For the first time in a long time, hope was in ample supply in Cleveland ahead of Sunday’s season opener between the Browns and the Tennessee Titans. The downtrodden NFL franchise was coming off a not-entirely-dismal 2018 season and features a bevy of young talent, so much that there was not only talk of the playoffs but of a potential run to the Super Bowl.
And then things went sideways almost immediately. Cleveland committed 18 penalties for 182 yards. Left tackle Greg Robinson was ejected for kicking a Titans defender in the head. Quarterback Baker Mayfield committed three turnovers over a four-possession span in the fourth quarter, the last of which an interception that was returned 38 yards for a touchdown by Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler to end the scoring in a dismal 43-13 Browns loss.
There were few fans remaining at FirstEnergy Stadium by that point, but one who remained decided to mark the occasion by dousing Titans cornerback Logan Ryan with beer as he scaled the wall in celebration with his teammates behind the end zone.
Ryan spoke out about the incident on Monday, calling it “ridiculous” that NFL players are subject to such abuse from fans, and the NFL Players Association and the Browns both announced Tuesday that they would be looking into the incident. And on Wednesday, a Browns official notified a man named Eric Smith via telephone call that he had been identified as the fan who threw the beer and had been permanently banned from the stadium.
There’s just one small problem: The man who received the phone call says he wasn’t at the stadium Sunday.
Smith told The Post in a telephone interview Wednesday that he was working during the game as a DJ for a wedding at Ariel International Center, a little more than two miles to the northeast of FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns were unconvinced, however: Bob Sivik, the team’s vice president of ticket sales and service, told Smith that they had identified him via camera footage that showed a man with a red beard and a tattoo on his arm showering Ryan with beer.
Smith does have a red beard and a tattoo on his inner forearm, but he said he hasn’t been to FirstEnergy Stadium “since I think 2010.” And while he occasionally would go to Browns games if a friend had an extra ticket, Smith said he has never been a season-ticket holder or purchased a ticket to a Browns game directly from the team.
Smith said Sivik told him the offending fan’s name was Eric Smith. The non-beer-throwing Eric Smith has a theory as to how the team found him.
“Maybe they Googled ‘Eric Smith’ and ‘beard’ and ‘Cleveland’ or something,” he said. “My company has pretty good SEO, so I do come up [in Google searches]. In one of the first pictures, you can see a tattoo on my forearm.”
Sure enough, here is that photo:
Smith described himself as something of a lapsed Cleveland sports fan who once tailgated every Sunday but lost hope in the city’s sport’s teams when LeBron James left the Cavaliers. That doesn’t mean he appreciates being misidentified as a beer-throwing miscreant and would like to get it all cleared up.
“It’s about principle now. They need to do something,” he said.
The Browns responded by, indeed, doing something. On Wednesday night, they announced that their investigation “remains ongoing. While we are continuing to gather information and have been in contact with multiple people as part of that process, we have not explicitly identified the individual involved or taken any formal action of punishment at this time. We will have no further comment until the investigation is complete.”
Smith hopes that his work as a DJ is not affected, especially because FirstEnergy Stadium hosts the occasional wedding. In fact, Smith said he already had gotten some good-natured ribbing about the whole affair from a buddy on Wednesday.
“A friend of mine from grade school was talking with me about his wedding next year and said, ‘In light of recent events, I don’t think you can be our DJ,’ " Smith said.
Analysis: The Dolphins don’t have to be this bad