CLEVELAND — No one, at least not yet alive, knows for sure how Brownie the Elf became the first official mascot of the Cleveland Browns some 76 years ago.
However, one fact is certain: it was Art Modell who put the leprechaun on the shelf after buying the equipment in 1961.
“My first official act as owner of the Browns,” Modell told reporters at the time, “is going to be getting rid of that little f—er.”
Brownie is back, and bigger than ever.
Brownie, who topped fans’ online voting during the preseason, has returned as the team’s midfield logo, an oversized rendition of his mysterious original appearance that preceded Cleveland’s inaugural season in 1946.
Brownie’s latest cartoon spans the 45-yard lines horizontally, clears the checkmarks vertically, and can be easily seen from planes passing overhead.
the people have spoken pic.twitter.com/TYOBd59So8
— Cleveland Coffees (@Browns) September 13, 2022
And if you’re puzzled 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 dog fan. I mean, we’re Dawg Pound, but do we have an eleven?
“I think we’re a bit confused about the route we want to go creatively.”
One of the most inexplicable losses in franchise history marred Brownie’s bombastic 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 left, the New York Jets scored a 66-yard touchdown, recovered an onside kick, then scored another touchdown to stun the Browns, 31-30. In other fan poll via 850 ESPN Cleveland, more than 5% of voters actually blamed Brownie for the loss.
Brownie could go 0-1 as Cleveland’s midfield logo heading into Thursday night’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:15 pm ET, Prime Video). But more than seven decades ago, Brownie was the youthful face of professional soccer’s most dominant dynasty. So prolific that it almost once became the logo on the helmet.
THE LEGEND OF Brownies began in Great Britain and date back to at least the early 16th century. According to John T. Kruse, a British fairy tale author and blogger, the first published reference to Brownies occurred in 1522.
“It’s a small, furry creature … that lives in houses and farms with people,” Kruse told ESPN of the mythical beings. “He undertakes a variety of domestic and agricultural tasks on the understanding that he gets free food and shelter from humans.”
As Brownie The Elf makes his field debut again to @browns home games, we remember the first time Brownie debuted.
It was the day the Browns played the first game in team history. pic.twitter.com/5l9UaOhcDT
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) September 18, 2022
Despite their diligence, brownies can be quite a picky eater.
Kruse noted that the brownies appreciate having milk and fresh bread left for them in the evening. But they hate being spied on, whether working or eating. And they especially despise both praise and criticism.
“Any gift of clothing really antagonizes him. It’s seen as an insult or some sort of submission,” Kruse said. “The usual result of this is that he will undo everything he has done, make a mess of the house, and then be gone forever.”
The character of Dobby in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books stems from the Brownie legend, which began to emerge in America in the early 20th century. In 1916, the Girl Scouts, referencing the same Brownie legend, began calling their 7- to 9-year-old members “Brownies,” taken from the story “The Brownies and Other Tales” by Juliana Horatia Ewing, which was published originally in 1870.
In 1929, the Atlas Beverage Company in Detroit began producing a Caramel Brownie Root Beer, the bottles of which were emblazoned with an eleven. The company soon posted a sign advertising the soft drink on the side of a building in downtown Massillon, Ohio.
From there, as the story goes, Brownie the Elf was born.
BEFORE PAUL BROWN he was winning NFL titles coaching the Cleveland Browns, he was racking up state championships at Massillon High School.
Entering his final season at Massillon in 1940, Brown commissioned a local artist, AD Small, to create a logo for the Tigers: Obie (meaning orange and black, the colors of Massillon).
After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Brown was hired to coach Cleveland’s new professional football franchise. Owner Mickey McBride and the team held a fan contest to determine the nickname. “Browns” was the winning entry, in honor of the head coach. Brown initially vetoed it. Instead, another submission, the “Panthers”, was chosen until a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to “Cleveland Panthers”. Brown eventually relented on the “Browns” name.
Next, the team needed a logo.
“But what does ‘Browns’ stand for?” said Browns historian Barry Shuck, who has been researching the origin story of Brownie the Elf for years. “Mud? A dessert? Dog poop?”
Did Brown get the idea for Brownie the Elf from that root beer sign in Massillon? And, again, he had 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 have a stiff arm. They’re both wearing a hat.”
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 veteran sportswriter in Northeast Ohio who later worked for the Browns from 2004 to 2013, also spent years researching the conception of Brownie the Elf. He even once asked Paul Brown’s son, Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, if he knew where Brownie came from (Mike Brown didn’t).
However, through his research, King came to the same conclusion as Shuck.
“I’m sure I’ve gotten as close as anyone,” King said. “The truth is buried in a graveyard somewhere, and I don’t know where… but the mystery of Brownie is what makes it so great.”
DRIVEN BY PAUL BROWNOtto Graham, Lou Groza and, yes, Brownie the Elf, the Cleveland Browns won four straight All-America Football Conference titles between 1946 and 1949.
Assistant team manager Tommy Flynn dressed like Brownie on game days and emulated Brown on the bench.
“If Paul Brown put his hands up, Tommy Flynn would put his hands up,” Shuck said. “If Paul Brown took off his hat and slammed it on the ground, Tommy Flynn would take off his hat and slammed it on the ground.”
Flynn’s antics disappeared 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 put Brownie on display even more. He commissioned Browns coach Leo Murphy to put the Brownie logo on one of Cleveland’s orange helmets to see what he would look like.
“Leo finally does it and he’s very proud,” King said. “He walks into Paul Brown’s office [and] put it on your 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 home in Medina, Ohio, when Murphy said he had a secret to show him.
“Go back and get this Browns helmet out,” King recalled. “And he has Brownie the Elf next to him… he kept the helmet all those years, which was amazing.”
Murphy died in 2018. What became of his Brownie helmet is also a mystery.
BROWNIE THE ELF it appeared on the cover of the Cleveland media guide in 1961 for the last time. Model bought the team and banished Brownie. A year later, the cover of the media guide featured star running back Jim Brown.
But for the next 30-plus years, Cleveland Plain-Dealer cartoonist Dick Dugan helped keep the spirit of Brownie alive. A reader could tell whether the Browns had won or lost just by looking at Dugan’s Brownie cartoons.
“My first official act as owner of the Browns will be to get rid of that little son of a bitch.”
Model type former owner of the Browns
“If the Browns won, the elf was proud or whatever,” King said. “If the Browns lost, it looked like they beat him up in a fight.”
In 1995, Modell infamously took over the Browns and moved the franchise to Baltimore. But when owner Al Lerner and chairwoman Carmen Policy brought the Browns back four years later, they reinstated Brownie.
Little by little, the legend has also returned.
Brownie was the official training camp logo for the team in 2006. The Brownie side mascot made its debut in 2015.
Kevin Stefanski has worn a Brownie the Elf cap almost every day since he became Cleveland’s head coach in 2020. And this year, Brownie is on the sleeve of the team’s jerseys.
Now, he’s the face of the Cleveland field.
“Did we win seven championships with eleven?” Garrett asked. “If we get an eighth championship with that elf, I could walk in here in a little elf outfit.”