The Cleveland Browns are doing so well these days that one of their biggest fans never wants to show his face.
Gus Angelone, who goes by "Pumpkinhead" and wears a maniacal jack-o'-lantern painted like a Browns helmet, almost wishes he never had to take it off. And can you blame him? Cleveland is alone atop its division for the first time in 19 years.
"Coming to work on Monday, I don't have to hold my head low," said Angelone, 38, a forklift operator for General Motors. "We're high-fiving each other, talking about the great plays, 'Did you see that?' It's just watercooler talk all week long, not just getting over that tough loss on Monday. That's what we're used to, so this is a pleasant surprise for us."
The 6-3 Browns, who play host to the Houston Texans on Sunday, have even eclipsed LeBron James as the biggest story in this city. Three days after pounding Cincinnati in a Thursday night game — a drubbing that won over a lot of doubters — the Browns secured first place in the AFC North last Sunday when Pittsburgh was upset by the New York Jets.
Staying on top won't be easy for the Browns, as every team in the division is at least two games over .500, with Cincinnati at 5-3-1, and both Pittsburgh and Baltimore at 6-4. That hasn't happened since 1935 when the Western Division had Detroit, Green Bay, and both the Chicago Bears and Cardinals all at two games over .500.
But at this point in a typical season, Browns fans already would be talking about the next spring's draft.
"People say, 'The Browns are never going to win. They're never going to do anything. They might start off hot, but they'll go ahead and fade away,'" said safety Donte Whitner, who grew up in Cleveland. "The perspective I've gotten since I've been here is we've got a bunch of hard-working guys, guys who really want to get the job done. All they needed was a little guidance, a little perspective on how to win football games."
It's working so far, and almost in fairy-tale fashion. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, another Cleveland kid, overcame a knee injury that ended his 2013 season, fended off first-round pick Johnny Manziel to hold on to the starting job, and has helped his team to five wins in six games.
"He's impressive," left tackle Joe Thomas said of Hoyer. "To go from not being drafted, to being cut a bunch of times, to then have them say, 'Sorry, we're going to draft a quarterback in the first round.' By the way, there's never been a franchise in the world that drafts a first-round quarterback and doesn't play him. You look like an idiot if you draft a first-round quarterback and he never plays.
"So basically they had written Brian off, and he wins the job, which no one expected, keeps the job, and then we're 6-3. People probably didn't think we'd win four games the whole year. So that's a testament to who he is, his work ethic, the studying he does … I teased in training camp that he's a lot like Tom Brady, and everyone was like, 'Ha ha ha! That's crazy!' But he really is."
That comparison has some merit, as Hoyer backed up Brady in New England from 2009-11, learning at the elbow of the future Hall of Famer and gaining the kind of perspective that can keep these Browns focused on the task at hand.
"For me, coming from New England, this is nothing — 6-3 doesn't get you anything," Hoyer said. "I realize that we've got seven games to play, and the best thing we've done to this point is put ourselves in position to control our own destiny. When you do that, that's all you can really ask for."
Still, it's hard for the long-suffering people to contain their enthusiasm about a franchise that has made the playoffs just once since relaunching in 1999. For the last 11 seasons, at least one NFL franchise has gone from worst to first in its division from one season to the next, and these Browns are in the best position to do that.
"I'd be hard-pressed to find people in any other NFL city who care more about their football team," Thomas said. "Even when we were bad, that's all anybody wanted to talk about. Most cities, if the team is bad in town, they'll just forget about it. They'll turn the TV off, and they don't even want to talk about it. But here, even if you stink, that's all they want to talk about."
First-year Browns Coach Mike Pettine has tried to find a happy medium for his players, encouraging them to appreciate what they have accomplished in the first half of the season while not allowing satisfaction to creep in.
"The couple days off after Cincinnati let us hit the pause button a little bit and enjoy it," Pettine said. "It's hard to have the perspective that our fans do, having not been here and experienced it, not knowing what it's been like to be a Browns fan.
"But as a team and an organization, we understand it. But at the same time, there's no award for anything we've done so far. The only thing we've earned is the right to play meaningful games in November and December."
Angelone, who has crafted two foam pumpkinheads — one that he wears, another that his young sons share — hears Pettine and yet he doesn't hear him. He's out of his gourd for this team.
"I know the head coach is trying to keep the players grounded, which is great," he said. "But I'm not a player. I'm a fan. I'm enjoying every moment of this. You're not going to tell me not to be happy or excited."
So he will be there early for Sunday's home game, setting up his elaborate Pumpkinhead trailer for a massive tailgate party; blowouts that draw crowds of 2,000 fans or more. He has smoke machines, a T-shirt gun, and fellow superfans such as Captain Cleveland and "The Macho Fan," an orange-and-white-clad version of wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
On fall Sundays, there is no disputing this — Cleveland rocks.
And smack dab in the middle of town is the Terminal Tower, a pointed, 52-story skyscraper that pierces the sky. When the Browns play home games, that building glows burnt orange, illuminated by 508 lights that transform it into an eye-catching exclamation point.
"Right before the start of the season, the Browns projected a large dog face on the south elevation of the building," said Don Beck, Terminal Tower operations manager. "I tell people all the time, anybody could be a Denver fan, anybody could be a Steelers fan. That's easy. Try being a Cleveland Browns fan. Now, the city can look up at the tower and say… 'Yeah.'"
In other years, the Browns were reliably terminal. Now, they simply tower.