A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Jones of Browns.com extended an invitation to the staff of Dawgs By Nature to visit the team's headquarters in Berea. After having been to training camp for several years, this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get an inside look into how parts of the organization are run on a daily basis. I've been running DBN since March 2006, and we've come a long way since then. I am very appreciative of the fact that the Browns organization took the time to recognize that and "extend an olive branch," so-to-speak, to a community that worships them dearly week in and week out.
Collectively, the staff arranged a date of Wednesday, October 22nd, as the day when the most of us could attend. While Matt Wood, rufio, and notthatnoise weren't able to make the trip, the rest of us did -- heck, Josh Finney even bought a plane ticket to fly out here! Mike Krupka happened to be in Cleveland the week prior to our planned visit, but we were able to negotiate having Mike visit the headquarters separately on Wednesday, October 15th -- the week that followed the team's big win over the Steelers.
I asked the staff to summarize some of their thoughts on particular topics, so please enjoy reading our experiences and inside look into the Browns' inside operations:
Insight From the Press Conference & Meeting Members of the Browns' Front Office
Mike Krupka: For those of you that don't know, I live in Hawaii and have for the last 10 years. Sometimes everything in life aligns itself and things just work out. I say that because I booked a 12-hour trip home to surprise my family and to watch the Steelers game with my brother well before I learned that I'd get to visit Berea. Call it serendipity, but it just so happened that I would be home from Hawaii during the two-week span the Browns opened their doors to DBN.
As I arrived at the cafeteria, Browns President Alec Scheiner and Vice President of Revenue Brent Stehlik had just jumped into line to grab a salad. Brent seemed to recognize me and came over to say hello and introduce me to Alec. Alec joked that he eats salad every day because he’s worried if he doesn’t he’ll pack on the "freshman 15." I am not one to gawk or draw out an introduction, so after we exchanged a few more words and a quick laugh, I proceeded to thank them both for allowing me to be a guest at the facility and then went to grab a pulled pork sandwich for myself.
After lunch, Kevin Jones led me from the cafeteria (where Johnny Manziel and Joe Haden were eating at the table immediately on one side of me, and Barkevious Mingo, Isaiah Crowell and Travis Benjamin were on the other) into the press conference just down the hall. Here I found a dimly lit room with all of the Cleveland beat reporters sitting neatly in rows of tables like I remember having in college. Their laptops were already open and plugged into the power outlets in front of them, some furiously typing away on their keyboards and others reviewing stacks of notes and stat sheets littered around their area. In the back of the room there were about 5 or 6 cameras and cameraman, each busy preparing their equipment and occasionally laughing together.
Kevin and I stood in the back corner with two interns who were talking about packing for their upcoming trip to Jacksonville. The VP of Communications, Peter John Baptiste, came up to me, shook my hand, introduced himself and asked me how the tour was going so far. Moments later, Mike Pettine came out of the doors, sat down and began fielding questions from the beat. I wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed to ask him questions but I had a list of things I was prepared to ask if given the opportunity. However, since I was a guest and not an actual member of the media, I was only allowed to spectate (which was totally fine with me and completely understandable). The one thing that stood out was how softly and calmly Coach Pettine spoke when answering questions. You could tell that this part of his job probably get tedious pretty quickly, especially with some of the questions he had to field. After the press conference, I took a few minutes to introduce myself to a few of the beat reporters, which was pretty cool.
We then walked back up to Kevin’s desk where I grabbed my iPad and the enormous box of chocolates I brought from Hawaii. Kevin and I then walked over to see Brent Stehlik (again) and meet Kevin Griffin, the VP of Fan Experience and Marketing. I was able to get a few minutes of their time to again introduce myself, thank them on behalf of DBN, and share my experience from the previous weekend's Steelers beat down. They were both genuinely interested in how my experience was as a fan and what they could do to make it better. They asked me questions and joked around with me about being from Hawaii. I shared a few ideas with each of them; shook their hands again; and let them get back to their tasks as quickly as I could.
If I had to sum up the experience, I would say it was unique and memorable. Not so much because I was star stuck or because I got to see and meet these guys, but because I got a glimpse of the facility that not many get and because I learned how much these guys respect what we do every day. I also feel I was able to help further build the relationship DBN has with the Browns, which is something I never thought I'd be able to say.
The Cafeteria Atmosphere: Common Ground With the Players
Jon Stinchcomb: NFL players are people too, my friend.
Mostly tongue-in-cheek cultural references aside, it is important, from time to time, for fans to take a moment and remember that the superhuman athletes they watch compete every Sunday are in many ways similar to them: Americans on the pursuit of happiness.
Generally speaking, the usual settings in which fans interact with these players consists of either screaming crowds of 70,000+ or long autograph lines, 10-second handshakes and hellos. Those settings are understandable and are the reason the players are well-compensating for playing a sport they love.
But what may be lost among a restriction to just those atmospheres is the fact that NFL players are, in fact, people too. Off the football field, they are average 20-somethings looking to enjoy life.
This was abundantly clear during DBN's visit to the Cleveland Browns training facility on Wednesday.
(the DBN staff from left to right)
Joe Ginley, Chris Pokorny, Tim Miller, Jon Stinchcomb, Zach Miller, Josh Finney
We are a blog that prides itself on being for Browns fans, by Browns fans. So, as we were nearing the tail end of our delicious lunch (complements to FLIK International, head chef Chris Brunst, and the Browns organization), when the majority of the team's starters from both offense and defense entered the cafeteria, it was hard to fight the urge to be a fan, all of your favorite players of your favorite sports team all in one room, just being themselves, without a massive crowd or micromanaging publicist.
Needless to say, all of the DBN staff present there maintained an entirely professional demeanor. We were there to tour the facility on an invite from the organization, to which we were very grateful. But seeing the team together in a casual environment off-the-field was a rare, cool experience, and reinforced the idea that these players aren't so different from the rest of us.
Teams Always Maintain Their Guard, Even on a Tour
Tim Miller: Our tour covered the first and third floors of the Cleveland Browns Training and Administrative Complex. We did not get to go to the second floor where the coaches, scouts, and GM have their offices. We also didn't get to watch practice.
Why not? Well, these things aren't even open to the media, plus we're in the middle of the season. If the Browns let us view them, we could see something that's in the game plan for this week's match with the Raiders. Then it's out there and they couldn't be certain that their opponent wouldn't get wind of it. We wouldn't say anything -- we want the Browns to win just as much as the team's employees do -- but I still agree that it's good policy to not take risks with such sensitive information. We did have a great view of the team's practice fields from the third floor, though.
"The Google of the NFL"
Zach Miller: When Kevin took us upstairs to tour the facility, he referred to the office as being "the Google of the NFL." Initially, not to discredit Kevin, but I was a little skeptical. I mean, this was the Browns' office we're touring. One may think that a team like Seattle or New England may have a Google-like office.
Much to my pleasant surprise, Kevin was 100% correct. The offices have a very open, free-flowing feel to them. We first walked through the sales offices, then through the PR and web-design areas (where Kevin's office is). The desks are in semi-cubicle form, usually 2-3 desks in a pod-like design. Despite it being a normal workday, everyone we encountered was very open to stopping and talking to us, introducing themselves and overall being very polite.
The atmosphere was the thing that was most inviting to me. The entire facility, from the cafeteria to the offices, etc, all had the same vibe, and that vibe is very easy-going and friendly. There are bar-shuffle board tables, ping pong tables, etc, throughout the office areas. We walked by people playing shuffle board and cracking jokes during the business day. It was really neat to see that type of atmosphere permeating throughout the office.
Walking through our tour, it was really cool to see the offices, as well as seeing the Dawg Pound Daily set, and even walking past Jimmy Haslam and getting a slightly awkward wave from him, initiated by Josh Finney through a glass window. It was a surreal experience, and one that I'm thankful we were able to have.
Browns Are in Good Hands With In-House Media Contributors
Joe Ginley: We couldn't have had a better host for our stay in Berea, save for Mike Pettine or Joe Haden. Kevin Jones treated us with kindness and respect, showing us as much as he could in a short period of time.
Jones is one of the most down-to-earth sports writers you'll ever meet. At 25 years old, he has an awesome gig. Jones has nearly 24/7 access, meaning that he's able to develop close relationships with the players and cover the team in a totally different way. Jones mentioned that he sometimes gets to play video games with some of the players. How awesome is that -- who wouldn't want to have that job?
Even still, Jones still manages to remain humble. A big part of it is that Jones remembers his roots. He comes from a blogging background rather than a strictly journalism track, making him more versatile as a writer. Jones is a great example of how hard work can take you to the top quickly.
We also had a chance to meet Nathan Zegura, who was just as cool. Zegura has also taken an interesting path to his current position, as he started off in business before venturing into the sports world. From our brief interaction, we could tell that he knew what he was talking about -- he's very bright.
Overall, the in-house media presence in Berea is great. Jones and Zegura do a great job covering the team, and do it the right way. It's really cool to see good people running the show in Berea.
Chris Pokorny: It was great getting the DBN staff together for what ended up being our first in-person gathering, and we'd love to organize a gathering some time in the future that includes community members as well.
If there is one more thing I can add, it's something that we discussed as a group after we left the Berea facility, and I think it was Josh Finney who hammered home the point: Berea's facility is structured into three distinct areas: the players area, the coaches area, and the business area. For the most part, you're not going to see the business area people mixed in with the players and coaches, except for one area: the cafeteria.
As Jon alluded to earlier, the cafeteria is a common ground area where everyone congregates at once. You might be a lower-level ticket salesman grabbing some pulled pork, and the next thing you know, you could turn around and see Joe Thomas towering over you. Players are bound to talk amidst each other during this leisure time, and if there are eavesdroppers nearby, it becomes a little clearer where some of these "anonymous sources" come from. Just don't be the poor sap who gets caught dishing out the dirt.
Once again, I'd like to thank Kevin Jones for inviting us to Berea, and I hope you enjoyed reading about our first-hand experiences. Go Browns!