Jan. 26—Toledo. Cleveland. Buffalo.
Welcome to the Walleye Belt: A great place to live (except on Sundays).
When it comes to pro football, the denizens of these Lake Erie cities — including Toledo, where, on the pain index, we live between a rusty nail through the foot (Lions) and a minor table-saw mishap (Browns) — know the deal.
The sport was invented to break your heart.
I don't know if it's something in the water, but, every year, our hope blooms thicker than the lake algae, and, every year, our love goes unrequited.
This season was no different, the Lions rebuilding, the Browns retreating, and, of course, the Bills ruing the day they must have crossed the pigskin gods.
How else to explain the ending of Buffalo's 42-36 overtime loss in Kansas City on Sunday night?
In one of the most wonderfully bonkers games in NFL history — a showdown that featured three lead changes and 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation — the Bills had everything going for them. A generational quarterback (Josh Allen) at the very top of his game. The best defense in the league. A damn near insurmountable three-point lead.
After Allen's go-ahead 19-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis, they were 13 seconds from victory.
Thirteen seconds from hosting the AFC championship game and a scene next week that would have made the famously raucous Arrowhead Stadium seem like a quiet room.
And then ...
Stupid Patrick Mahomes! Stupid overtime rules! Stupid sport!
To match Cleveland's trilogy of iconic playoff defeats — Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble — Buffalo now has its own.
Wide Right. The Music City Miracle. Thirteen seconds.
All we can do is toss a Hail Mary — and any other prayers — across the lake to our friends in Buffalo, hug the nearest Bills fan, and remind them we are all in this together.
All of us, that is, in the Walleye Belt, where our Sunday dreams go to sleep with the fishes.
The capital of pro football heartache.
Readers of a wiser generation will remember it wasn't always like this.
There was a time when three out of four doctors recommended a pack of Lucky Strikes a day and the championships flowed like Coke at the soda fountain.
Between 1950 and 1965, we lived between the Cities of Champions. The Browns won four NFL championships, the Lions won three, and the Bills won two AFL titles.
But, then, it was as if the spigot was wrenched off.
Since, the franchises have combined to play 165 seasons, the majority of which have come in an era designed to give every franchise an equal chance. They are 0 for 165. Among teams rooted in their current city — which excludes the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, and Tennessee Titans — Detroit (64 years), Cleveland (57), and Buffalo (56) have the three longest championship droughts in pro football.
It is unfathomable, really, a famine born of administrative ineptitude and just plain bad luck (I mean, who could have predicted Johnny Manziel would not pan out?!). And, for fans in this neck of the woods, it has created one of the great ironies in sports, their hearts growing fonder with each punch to the stomach. As noted Browns backer William Shakespeare once wrote: "Love that we cannot have is the one that lasts the longest, hurts the deepest, but feels the strongest."
What would happen if Browns, Bills, or Lions fans ever can have love and their teams win the Super Bowl?
I think about that a lot, especially with the Browns and Bills, having grown up outside Cleveland and lived in Buffalo.
Believe it or not, Cleveland and Buffalo are not defined by their sporting misery. Like Toledo, their arts and culture and parks belie their Rust Belt image. They're wonderful places to live.
But sports, and, especially in these cities, football, provide a region with a sense of pride and identity like no other institution. And what cities love their football teams more than Cleveland and Buffalo (Detroit is right up there, too).
A Super Bowl championship would mean everything.
One of these years.
We'll keep dreaming.
First Published January 25, 2022, 2:58pm