Scott Radwancky grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, a working-class suburb northeast of Cleveland, a Browns fan. Scotty, as he was known, probably shouldn't have been able to always afford tickets to Browns games, but grilling, drinking, and partying with his best friend, Larry Laurello, and their neighbors in Cleveland's municipal parking lot was the defining part of his life.
Larry and Scotty were both from Ashtabula, but Scotty went to Harbor Public High School, while Larry attended private St. John's. Larry eventually took over his grandfather's company, Delta Railroad, and he hired Scotty right out of high school as a safety officer. They would have no way of knowing it when they met, but Larry would one day preside over Scotty's wedding, and later, deliver his eulogy.
On Sept. 10, 1989, Scotty and Larry took their first trip to Pittsburgh together. They watched Bernie Kosar march the Browns into Three Rivers Stadium and embarrass the Steelers, 51-0, the most lopsided victory in the history of the rivalry. After the game, they were happy to endure the small attacks from bitter Steelers fans on their way back to the parking lot. They howled with laughter the entire way back to Ashtabula.
Kosar understands the history of the Steelers/Browns rivalry as well as anyone. "As a kid growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, just like those guys in Ashtabula, we had the Three Rivers jinx. Through my childhood the Browns had never won at Three Rivers. (When) we finally broke it, it was one of the highlights of my career."
Most Steelers fans will tell you that their main rival now is the Baltimore Ravens: an especially cruel slap in the face to Browns fans considering that the Ravens franchise used to belong to the city of Cleveland until 1996. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, the Steelers have gone 27-5 against them. Most Pittsburgh fans don't consider it a rivalry anymore, and they certainly don't give Browns games a second look before penciling in a couple of wins on their yearly schedules.
Radwancky couldn't get over the fact that the same Steelers fans who tried to beat him up in 1989 had become indifferent toward the Browns. The pride that comes from knowing that you're worthy of hatred was missing. It's a special type of humiliation to know that the people you detest the most really don't care one way or another about you.
The year after the Browns returned, Radwancky saw Donna DuFour, a fellow Browns fan, in the meat aisle at the grocery store. He approached her with a simple pick-up line: "I was looking for a buy-one get-one-free roast and I asked her where they were at." Scotty and Donna fell in love, and they would fall in love over the next eight parties every season in the muni lot.
Scotty and Donna decided to get married on Dec. 10, 2009, in the muni lot with his friends and fellow fans before a Thursday night game with the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. Temperatures dipped down into the single digits and the wind chill settled somewhere around -10 degrees. Donna had an orange wedding veil with orange dog bones glued to it. It was perfect.
Larry Laurello stepped up to the altar in front of his bus, asking, "Do you Donna take thee Browns fan as your lawfully wedded husband?" By the power delegated to him from a $20 online certification course, he pronounced Scotty and Donna husband and wife.
Channel 3 news pulled Scotty aside for a couple of seconds, wanting to know where the newlyweds would be sitting during the game. He smiled and said, "We're not going to game, we're going to the motel."
Before they left for the honeymoon suite of the closest, cheapest motel, the Radwanckys celebrated in the only way they knew how -- drinking beer and dancing on Cleveland public asphalt. In the meantime, the Browns offensive linemen stripped down to their short sleeves and beat the Steelers, 13-6, in the coldest game ever played in the 60-year history of the rivalry. It had been over nine years since the Steelers had to make the drive back to Pittsburgh in the heavy silence of defeat, and the Browns fans were guarded, but hopeful.
Larry's company secured a contract to build part of the Pittsburgh North Shore Connector light rail project in June 2010. Delta Railroad was responsible for laying cement and tracks near Heinz field, the same plot of land where Bernie Kosar humiliated the Steelers, 51-0, where the old Three Rivers Stadium once stood. It's here that Scotty's story would take a sharp turn.
Around this time people closest to Scotty began to notice a change. He was calling in sick more than usual, not just Mondays after a tailgate. He was having trouble talking. After a few months of trying to shake off whatever it was that was nagging him, Donna convinced him to go see a doctor.
On Sept. 13, 2010, at the age of 45, Scotty was diagnosed with aggressive, but treatable lung cancer.
Radwancky continued to go to work during his treatment, and Larry asked him to be the safety officer on the Pittsburgh light-rail project in March 2011. Larry kept Scotty on the job on the days that he could make it, and kept him on the payroll for the ones when he couldn't.
Scotty had spent his whole life making friends, Browns fans, who wanted to be there for him when he was fighting for his life. His friend John Sposito would walk with him every day to help him keep his strength. His cousin ran a marathon to raise money for his treatments. And Larry went out and bought the two of them matching Bernie Kosar jerseys for Scott to wear when he was going to chemo.
Self pity isn't in the DNA of Browns fans. It can't be. The ones who do self-select out of the fanbase pretty quickly.
Scotty's condition was up and down as the summer of 2011 went by. Soon, he no longer had the energy to make the drive to work. He picked up the phone and called his boss.
"Larry, I need a favor. I need a ride to Pittsburgh."
Two hours away, the light rail that Scotty had helped to build was nearing completion. Laurello's crews were prepping the concrete that would stabilize the rail just outside Heinz field. Scotty told Larry his plan: he wanted to bury his Kosar jersey in the concrete overlooking their rivals' stadium.
They knew that this would be more complicated than just showing up and putting your hands in the concrete like a 5-year-old on a sidewalk. On the drive to Pittsburgh, they formulated plan.
Larry took it upon himself to run interference as he approached one of the supervisors and began throwing his weight around as the company president. While Larry asked a series of bullshit questions, Scotty walked up to the wet concrete nervously. Here's what happened next, according to Larry:
There were probably eight or 10 guys placing concrete to the left of us, eight or 10 to the right of us finishing the concrete, and at least four or five inspectors all standing around. ... We had the jersey inside of a plastic tube so it would be encased in there real nicely. When he got it up there, he looked, and he sees the rebar's in the way. He couldn't stick it in that way. Scotty pulled the (jersey) out and he bent down over the tracks. He had a trowel in his hand and he pretended like he was helping trowel the track. And he took his arm and he just buried it in the concrete and then took the trowel and started troweling all around to make sure it was covered and no one saw it.
After he buried the jersey, he walked over to Larry, who was visibly shaking from his nerves. Scotty smiled and simply said, "We really did this." They howled all the way back to Ashtabula.
A week or so after their trip to Pittsburgh, Scotty had his follow-up appointment with his oncologist. The cancer had spread to his brain; he had about eight weeks to live.
Anyone who has spent their happiest moments in life celebrating the Cleveland Browns will tell you that acceptance is the only coping mechanism that you have. Scotty didn't have much time to linger on any of the other stages of grief.
"We never really talked about Scotty's death, even though we both kind of knew what was about to happen," Larry said. The two friends just kept trying to have the best time they could whenever possible. Scotty kept showing up at tailgates until October 2011. The Browns dropped to 3-5, and as the team faded, so did he.
Scotty Radwancky died of lung and brain cancer on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.
Weddings are easy for Larry, but funerals are much tougher. Two years after he pronounced Scotty and Donna husband and wife, Donna asked him to deliver Scotty's eulogy. Larry recalled his words that day:
"Scotty was a simple man. Some of you will actually hear me say that and think I'm thinking less of him, you must understand, simple is beautiful. Simple is what most people strive to be, but we just don't realize it as we go through our lives 'til we're getting close. Simplicity in your life is actually the goal. Everyone goes and gets educated to try and better themselves, but when it really came down it, just enjoying your life and being a simple person is the most important part. And that was Scotty. As far as I'm concerned, I could not pay him a better compliment than that."
Scotty and Larry kept their trip to Pittsburgh to themselves. Secrets are a bond among friends, and Larry didn't want to have to dig the thing up if the wrong person found out about what they had done. Eventually, Larry let the story slip a couple of times. Among those he told was Bernie Kosar himself when Laurello ran into him in a suite at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It can be difficult to get a word in with Bernie on game day. He has a nonstop stream of friends, relatives, and fans stopping to get pictures and say hello. But when Larry started telling him the legend of Scotty Radwancky, Kosar made everyone in the suite shut up so he could hear it. Bernie clearly recalls how he felt hearing the story:
"I had to really fight back tears it was so emotional. In one respect, it's sad. In another respect it's so cool and really so unbelievable. It was a couple different feelings of awe, appreciation, emotion to hear the magnitude of how I affected, and how football affects, and the Browns affected Scotty's life and his battle and his journey through that horrible disease.
"And to hear the length that they went through to do that. They put the maloik on [the Steelers] to put that jersey in there. I almost had to fight back tears I was so emotional and proud."
Scotty would have loved to know that Bernie Kosar, the local hero who means so much to Browns fans, was proud of him.
Professional football is big business, and the NFL is rightfully criticized for treating its fans like walking ATMs. But Larry and Scotty's story is a reminder that the game can connect people with their family, communities, and, in this case, their heroes.
The Steelers are traveling to Cleveland once again this weekend to take on the Browns. Ben Roethlisberger is undefeated in Cleveland since the day Scotty and Donna took their vows five years ago in the sub-zero wind-chills. Once again, Larry Laurello will park his bus in the Muni lot before the sun comes up, and bring Scotty along for the ride: "There's a picture in our bus of me, my brother, and Scotty. This is the last tailgate party he went to, just before he died. I had my Bernie Kosar jersey, but he didn't. He had already buried it."