Who is Brownie the Elf? Story of the Cleveland Browns mascot

CLEVELAND — No one, at least still alive, knows for sure how Brownie the Elf became the first official mascot of the Cleveland Browns some 76 years ago.

Yet one fact is certain: it was Art Modell who put the eleven on the shelf after purchasing the team in 1961.

“My first official act as owner of the Browns,” Modell told newspaper reporters at the time, “will be to get rid of that little f-er.”

Brownie is back — and bigger than ever.

Brownie, who surpassed an online fan vote for the preseason, has returned as the team’s midfield logo, an oversized rendition of his original mystery appearance ahead of Cleveland’s inaugural season in 1946.

Brownie’s latest caricature spans the 45-yard lines horizontally, crosses the hashmarks vertically, and can be easily seen from planes flying overhead.

And if you’re baffled by Brownie’s existence as an NFL mascot, well, you’re not alone.

“I don’t know what to think,” said Cleveland pass rusher Myles Garrett. “It’s original, it’s unique. But I’ve always been more of a fan of the dog. I mean, we’re the Dawg Pound, but we have an elf?

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“I think we’re a little confused about which route we want to go creatively.”

One of the most inexplicable losses in franchise history tarnished Brownie’s grandiose midfield debut on Sunday. Cleveland became the first team in 21 years to lead by 13 points in the final two minutes. With 1:55 left to play, the New York Jets scored a 66-yard touchdown, recovered an onside kick, then scored another touchdown to stun the Browns, 31-30. In another fan poll via 850 ESPN Cleveland more than 5% of voters blamed Brownie for the defeat.

Brownie could be 0-1 as Cleveland’s midfield logo heads into Thursday night’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). But more than seven decades ago, Brownie was the boyish face of professional football’s most dominant dynasty. So prolific that he almost once became the logo on the helmet.

THE LEGEND OF the Brownies began in Britain and date back to at least the early 16th century. According to John T. Kruse, an author and blogger of British fairy tales, the first published reference to the Brownies came in 1522.

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“He’s a small, furry … creature that lives in homes and farms with people,” Kruse told ESPN of the mythical creatures. “He undertakes a series of household and agricultural chores, on the understanding that he receives free board and lodging from the people.”

Despite their diligence, Brownies can be quite finicky.

Kruse noted that Brownies appreciate having milk and fresh bread left out for them overnight. But they hate being spied on, whether they’re working or eating. And they especially hate both compliments and criticism.

“Any gift of clothing really annoys him. It’s seen as an insult or some kind of submission,” Kruse said. “The usual result of this is that he undoes everything he’s done, makes a mess in the house and then leaves forever.”

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The Dobby character in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books is derived from the Brownie legend, which started cropping up in America in the early 1900s. In 1916, referring to the same Brownie legend, the Girl Scouts began calling their members ages 7-9 “Brownies,” taken from Juliana Horatia Ewing’s story “The Brownies and Other Tales,” originally published in 1870.

In 1929, the Atlas Beverage Company in Detroit began production of a Brownie caramel cream root beer, whose bottles were decorated with an elf. The company soon placed a sign advertising the soft drink on the side of a building in downtown Massillon, Ohio.

From that, the story goes, Brownie the Elf was born.

FOR PAUL BROWN NFL titles while coaching the Cleveland Browns, he stacked state championships at Massillon High School.

Entering his final season with Massillon in 1940, Brown commissioned a local artist, AD Small, to create a logo for the Tigers – Obie (which stands for orange and black, Massillon’s colors).

After serving in the United States Navy during World War II, Brown was hired to coach Cleveland’s new professional football franchise. Owner Mickey McBride and the team held a fan contest to determine the nickname. “Browns” was the winning entry, honoring the first coach. Brown initially vetoed it. Another entry – the “Panthers” – was chosen instead, until a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to “Cleveland Panthers”. Brown eventually gave in to the name ‘Browns’.

Next, the team needed a logo.

“But what does ‘Browns’ mean?” said Browns historian Barry Shuck, who has been pursuing the story of the origins of Brownie the Elf for years. ‘Mud? A desert? Dog poo?’

Did Brown get the idea for Brownie the Elf from that root beer plate in Massillon? And did he let Small do the drawing again?

“If you look at Obie and you look at Brownie, it’s the same character,” said Shuck, who also writes for the Browns site “They both run. They both have stiff arms. They both have hats on.’

The Cleveland-area newspapers made no mention of Brownie until he appeared in an ad promoting ticket sales, days before the Browns’ first game against the Miami Seahawks in 1946.

Steve King, a longtime sportswriter in northeastern Ohio who went on to work for the Browns from 2004-2013, also spent years studying the conception of Brownie the Elf. He even once asked Paul Brown’s son, Mike Brown, owner of Cincinnati Bengals, if he knew where Brownie came from (Mike Brown didn’t).

But through his research, King came to the same conclusion as Shuck.

“I’m sure I got as close as anyone would come,” King said. “The truth is buried in a cemetery somewhere—and I don’t know where…but the mystery of Brownie is what makes it so cool.”

POWERED BY PAUL BROWNOtto Graham, Lou Groza and, yes, Brownie the Eleven, the Cleveland Browns won four consecutive All-America Football Conference titles from 1946-49.

Tommy Flynn, an assistant equipment manager, would dress up on match days as Brownie and follow Brown on the sidelines.

“If Paul Brown threw his hands in the air, Tommy Flynn would throw his hands in the air,” Shuck said. “If Paul Brown took off his hat and hit the ground, Tommy Flynn would take off his hat and throw it on the ground.”

Flynn’s antics disappeared when the Browns joined the NFL in 1950. But the winning ways of Brownie the Elf and Cleveland remained. The Browns won another championship in their first season in the NFL.

By 1953, Brown wanted to show Brownie even more. He instructed Browns trainer Leo Murphy to put the Brownie logo on one of Cleveland’s orange helmets to see what it would look like.

“Leo is finally getting it done and he’s totally proud,” King said. “He walks into Paul Brown’s office” [and] put it on his desk. But Brown glanced at it and said, “I don’t like it. Take it away.'”

Decades later, King was visiting Murphy’s home in Medina, Ohio, when Murphy told him to show him a secret.

“He goes back and pulls out this Browns helmet,” King recalls. “And Brownie the Elf has next door… he’s kept the helmet all these years, which was incredible.”

Murphy died in 2018. Whatever became of his Brownie helmet is also a mystery.

BROWNIE THE ELF appeared for the last time on the cover of Cleveland’s media guide in 1961. Modell bought the team and banished Brownie. A year later, the cover of the media guide featured the star Jim Brown.

But for the next 30 years, Cleveland Plain-Dealer cartoonist Dick Dugan helped keep Brownie’s mind alive. A reader could tell if the Browns had won or lost just by looking at Dugan’s Brownie cartoons.

“My first official act as owner of the Browns will be to get rid of that little f—off.”

Former Browns owner Art Modell

“When the Browns won, the elf was all proud or whatever,” King said. “When the Browns lost, he looked like he’d been beaten up in a fight.”

In 1995, Modell infamously took away the Browns and moved the franchise to Baltimore. But when owner Al Lerner and President Carmen Policy brought the Browns back four years later, they restored Brownie.

Gradually, the legend has also returned.

Brownie was the official logo of the team’s training camp in 2006. The Brownie mascot made its debut in 2015.

Kevin Stefanski has worn a Brownie the Elf cap almost every day since he became Cleveland’s head coach in 2020. And this year, Brownie is on the sleeve of the team’s walkthrough jerseys.

Now he’s the face of Cleveland’s field.

“We won seven championships with the eleven?” Garrett asked. “If we get an eighth championship with those eleven, I might come in here with an elf.”

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