You think you know how Believeland ends. You don't.
The ESPN Films 30 for 30, which premiered at the 40th Cleveland International Film Festival last night, doesn't begin with Earnest Byner collapsed on the turf of Municipal Stadium or Michael Jordan hanging in the air over Craig Ehlo's outstretched arm. Of course, those agonizing scenes of our sports misery play out in all their cursed disappointment in Northeast Ohio native Andy Billman's film. And all of our civic ghosts rattle their chains like so many action-movie villains: the burning river, Default, Mayor Perk, the Cleveland Joke, Denny the Kid.
Instead, the story begins in downtown's Huron Square Deli — fittingly, now closed — with a father and son.
If there's a hero in this film, Scott Raab, the former Esquire writer and Cleveland native, is it. A stand-in for tortured Clevelanders everywhere, Raab wears a T-shirt with a faded American flag and still carries the ticket stub from the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship. In scenes at the deli counter with Judah, Raab tries to explain us.
"All these hopes and dreams of a renaissance in Cleveland," Raab tells Judah, "everyone looks to the teams to somehow represent the city in a way that doesn't reinforce that image that it's a Loserville, it's a joke, it's a Mistake on the Lake."
If you focus on Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, Game 7, The Decision — and this film goes through them all — then maybe it would feel like a reflection of all those stereotypes. But Billman's movie and Raab's narration make it so much more.
"It's about faith and family, loving and longing," says John Dahl, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content, in his introduction at the Connor Palace premiere.
That comes through in interviews with the vanquished heroes — Byner, Ehlo and Indians Mike Hargrove, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome — and those who covered them.
In maybe the film's most poignant moment, a teary-eyed Byner looks straight into the camera and describes the fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game.
“I loved the game,” Byner says. “I loved playing for you all. And I’m sorry for letting you down.”
It dissolves into Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer with tears filling his own eyes: "I've never been around a player that got more out of his talent — and he was talented — than Earnest Byner. And he gave it to you every single play."
That connection among players and coaches, fans and players, players and their teammates, teams and the community and one generation and the next make Believeland special.
[Spoilers from this point forward.]
Toward the end, Browns legend Jim Brown offers a rye chuckle as one who knows what a championship is like, "Every year's next year, all they're askin' for is another '64 — an experience."
Raab knows it's more than that. "You didn't grow up here," he tells Judah at the lunch counter, "I don't expect you to be emotionally invested in this city."
"Well, I think I am," Judah says. "I like Cleveland. I love Cleveland."
A smile sneaks across Raab's face and he pulls his son closer, briefly kissing him on the head.
That's what a championship will feel like, Cleveland.
Believeland will screen again Saturday at 11:35 a.m., Sunday at 10:15 a.m., Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., all at Tower City Cinemas.