BEREA — An hour before the players stretched to begin the first practice of training camp, fans filled the bleachers.
The stragglers that eventually stood seven-deep Saturday morning to get a glimpse of their favorite team and players congregated on tiny, tree-lined Beech Street. Six lines of about 30 each filtered into the Browns facility on a gorgeous day.
The scene was reminiscent of the gates at Cedar Point. Except the thrill-a-second roller coasters were replaced by football drills.
Football had returned to Northeast Ohio, and the main attraction was rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. His No. 2 ringed the field.
Brown, white and orange jerseys ranging from kid’s small to adult XXL. T-shirts with different designs, including the money sign he made famous. Tank tops on adoring females.
“We’ve been fans since his freshman year in college,” said Parma’s Adam Groves, 17, who wore a brown No. 2 jersey and held a Sports Illustrated with Manziel on the cover with the hopes of a post-practice autograph. “I like his attitude.”
One large orange jersey on a grown man had the added touch of green, sparkly dollar signs attached to it. “Manziel” had been placed over “Couch” on the back. Tim Couch was the first quarterback of the reincarnation of the franchise in 1999.
“It’s definitely different for me having practices open to the fans and stuff. But they’re cheering throughout the entirety of the day and I really did enjoy it,” Manziel said. “It’s great for our fans to get a chance to see up close and personal that we’re working extremely hard to try and change things around here. We’re trying to be successful and hopefully we can continue to bring this buzz and bring this excitement to the city.”
Manziel’s No. 2 jersey is the top seller on NFL.com, and the 3,702 fans in attendance Saturday proved the point. Young and old paid homage, and Manziel noticed.
“Personally, I’ve had an incredible fan base that has followed me and really come out of the woodworks here in Cleveland for me and it’s truly incredible and I’m truly thankful to have those guys,” he said. “But more than anything, it’s not just my number and my name on the back. It’s Cleveland. It’s the Browns. And it’s awesome to have the fan base we have for this team. It’s a great turnout and I’m sure that won’t stop anytime soon.”
The fans also came to see football, and they witnessed the public start of the competition between Brian Hoyer and Manziel. Hoyer, the favorite to win the job, took all the first-team repetitions, while Manziel was with the twos. Both struggled early but improved throughout the practice.
“I thought they both did some real good things that highlighted what they do well,” said rookie coach Mike Pettine, who watched practice through wraparound sunglasses. “They both made some mistakes, but some of it’s not necessarily their fault but a receiver going the wrong way. I thought it was a solid start for both of them.”
Hoyer kept the bulky brace to protect his surgically repaired right anterior cruciate ligament, but practiced without limitation. He was glad to be back in the huddle and is determined to keep his lead and the job.
If there was a Hoyer jersey in the crowd, it was swallowed by the Manziels. But Hoyer was greeted by cheers and a chant of his name when he took the field, and responded with a thumbs-up.
“Like I said all along, playing for this team was my dream as a child, but being from here doesn’t make me the best quarterback for this team,” he said. “I want to earn it on the field and it’s great to have the support of fans.”
Owner Jimmy Haslam called Hoyer a “quality guy” and a “class act.”
“No one is going to cheer for a good guy if they’re 4-12,” Hoyer said. “It’s good to know that people respect me and my character, but for me, when it comes down to it, it’s all about what happens out on the field.”
Hoyer was intercepted by safety Tashaun Gipson on a pass deflected by cornerback Buster Skrine, had a pass tipped by linebacker Barkevious Mingo for an incompletion and had a lot of throwaways early as the defense dominated.
Manziel’s first pass in 11-on-11 drills was an incompletion to Charles Johnson that likely would’ve been a sack in a game setting, he had a ball tipped at the line and indecision led to a couple of sacks.
Hoyer found a rhythm in a third-down team drill, completing a series of short throws. Manziel flashed his athleticism on a scramble and a completion in which he slid right to buy time, and he showed zip on a back-shoulder throw to rookie Chandler Jones and an in route to Josh Gordon.
“I came out a little slow and just bounced around a little bit, and then we got into some team periods and we started moving the ball and the offense started to pick up and it was good to see,” Manziel said. “We started throwing the ball downfield and people just livened up, which was nice.”
Manziel, whose jersey was on sale for $150 in the merchandise tent, has plenty of experience in the limelight and in front of big crowds. He played in the SEC and won the Heisman Trophy.
Rookie running back Terrance West, a third-round pick, didn’t draw much hype at Towson University in Baltimore. He was impressed by the early arriving crowd.
“It was amazing because my other two (Towson) teammates (offensive lineman Randall Harris and tight end James Oboh) came out here and see all the fans, and it was like, ‘Wow. We really made it. We came a long way,’” West said. “All these fans, it was like playing in a game at Towson. I love it. I like crowds.”
Sam Wilson, 22, of North Canton was brought to camp by girlfriend Savannah Meadows, 18, of Hartville. Both wore No. 2 jerseys, and Meadows bought a white Browns hat to complete her outfit.
“I loved watching him play at Texas A&M,” Wilson said of Manziel. “He was something else. He’s kinda like a football genius.”
Meadows has tickets for two more days of camp. She may or may not bring Wilson.
“I just think he’s real cute,” she said of Manziel. “I’ll be back.”