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The Queen of the Damned

Sportswriter Mary Kay Cabot has covered the Cleveland Browns for two decades. They’re worse than ever. But she’s still (mostly) smiling.

"I feel sorry for these poor people," says Mary Kay Cabot. "I really do. It’s heartbreaking to me." She is gazing forlornly out the press-box window, at all the Cleveland Browns fans.

It is early Sunday afternoon, and the worst team in football is hosting the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium in snowy, frigid, inhospitable downtown Cleveland. Should the home team falter today, its record will drop to an unsightly 0–13. It’s getting ugly. Recently, some jokers ran an EA Sports full-game simulation that had the Alabama Crimson Tide beating the Browns 34–0; other jokers closer to home are threatening to throw a parade should the boys achieve perfection and finish 0–16. "It’s disrespectful," lamented veteran cornerback Joe Haden to reporters the week before. "We’re literally the laughingstock of every joke."

Cabot is among the longest-suffering and highest-profile of those reporters. For many, she is the official Bearer of Bad News, the Goat Whisperer. She’s put in 20-plus years at hometown paper The Plain Dealer (online at Cleveland.com), along with regular radio and TV gigs, local and national. This stretches back to before the team’s first iteration bolted for Baltimore in the mid-’90s. The Browns’ head coach when she started? Bill Belichick.

"If you can survive the Bill Belichick years and live to tell about it, then nothing else that happens is gonna rattle you," she says now. "Nothing. I mean that. Nothing else is gonna rattle you. ‘I got this.’ I would recommend that to anyone."

Losing does not rattle her, either. For the first time in half a century, she has cause to be jealous of other sportswriters in her own newsroom: The Cleveland Cavs are NBA champs, the Cleveland Indians valiant World Series losers. Whereas the Browns last posted a winning record in 2007, and last played (and lost) a playoff game in 2003. Cabot has overseen an ignoble parade of 20-plus starting quarterbacks, including Johnny Manziel, whose calamitous media flameout, she jokes, brought her so many talking-head opportunities that she got nearly as famous as Johnny Football himself. ("Half the time, more so than anything, I was worried about him.") Her good cheer is admirable, her tenacity galvanizing, her cautious optimism infectious. Generally.

But 0–16 is something else, something new. The Browns, as if in petulant response to the Cavs and the Tribe, are somehow plunging even further. The fans are enraged, the players dejected. And often vice versa. Hue Jackson — the team’s ninth head coach since their 1999 reinstatement — teared up last month during his postgame press conference when the Giants dropped his squad to 0–12. It’s his first year. And should his team end the season as the league’s very worst, even the glittering prize of the no. 1 pick in next year’s draft — as of now, not a sure thing, given that the San Francisco 49ers have only one win and hold the tiebreakers — doesn’t much energize a fan base burned by many a rookie disaster, Manziel only the most unfortunate of myriad high-profile, humiliating busts.

There is little else to take, in terms of solace. Quarterback turned wide receiver Terrelle Pryor is one of the Browns’ few individual bright spots this year, but lately that has only brought him in for specialized, intensified ridicule. Here is a real game-action photo of him, versus the Giants.

Terrell Pryor (AP Images)
Terrell Pryor (AP Images)

Reporting on all this requires delicacy. And empathy. And, it turns out, bottomless endurance. As the first quarter of the Bengals game unfolds, the few brave ticket-holders outside the press-box window (the stadium is one-third full, maybe) scrape the ice off their seats and huddle around frosty beers, steaming coffee cups, copious nachos. They believe. And so does she. But by the time Cabot first gives voice to her pity and her heartbreak, Cincinnati is already up 13–0.

No one in NFL history has ever made better use of a bye than Mary Kay Cabot. "Well, I always like to say that I wasn’t very productive," she recalls of the Browns’ three-year post-Baltimore layoff. "But I was very reproductive. I had three children." Those kids are now 20, 18, and 16; "I would not recommend teenagers to anyone," concedes their mother. They’re not necessarily huge Browns fans, either, and this, too, dismays her: She worries about a "lost generation of fans" burned by the move and beaten down by two decades of failure since.

She’s covered all of it. Born in nearby Lakewood, Cabot graduated from Kent State, turned a Plain Dealer internship into a full-time gig, and can still remember getting barred from an NFL locker room. That aspect of the job has improved, but now she spends much of her day on Twitter, which is often no more hospitable to women.

"Most of the time, I don’t even look at my notifications, because it’s too upsetting," she says. "It’s really upsetting. Because I view this" — she gestures out the window, into the stadium — "as an enormous responsibility on my part. It’s an enormous responsibility, what I do. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, and it’s a big responsibility. And I have to get it right, and I’m doing the best I can every day. And it is disheartening, to see some of the stuff that you see. You know what I mean? It can get to you. It can. So I don’t let it."

It’s an hour or so before the Browns-Bengals kickoff; she has taken, as usual, a seat in the front row of the three-tiered press box, right up against the glass, with two full reams of blank paper stacked up on her folding chair as a booster seat. Her big story in The Plain Dealer this morning is full of Browns players singing Jackson’s praises; she is likewise usually on his side. She feels sorry for him too. "I’ve never seen a team that’s taken a toll on a coach like this. I’ve never seen it."

Her attitude toward management is more complicated. Earlier this month she made a pointed plea for the Browns to hire "a football GM" and give him total control over a sinking ship: preferably a "20/20 club" guy, meaning someone "who started out in their 20s making $20,000 a year and did it for the love of the game." (The team’s flashiest offseason acquisition was Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta, hired away from the Mets and installed as chief strategy officer.) Cabot’s piece has nearly 7,000 comments now, many of them, naturally, unreadable for one reason or another. She’s all for innovation and analytics, but this is getting ridiculous. "It is tough to get beat up for something that you know, if a guy wrote it, they wouldn’t get beat up for it," she notes, generally.

The press box is largely insulated from the outside chill, though a group of dudes just outside the kitchen, relaxing amid their plates of beef, chicken, hot dogs, and very soft chocolate-chip cookies, can still be heard comparing brands of toe warmers. At her seat, Cabot is flanked by two fellow Cleveland.com reporters, Scott Patsko and Dan Labbe, fellow Kent State grads who, like her, dabble in everything from Twitter to Snapchat to Facebook Live to podcasting. Patsko explained the smartphone app Videolicious to her, and now she excitedly explains it to me. "She’s been one of the ones that has embraced it, a lot," Labbe says of these new technologies. "She wants to keep up with everybody. She doesn’t have any desire to just show up and write and hit deadlines. She wants to do everything."

She pregames by wrestling with Twitter, revisiting her recent article on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones’s oddly pointed Terrelle Pryor trash talk, doing her regular 12:20 radio call-in, plotting out her pre-kickoff Facebook Live chat, and working to nail down the rumor — whispers of which she’d already reported, though the team’s flagship radio station seems to have just confirmed it, much to her consternation — that the Browns are heading to London for a game in 2017. "For all my heartache, don’t I deserve a trip to London?" she asks, semi-rhetorically. "Not heartache. Suffering."

The big onfield story for Cleveland today is Robert Griffin III, the team’s second-flashiest offseason acquisition, back at quarterback for the first time since breaking a bone in his shoulder during Week 1. (Cabot, in her Hey, Mary Kay reader-mail column, fields many questions about this situation; she’s hoping there’s a franchise QB in the draft.) But as kickoff nears, she’s still stuck on London, firing off emails and trying to confirm it, murmuring, "What should I do? What should I do? What should I do?" She had this already; it’s frustrating that the Browns didn’t confirm it for her then. She ditches the Facebook Live chat, which Patsko and Labbe handle instead; by the time they’re done, her updated London story is up. "I live in a state of high stress, 24–7," she explains, smiling and not smiling. It is a distinctly Browns facial expression.

Everyone in the press box stands for a moment of silence for the recently deceased John Glenn, and then the national anthem. The windblown singer keeps her non-mic hand clutched firmly on the hood of her parka.

Kickoff. The Who’s "Baba O’Riley" on the PA. And suddenly the Bengals are up two touchdowns after two drives. RGIII’s first pass literally hits the Bengals bench, 10 yards out of bounds; his second pass is nearly intercepted by three different defenders. Cabot slips in earbuds and follows the radio feed, taking notes on each play with a pen and a highlighter. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles appears on the Jumbotron, holed up on a stadium terrace in a Browns parka, a small entourage surrounding her, probably just for warmth. Holding a mic and gritting her teeth through a chant of, "Here we go, Brownies, here we go," looking very cold and very dutiful. "That about sums it up," someone mutters.

During lulls, Cabot searches for a file photo of Wembley Stadium to add to her London post. The home team’s first exciting play comes on the Bengals’ second extra-point attempt, which the Browns block and attempt to run back. "This is their best chance to score," someone mutters, taking in a wacky multilateral scrum that fizzles out at the 50-yard line. "The extra point is no good," the PA announcer intones gravely, his voice crystal clear in the press box. Everyone chuckles.

Cabot scrolls through Twitter, frowning.

The Browns are stuffed on third-and-1 from their own 21. [Groans.] They go for it. [Cheers.] They make it by a whisker. [Louder cheers.] They get 2 more yards and punt. [Indifference.] Cabot is still on London: "I knew I had it. I knew I had it." She’ll be here until maybe 10 p.m., she says. File her game story. Down the elevator for press conferences and the locker room. Then back up to transcribe, write, shoot videos, write some more. The locker room is the most frustrating part, lately. "It’s the fastest-fleeing locker room I’ve ever been a part of," she says. "They’re just gone."

On Twitter, this is going viral.

"Can you believe there’s even this many people here for this stupid game?" Cabot murmurs. "Seriously." Over the PA: Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless the U.S.A."

As the second quarter begins, her gamer — the lengthy, thorough, definitive account of everything that happens here — is already underway. As with all sportswriters now, it’s expected that she’ll post it roughly three minutes after the game ends. "You gotta get something down," she says. "Or you’re dead." RGIII is valiantly winging long passes, to no avail. "Griffin’s timing was understandably off in the first half," she writes, with 11:48 left on the clock.

The Browns take down Bengals QB Andy Dalton; the Jumbotron proudly trumpets the play as the team’s sixth sack on a visiting quarterback this year. It is Week 14; it takes a moment to fully register how unimpressive this stat is. Snow is tumbling down now.

The Browns start a drive from their own 2-yard line. "This has the potential to get ugly," Cabot observes. The first play is a flea-flicker back to RGIII, who scrambles madly and flings an interception into triple coverage. "Like I said," Cabot says. "This has the potential to get ugly." She turns to her laptop. "Griffin is relying too much on deep ball like he did in preseason," she tweets to 138,000 people. "It’s not working." In her gamer draft, she describes this play as the "backbreaker."

Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III (AP Images)
Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III (AP Images)

A roaring fire appears on the Jumbotron to create the illusion of warmth. "Ever seen a quarterback rating of 0.0?" someone mutters.

"I gotta get my passport renewed," Cabot says, to no one in particular. "It expires in February."

Another Bengals TD. It’s 20–0 with 5:06 left in the half. The Jumbotron’s doing birthdays.

Cabot does not particularly mind being the bearer of bad news; it’s not her psyche you should worry about. "Here’s the thing," she says. "At the beginning of the season, they were playing well. They were in really close games. And now, it’s just become an embarrassment."

The Browns are up to eight home sacks on the year, the Jumbotron crowing each time. "I’m gonna run to make some hot tea, because I’m freezing," Cabot announces. "Beat the crowd." Bengals kicker Mike Nugent misses a field goal to end the first half. "God, I love him, but I think this is the end," someone mutters.

Halfway there. "I actually didn’t think the game was gonna be this bad," Cabot tells me. "I’m sorry you have to stay for the whole thing." She counts the people in the stadium section right outside the window. Twelve. She’s cheered when three more fans return from the concourse and take their seats nearby. "Aww," she purrs. "They’re coming back."

With 13 minutes left in the third quarter, this sentence sneaks into her gamer: "As a result, the Browns slipped to 0–13, and kept alive the specter of becoming only the second team in the NFL to go 0–16." The Bengals punt into the Browns’ end zone. "Best punt return they’ve had all year," someone mutters.

And then things perk up, slightly. The Browns cross midfield — for the first time all game, Labbe informs Cabot. In the huddle, RGIII and Terrelle Pryor get into a brief screaming match over a called timeout. But soon RGIII scores, on a 1-yard run, spiking the ball slightly overexuberantly. No flag. Score’s 20–7 with 8:11 left in the third. "Rock and Roll All Nite" over the PA. Cabot’s gamer: "Griffin came out in the second half and showed a lot of fire." It stops snowing.

The next Bengals drive stalls; soon, Browns running back Isaiah Crowell breaks off a long one, pushing back into the red zone and triggering the crowd’s biggest cheer all day. Less than a minute left in the third; Cabot tweets about Crowell but is otherwise going quiet. "This is interesting," she notes, waving at the field; "This is all going to hell in a handbag," she soon adds, waving at her laptop. "Everything I’ve written."

The Browns kick a field goal early in the fourth, closing the gap to 20–10. "Immigrant Song" on the PA. But momentum stalls. Soon the Bengals’ Nugent is readying another field goal try.

"He’s gonna miss it," Cabot says.

He makes it, but the Bengals get flagged for a false start, trudging back 5 yards for the retry.

"Now he’s not gonna make it." Cabot says.

"Only the Browns do that shit," someone mutters.

Nugent makes it; 23–10 with 8:38 to go. Cabot’s gamer lede has materialized: "Robert Griffin III was so rusty in his return to the lineup that the Browns probably ran to the film room afterward to watch more tape of North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo."

RGIII keeps at it; "Oh my god, Robert," Cabot murmurs, watching him scramble wildly before taking his second straight sack. The crowd’s down to 10 or 20 percent capacity. Tight end Gary Barnidge leads all Browns receivers with 27 yards. Cabot slots in her gamer headline: "Robert Griffin III sputters in 23–10 loss to Bengals as Browns fall to 0–13." There’s a boisterous, quite possibly drunk fan on the Jumbotron doing the LeBron chalk-clap thing, but with snow. The two-minute warning nears.

"Nine-of-24," someone mutters, plumbing RGIII’s stat line. "Jesus Christ."

The Browns take over at their 20 with 00:57 left. "Here it comes," someone mutters. "You ready for this?" The game ends without incident. "Everlong" on the PA, which is slightly cruel. With the sidelines converging, there immediately appear to be more people on the field than in the stands. A small clutch of Bengals and Browns players gather at midfield, kneeling. "‘Dear God, please don’t make me play again,’" someone in the press box mutters.

The next song over the PA is "Are You Gonna Go My Way"; Cabot’s gamer is live on Cleveland.com by the first chorus.

"I actually sometimes think there’s more to kick around and write about," she says. "There’s more to analyze. There’s more to figure out. You know what I’m saying? I honestly think the Patriots writers probably get a little bored. They’re the ones that get bored. You know? Same old victory. Same old Super Bowl victory."

And then she throws on her coat and hauls ass for the locker room.

Not quite a sprint, but not quite not a sprint, either. A distinctly Cleveland Winter pace. In heels. Glasses perched on her head. Barreling toward the press elevator, which closes just before she arrives, leaving her impatient for the next one, which she crowds into ("Those aren’t pillows," someone mutters, stuck in a tight group of dudes crowded near the back), eager to make it in time for Jackson’s press conference. She does. It’s the nimblest piece of running I’ll see all day.

"Not a good day for the Browns, obviously," Jackson begins. No wet eyes this time.

Cabot asks the first question overall: "How did you think RGIII played in his first game back?" Followed soon by, "Will he start next week against the Bills?" (Yes he will, Jackson replies, in essence. Unless there’s an injury he doesn’t know about.) She asks about the shouting match between RGIII and Pryor; she asks why wide receiver Corey Coleman, another rare season bright spot, didn’t get many targets. Jackson’s spiel, which lasts 10 minutes or so, ends slightly earlier than usual, at which point Cabot moves on to the locker room, where, just as she feared, most of the important players are already gone.

Browns coach Hue Jackson (AP Images)
Browns coach Hue Jackson (AP Images)

A Cleveland.com videographer approaches to tell her that Pryor kicked the locker-room door on the way in. "Shhh, not so loud," she chides. She whirls around, taking in the scene, not smiling at all. "As you can see, not a good locker room."

A photographer texts her: Pryor threw his helmet, too. Labbe, who’d gotten here earlier, actually saw Pryor and tried to get an interview. The reply: "Not a chance."

Someone notes that rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who’d gotten one and a half of those Jumbotron-heralded sacks today, is at his locker and available to talk. Cabot brushes this off. Someone tells her Coleman already bolted, too. She shakes her head and sighs. "Not getting Coleman is bad."

The few remaining players are in various states of undress; this likely stopped registering with her in any way decades ago. She does a few circuits of the room, not smiling, sometimes talking to her colleagues, sometimes talking to herself.

"I’m not gonna go here anymore. Too many players are just gone."

"You can’t walk in here and half the team’s gone."

"This is worse than usual."

A crowd of reporters forms around offensive tackle Joe Thomas, the team’s long-suffering superstar. She ignores this. Her preference would be to hit Jackson’s press conference first and then the locker room, but the latter is such an essential part of the job — and it now clears out so fast — that going forward she’ll have to rush here first thing, before the great retreat. There just isn’t enough time to watch the head coach tear up anymore.

"I can’t go here anymore. I’ve never seen a locker room clear out this fast."

She heads back out and across the hall to the press-conference room. RGIII’s at the podium. "Hey guys," he offers, by way of introduction. He sighs. "Who’s up first?"

Cabot asks why he and Coleman didn’t connect, and soon asks the same question again, about Pryor.

Someone else asks if people should understand that he’ll naturally be rusty after a three-month injury layoff. "I don’t ever expect anyone to be understanding when it comes to me," RGIII replies. The press conference ends. This one was shorter. "God bless," he concludes.

"I wanna stay here until somebody else comes in," someone mutters. "I don’t like what I have." His fellow reporters laugh; he gets up and leaves.

Cabot goes back to the locker room, and joins a small crowd at a few lockers, everyone waving digital recorders at the remaining Browns. "As this winds down, do you still hold out hope that you guys are gonna win one of these last three games?" she asks cornerback Tramon Williams. "Of course, of course," he says. "By any means necessary."

On to linebacker Christian Kirksey. "Chris, you’re winding down on your vow to still win a game this season," she begins. "Are you still holding to your vow?"

"Yes. I’m holding on to it," he says immediately, and very quietly.

"Yeah?"

"I mean, it’s just like anybody else with their job. They don’t go to their job expecting to not do their job. So of course I’m gonna go out there. Same mind-set."

And that’s about it. "I’m sorry we couldn’t make Hue cry for you today," she tells me, heading back to the elevator up to the press box. The crowd in the elevator is smaller now, punchier. "It was a heartbreaker in front of family and friends at FirstEnergy Stadium!" someone crows in a fake announcer’s voice.

The kitchen is serving up chicken fingers, mac and cheese. The afternoon games aren’t at halftime yet, and it’s getting dark outside, a light, almost sensuous mist falling on the field, empty save for groundskeepers. "Historically bad football team," someone mutters. "Historically."

There is news: Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, elated to continue his Terrelle Pryor slander, uncorked a boisterous, pro-wrestling-style postgame rant that included his pretending to physically search for Pryor in a nearby trash can. Cabot sits down to write the first of several smaller pieces: "Adam Jones trashes Terrelle Pryor after game: ‘He’s garbage; I have no respect for him.’"

She’s got videos to do next; she apologizes to the ersatz-cinematographer colleagues she kept waiting. "Josh, you’re mad at me," she tells one. Josh looks up from his phone: "I’m playing chess."

The videos are bite-size riffs with Labbe, who reads off tweets from Browns fans; the vibe as they shoot is bemused and dutiful, but Cabot fights the Content Wars with gusto. "In my mind, there’s kind of something about being the main kind of beat writer for a local newspaper and a local website," she said earlier. "There’s just something that’s important to me about that. And I like that. But the job has evolved — the job has evolved tremendously. The good thing about it is that I’ve always loved to do the on-camera stuff, and the podcasts, and you know, now I do all that in the current job I have. So even though I’ve had essentially the same job for all these years, the job has grown and changed so much that it encompasses every single possible thing that I could ever want to do."

And so now, after putting on a little makeup to combat six-plus hours of press-box moroseness, she goes multimedia once again. "I actually thought [Robert Griffin] did some halfway-decent things," Cabot offers on camera; "What a mess of a game that was," she exclaims off it.

Cleveland is a championship city now. The Cavs overcame a 3–1 lead to win the NBA Finals; the Indians blew a 3–1 lead in a nonetheless thrilling World Series. Basking in that afterglow, fans are apt to be more forgiving of another disastrous NFL season, right? "It just made them more impatient," Labbe counters. "All of a sudden, this is a place with higher expectations. They’ve seen this is possible. Which wasn’t always the case."

Nor do those thrilling playoff runs matter much when your job is to cling solely to the Browns, through thin and thinner. That this team has been this calamitous for this long means that Cabot’s job is never boring, and also never easy. "They keep blowing it up every year!" she says. "Every year I’m doing a coaching search. Every year I’m doing a GM search. I’ve had two ownership changes, a ton of coaching changes, a ton of GM changes. I will say that makes it much more difficult to develop relationships. It makes it really tough to develop relationships. You get to know someone, and they are gone in a year or two, and then you have to start all over again."

But she presses on. At every level, the Browns need people who are reliable, who are consistent, who have been there and will stay there. A rock; a constant. Cabot is too polite, maybe, to say that despite few constants in her two-decades-plus career, she has nonetheless become one herself.

"Hue Jackson always says, ‘I’m built for this,’" she says. "I feel like I’m built for this."

This piece has been updated to include additional context about how Mary Kay Cabot does her reporting after Browns games.

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