Brownies can be quite finicky.
Kruse noted that Brownies appreciate milk and fresh bread being left out for them at night. But they detest being spied on, whether working or eating. And they especially despise both compliments and criticisms.
“Any gift of clothes really antagonizes him. It’s seen as an insult or some sort of subjection,” Kruse said. “The usual result of this is that he’ll undo everything he’s done, make a mess in the house, then leave forever.”
The Dobby character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is derived from the Brownie legend, which began to surface in America in the early 20th Century. In 1916, the Girl Scouts, referencing the same Brownie legend, started calling their members ages 7-9 “Brownies,” taken from the story “The Brownies and Other Tales” by Juliana Horatia Ewing, which was originally published in 1870.
In 1929, the Atlas Beverage Company in Detroit began producing a Brownie caramel cream root beer, whose bottles were adorned with an elf. The company soon put a sign advertising the soda on the side of a building in downtown Massillon, Ohio.
Off that, so the story goes, Brownie the Elf was born.
BEFORE PAUL BROWN was winning NFL titles as coach of the Cleveland Browns, he was stacking state championships at Massillon High School.
Going into his final season at Massillon in 1940, Brown commissioned a local artist, A.D. Small, with creating a logo for the Tigers — Obie (which stands for orange and black, Massillon’s colors).
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Brown was hired to coach Cleveland’s new pro football franchise. Owner Mickey McBride and the team held a fan contest to determine the nickname. “Browns” was the winning submission, in honor of the first coach. Brown initially vetoed it. Another submission — the “Panthers” — was chosen instead, until a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to “Cleveland Panthers.” Brown finally relented on the name “Browns.”
Next, the team needed a logo.
“But what does ‘Browns’ represent?” said Browns historian Barry Shuck, who’s been pursuing the Brownie the Elf origin story for years. “Mud? A dessert? Dog poop?”
Did Brown come up with the idea for Brownie the Elf from that root beer sign in Massillon? And did he, again, have Small produce the drawing?
“If you look at Obie and you look at Brownie, it’s the same character,” said Shuck, who also writes for the Browns site DawgsByNature.com. “They’re both running. They both got a stiff arm. They’re both wearing a hat.”
The Cleveland-area newspapers made no mention of Brownie until he appeared in an ad promoting ticket sales days before the Browns’ first game against the Miami Seahawks in 1946.
Steve King, a longtime sportswriter in Northeast Ohio who subsequently worked for the Browns from 2004-13, has also spent years digging into Brownie the Elf’s conception. He even once asked Paul Brown’s son, Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, if he knew where Brownie came from (Mike Brown didn’t).
Yet through his research, King came to the same conclusion as Shuck.
“I’m sure I’ve gotten as close as anyone was going to get,” King said. “The truth is buried in a cemetery somewhere — and I don’t know where. … but the mystery of Brownie is what makes it so cool.”
PROPELLED BY PAUL BROWN, Otto Graham, Lou Groza and, yes, Brownie the Elf, the Cleveland Browns won four consecutive All-America Football Conference titles from 1946-49.
Tommy Flynn, an assistant equipment manager, would dress up like Brownie on game days and emulate Brown on the sidelines.
“If Paul Brown threw his hands up, Tommy Flynn would throw his hands up,” Shuck said. “If Paul Brown took his hat off and slammed it on the ground, Tommy Flynn would take his hat off and slam it on the ground.”
Flynn’s antics went away when the Browns joined the NFL in 1950. But Brownie the Elf and Cleveland’s winning ways remained. The Browns won another championship in their first season in the NFL.
By 1953, Brown wanted to showcase Brownie even more. He tasked Browns trainer Leo Murphy with putting the Brownie logo on one of Cleveland’s orange helmets to see what it would look like.
“Leo finally gets it done and he’s all proud,” King said. “He walks in Paul Brown’s office [and] sets it on his desk. But Brown took one look at it and said, ‘I don’t like it. Take it away.'”
Decades later, King was visiting Murphy’s house in Medina, Ohio, when Murphy said he had a secret to show him.
“He goes back and brings out this Browns helmet,” King recalled. “And it’s got Brownie the Elf on the side. … he kept the helmet all those years, which was incredible.”
Murphy died in 2018. Whatever became of his Brownie helmet is a mystery, as well.
BROWNIE THE ELF appeared on the cover of Cleveland’s media guide in 1961 for the final time. Modell bought the team and banished Brownie. A year later, the media guide cover featured star running back Jim Brown instead.
But for the following 30-plus years, Cleveland Plain-Dealer cartoonist Dick Dugan helped keep Brownie’s spirit alive. A reader could tell if the Browns had won or lost just by looking at Dugan’s Brownie cartoons.
“If the Browns won, the elf was all proud or whatever,” King said. “If the Browns lost, he looked like he had been beaten up in a fight.”
In 1995, Modell infamously took away the Browns, relocating the franchise to Baltimore. But when owner Al Lerner and president Carmen Policy brought the Browns back four years later, they reinstated Brownie.
Gradually, the legend has returned, as well.
Brownie was the team’s official training camp logo in 2006. The Brownie sideline mascot made his debut in 2015.
Kevin Stefanski has worn a Brownie the Elf cap almost every day since becoming Cleveland’s head coach in 2020. And this year, Brownie is on the sleeve of the team’s walkthrough jerseys.
Now, he’s the face of Cleveland’s field.
“We won seven championships with the elf?” Garrett asked. “If we get an eighth championship with that elf, I might come in here with a little elf outfit on.”
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