The collectibles add up to more than 2,000, most of which Big Dawg has stuffed in his basement in a room exclusively dedicated to the Cleveland Browns.
For all the autographs covering the balls and all the pictures covering the walls, there is one distinct photo that tells the story of John "Big Dawg" Thompson and the pain he came to symbolize for the last three years as a Browns fan.
He is standing along the fence in the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, his back to the camera and his obesity crammed into that No. 98 home jersey. The seats in the Dawg Pound behind him are empty and the field in front of him has been cleared. Under that floppy rubber mask, a 35-year-old, 400-plus pound man is sobbing with the realization that the Browns were no longer.
"That was the worst, bummed-out day of my life -- next to my dad dying," Big Dawg said, pointing to the picture. "I stood against the fence and thought about it all. It was tough. You remember all the different times you had, when I went there with my dad and the times I was bringing my kids. There were all the big plays that happened over the years."
Big Dawg is a nice guy, a regular guy, a computer accessories salesman in his everyday life. He lives with his wife and twin girls in a small ranch-style home just outside Cleveland. And every Sunday for years, when the Browns were at home, he turned into a complete, unadulterated wacko.
Anyone who pays $14 to legally change his name from John Thompson to John Big Dawg Thompson is simply not all there. But that's how much it meant to him as the undisputed leader of the Dawg Pound, a whole section of certifiables who bark, scream and ridicule opponents like no other fans in the league.
Back in their heyday, Dawg Pounders carried a doghouse into the stadium. Security started watching them and realized it took four people to bring the doghouse into the stadium but only two to carry it out. It turns out they were stashing a half-keg of beer inside the doghouse and drinking most of it during the game.
They had been silent for three years. No intruders, no reason to bark. That is about to change Sunday night when the Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener. Someone call a psychiatrist -- and the cops.
"Something tells me it might get a little crazy in there," Thompson said. "I know I'm not going to sleep the night before the game. I'm going to be ready. I'm ready to get back in the swing of things. It's been a long time since Dec. 17."
Dec. 17, 1995, went down as one of the darkest days in this city's history. Fans figured then that pro football left town
for good when Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore and changed the nickname to the Ravens. Even local television commentators were near tears.
"They never dreamed that the franchise would be relocated," said Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns who followed Modell to Baltimore to become the Ravens' director of player personnel. "The Cleveland Browns are a part of America like the Yankees in baseball. It would be like taking Notre Dame out of college football. It was a very solemn, eerie day. The only other similarity, I hate to say it, was like being at a funeral."
Fans in Cleveland were dazed and depressed for months. Even Buffalo felt the pain of its sister city. Western New York had endured four straight losses in the Super Bowl and many of the same jokes from out-of-towners. (What's worse than a snowstorm in Buffalo? A sunny day in Cleveland.) The only difference in Cleveland was that the feeling there lasted three years.
"Look at Buffalo," Newsome said. "You have to realize how much of that city is tied to the Bills playing on Sunday afternoon. If there was a removal of the team, it would be a big void. That's what happened to Cleveland."
Three years after it seemed the world had ended in Cleveland, the collective hole in the stomach of the city has been satisfied with an expansion franchise. The old stadium was torn down and replaced by a jewel -- 72,500-seat Cleveland Browns Stadium near the waterfront that has joined Jacobs Field and Gund Arena in helping continue the resurgence of the city.
The $300 million facility includes 148 luxury boxes, two huge scoreboards, burnt-orange seats throughout, a grass field and two levels of Dawg Pounders. It also has 14 ticket windows that are slightly less useful than a bathing suit in Antarctica. The Browns are sold out for the entire season. Chances are they will be sold out for the next century. See, it wasn't life and death after all, merely life after death.
"For the last three years, we really didn't care about football," said Matthew Dunn, a kitchen manager at Jillian's restaurant and billiard club in the Flats. "There was just this empty feeling sitting there. Now, we're ready for the season to get started. We've been waiting for this day."
Lobbying for the NFL to put a franchise back in Cleveland started almost immediately after Modell moved the team. He has not returned to Cleveland since the team split town. Heaven help him if he does because disdain for Modell has become a sport.
"I hate him with every ounce of energy I have," said Don Sampson, who was walking outside the new stadium. "For as long as I live, I will hate that man for what he did to Cleveland. He never knew how much it meant to all of us. It hurt."
Big Dawg led the campaign for a new franchise by spending tireless hours on the phone and speaking at schools. He even testified before Congress. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue supported the effort, and fans from around the league contributed to the fans' cause.
Businessman Al Lerner eventually was awarded an expansion team for, gulp, $530 million. He hired Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark to run a first-class operation. So far, they have succeeded. The only glitch so far was a Ku Klux Klan rally held before the first preseason game in the new stadium. Police shut down parking lots, and therefore shut down tailgating. Fans will be ready for a major party come Sunday.
At a parade in downtown Cleveland before the first home preseason game, Mayor Michael White stepped up to the podium and said, "Good afternoon. Or should I say, 'Grrrruff, ruff, ruff.' "
"We have our team, our name, our colors and a new stadium to boot," White said.
Big Dawg still gets much of the attention, just as he did the day the Browns left town. He was elected into the VISA Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton along with 30 other fans from around the league. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, makes appearances and signs autographs. He had plans to cut a commercial with ESPN.
And his income is boosted by being a Browns' fan. He's coming out with Big Dawg Crunch cereal and Big Dawgs, a half-pound hot dog that he needs, in all honesty, about as much as Bill Gates needs a quarter. People say he sold out. He might have made some money -- he won't say how much -- but his commitment to the Browns is as genuine as Cleveland itself.
The first game Sunday against the hated Steelers is where it all begins again. Big Dawg and all of his buddies will be there in high gear. Have mercy on the Steelers should they dare to score a touchdown on the east end of the stadium.
"I tell everybody it's like a roller coaster, when it clicks as it goes up," Big Dawg said. "We've been clicking for a month and a half since the beginning of training camp. It's been click, click, click as we've been climbing that hill. Now that roller coaster is about ready to fall. We've come full circle."